Portugal-Italy: A rivalry with a rich past

"The past is the past," says coach Rui Jorge but Portugal's U21 EURO meeting with Italy is the latest in a compelling history featuring a number of future legends.

The victorious Italian squad celebrate with the trophy in 1994
The victorious Italian squad celebrate with the trophy in 1994 ©Flash Press

When the young footballers of Portugal and Italy step out at the City Stadium in Uherske Hradiste on Sunday evening, they will be adding another chapter to one of the most compelling rivalries in Under-21 football.

Their focus will rightly be on claiming three Group B points, but Portugal v Italy is a fixture with an evocative past – one that has been graced by some of the great names of two proud football nations.

The most famous meeting took place two decades ago when the countries met in the final of the 1994 UEFA European Under-21 Championship in France. Portugal's side featured arguably their finest generation of footballers – including Luís Figo, Rui Costa, João Pinto and Jorge Costa – yet Italy's team had its own share of future Azzurri stars, led by Fabio Cannavaro, later a FIFA World Cup-winning captain.

Alongside him were Francesco Toldo, Christian Panucci and Filippo Inzaghi and having beaten Zinédine Zidane's France in the semi-final, they broke Portuguese hearts in the final in Montpelllier.

Pierluigi Orlandini, a substitute for Inzaghi, scored the only goal in extra time to earn Italy back-to-back U21 titles. "I still remember that game with great pleasure," he said. "We were facing a very strong team, who had truly great players like Rui Costa, Luís Figo, João Pinto.

"I was not in the starting line-up so I didn't think that I could have such an influence [but] I came in with just a few minutes to play in regular time, and seven minutes into extra time I tried that shot with my left foot and found the top corner. That goal gave us the trophy. It was an amazing feeling. I have been asked many times but it's difficult to describe that moment of joy."

There have been other meetings since, graced by other names needing little introduction. When Italy overcame Portugal in the 2004 semi-finals, Alberto Gilardino scored twice in a 3-1 victory for an Azzurrini side also including Daniele De Rossi. More recently, when the Italians prevailed in a shoot-out for a ticket to the Beijing Olympics in the 2007 finals, the penalty takers included Riccardo Montolivo and João Moutinho.

Highlights of the 2004 semi-final
Highlights of the 2004 semi-final

The last place where this history will need retelling is the Portugal bench on Sunday. Coach Rui Jorge was once sent off in an U21 qualifier against the Azzurrini while goalkeeping coach Fernando Brassard was a member of that famous Portugal team beaten in the final back in 1994.

"Everybody is talking about the 1994 final but that is not going to be used by us as an additional motivation," said Rui Jorge. "First of all, because we don't need it and, secondly, because it was a long time ago. It is true that our goalkeeping coach played in that final but, like I said, the past is the past."

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