Few of the players in Portugal’s squad which finished as runners-up at the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup have experienced success. Out of the squad of 21, only two have earned caps with the senior national team, and only Cedric Soares has really shown the promise of a bright future. One player, however, is beginning to show his true colors, despite not being one of the more talked about players in the 2011 team. Mario Rui has enjoyed a successful start to the season at Empoli in Italy’s Serie A, winning a starting spot at left-back. His performances have established himself as one of the most important members of the squad.
Rui is a product of Sporting Lisbon’s famed youth academy. The defender spent four years at the Lisbon-based club, appearing for the team’s youth teams between 2003 and 2007. After a brief stint abroad in Valencia CF’s youth setup, Rui returned to Lisbon, but this time opted to move to Sporting’s rivals, SL Benfica. After two seasons in Benfica’s U-19 team (the second of which he established himself as the team’s starting left-back), Rui was loaned to Liga de Honra side Fatima for the 2010-2011 season. At Fatima, Rui had his first taste of first team action, and finished the season with an impressive 25 appearances under his belt. His performances were enough for him to be selected by head coach Ilidio Vale for the Portuguese Under-20 team’s 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup squad.
In the team’s first two matches of the tournament (against Uruguay and Cameroon), Luis Martins was favored to Mario Rui in the left-back spot. In the third match, a must-win against New Zealand, Rui was given the nod over Martins, and started at left-back. After scoring the only goal in that match, leading Portugal to a 1-0 victory and qualification to the quarterfinals, Rui started every remaining match in Portugal’s campaign that saw them narrowly lose to Brazil in the final.
Rui’s impressive, if unexpected, performance at the U-20 World Cup led to interest from clubs at home and abroad. Soon after the tournament, it was announced that Parma had secured Rui’s signature, and that he would spend the 2011-2012 season on loan at Serie B side Gubbio. After a successful campaign, Rui was once again loaned, this time to Spezia ahead of the 2012-2013 season. Following that season, Rui was purchased outright by Serie B side Empoli, where he managed 26 appearances in the 2013-2014 season and helped the team to promotion to Serie A.
Now in Serie A with Empoli, Rui has established himself as the team’s starting left-back, but few expected it. Last season, while in the weaker Serie B, Rui only managed 14 starts, yet so far this season, he’s already started in 13. What’s more, according to WhoScored.com’s player ratings, Rui is the second-best performing player at Empoli this season.
So this begs the question: what’s next? A Portuguese national team call-up? Well, maybe, but most likely not. Ahead of Rui in the national team pecking order are the likes of Fabio Coentrao (the team’s regular left-back), Raphael Guerreiro (one of Portugal’s brightest prospects), Vitorino Antunes (a starter at Malaga and proven performer), and Tiago Gomes (Braga’s starting left-back with a senior cap under his belt). While his performances may not earn him a call to the senior national team any time soon, if Mario Rui can continue to make strides at Empoli, more established clubs may come calling.