The curious case of Radja Nainggolan: talent, chain-smoker and outcast

The curious case of Radja Nainggolan: talent, chain-smoker and outcast

For a sport that’s infatuated with the cult of personality, it’s befuddling to think that there’s a paucity of authentic, daring voices out there. Such is the dearth of controversial opinions from the sport’s main stars – the footballers themselves – that the media frequently turns to the managers for opinion.

This is obviously the sanitised end-product of media training enforced from an early age, paired with the intention of keeping sponsorship deals intact, and ultimately culminates in a lack of discerning, thought-provoking dialogue.

It speaks volumes, then, that a player who’s known for his tempestuous outspoken nature, who smokes like a chimney and is quite open about his proclivity for partying all night, is one of the hottest talents in world football today. Coveted by coaches across the world – Antonio Conte not only tried and failed to sign him during his time at Juventus, but for Chelsea last summer, too – Radja Nainggolan’s pitbull-cum-artiste style of play in midfield is of such high quality that it overshadows his unorthodox work-life balance.

“I have no desire to stay home every evening like other players who just go ‘house, football pitch, house, football pitch’,” the Roma man once told Rolling Stone magazine.

That’s not to say that his personality has always been met with leniency. While ex-Belgium manager Marc Wilmots may have ensured that the player’s hotel rooms always had a balcony for the player to smoke on, current manager of the Rode Duivels, Roberto Martínez, has been less easy-going on the player, omitting Nainggolan from his squad last year and citing that his surplus attacking midfield options meant that he didn’t make the cut, while others have stated that the Roma man’s tendency to smoke didn’t go down well with the powers that be.

Never one to mince his words, Nainggolan was unequivocal with his anger about the snub and even brought his international teammates into the mix. “It makes no sense,” he told Nieuwsblad. “He calls Youri Tielemans who is sitting on the bench and playing only a few minutes at Monaco. When he was appointed, Martínez said that the Rode Duivels must play in top competitions. Now that Axel Witsel is in China, suddenly that doesn’t apply any more. That’s all fine, but I have to step up my game?”

When taking this all into consideration, it perhaps comes as no surprise that Martínez didn’t include Nainggolan’s name in his World Cup 2018 squad, stating that the 30-year-old Roma man still couldn’t work in his setup. The decision instantly set the internet alight, spurring frissons of vitriol and confusion among Belgium fans and neutrals alike.

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The Belgians have a long-running affinity with Nainggolan: during a World Cup 2018 qualifier against Cyprus last October, strongly-worded protest banners were unfurled showing their distaste for the gaffer’s decision to exclude the midfielder. In total, Martínez afforded Nainggolan 96 collective minutes on the pitch during the qualifying campaign, prompting plenty of protests.

Since the headline-grabbing decision to omit Nainggolan’s name from the World Cup squad, the player has retired from international duty and released a couple of statements questioning the Belgium manager’s decision.

Trace Nainggolan’s story back, though, and it’s easy to understand why he won’t stand idly by when he comes up against perceived injustices. “I had to fight on the streets,” he once said. His renegade, fighting spirit even earned him the nickname ‘The Ninja’ when he was playing for Cagliari – a name that has stuck, as Nainggolan’s blood and thunder approach endures today.

Nainggolan was born in Antwerp – Belgium’s second biggest city – to a Flemish mother and Indonesian father. His dad ran away when Nainggolan was just a baby, leaving his mother to fend for him, his twin sister, and three half-brothers. She not only had to deal with the unenviable task of bringing up a crop of children all on her own, but she had to do it to a backdrop of an impoverished, tough Antwerp neighbourhood while juggling three different jobs to pay off the gambling debts left by her deserted partner.

Lizy Nainggolan’s strong spirit meant everything to Radja, with the star paying homage to her by getting a series of tattoos featuring her name when she passed away in 2010.

Another member of his family whose name adorns his body is his twin sister, Riana, who lives with her girlfriend in Radja’s family home in outer Rome. The pair have always been close, sharing a fondness for football that runs deep even today. Riana has represented Belgium internationally and played for Roma as well, just like her brother. A similar career path emanates from the same footballing upbringing: a desire to fight tooth and nail to prove themselves.

The pair began playing together on a semi-competitive level for local side Tubantia Borgehout when they were just five years old. At 10, Radja joined Germinal Beerschot, a team in the Belgian top flight that was known for producing top talent, including Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Moussa Dembélé. It was a club that boasted such proficiency for developing players that Ajax’s academy had a close relationship with it, although it went bankrupt in 2013 and is now defunct.

When Nainggolan was 17 he caught the attention of Italian agent Alessandro Beltrami – who remains his agent today – who brought the midfielder to Italy. Nainggolan joined Serie B club Piacenza – located in a province in the Emilia-Romagna region – and made his senior debut as a substitute in May 2006 against Arezzo.

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The young Belgian made enough of a lasting impression to be promoted permanently to the first team the following season. It wasn’t until Piacenza’s 2008/09 campaign that he really made his mark, though, participating in 38 of 42 games, scoring three goals, and helping the side to wade off relegation in the process. During that time, he also became a firm fixture in the Belgium under-21 squad, before earning his first cap for the senior side in 2009. Life was looking up for the man from Antwerp’s uncompromising streets.

He made such a mark at the Serie B team that he jumped up the ranks to Serie A the following season and signed for Massimilano Allegri’s Cagliari in 2010 for €1.3m. Nainggolan made his debut in a 3-0 loss to Internazionale, followed by seven other appearances, one of which involved the Belgian being sent off minutes after entering the field against Chievo.

It didn’t take long for the enforcer to show the Sardinian fans his never-say-die attitude. Bizarrely, Nainggolan has a reputation for roughing up his former employers, with the Belgian’s robust tackle causing a double fracture of the tibia and fibia of the team’s young player, Federico Mattiello, back in 2015. His tough-tackling style was indicative of Nainggolan’s never-surrender attitude. “I have fought for everything I have obtained,” he told Rolling Stone. “Even in kickabouts with my friends I want to win.”

The Belgian enjoyed a successful time at the Sardinian club, scoring his first career goal in the upper echelons of Italian football in October 2010 – a right-footed volley in a 2-0 home win over Bologna. While followers of Nainggolan would now classify his ability to score a goal as one of his chief attributes, finding the back of the net was a part of his game that developed later on in his career. In fact, in spite of being a recognised starter in Cagliari’s first team for three a half years, Nainggolan only scored seven goals – his prime discipline back then was as a defensive midfielder with an eye for a pass.

The Sardinians nicknamed him ‘The Ninja’ due to his incessant fight to win the ball back; from 2011 until 2014, he played more games and won more tackles than any other player in Serie A. His performances for the Rossoblu made him a bonafide favourite – Cagliari fans have since named him in a top 11 list comprising the best players in the history of the club.

It wasn’t just his rambunctious attitude on the pitch that garnered admiration from fans, either. His candidness and eagerness to frustrate the highest order of Serie A teams is what draws fans to the feisty player. When playing for Cagliari, he was determined to turn over even the biggest of teams, and he demonstrated a particularly strong distaste for Juventus.

He spoke to some Roma fans – who filmed the interaction and uploaded it to the internet – in 2017 about his relationship with the Turin club: “I am one who has always been against Juventus,” Nainggolan says between taking drags of a cigarette. “I hate Juve, always. At Cagliari I’d have given my balls to beat Juve – at the Juventus Stadium I always draw with Cagliari against them. They won the Scudetto against us when we were in Trieste. I hate them because they always win with a penalty or a free-kick.”

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A ferocious and insatiable appetite for success, paired with a vehemently dedicated mindset on the pitch, is a recipe that will get any manager in the world salivating, and that’s precisely what happened when Roma swooped in for the Belgian. With his personality, style of play, myriad of tattoos and Mohican haircut giving him the appearance of a character from Mad Max, Roma fans were destined to idolise Nainggolan – crystallising the notion that when a player wears his heart on his sleeve, he manages to find the heart of fans, too.

In January 2014, Nainggolan was loaned to Roma until the end of the campaign for €3m, with an option to buy 50 percent of his rights in the summer for an extra €6m. In the distorted post-Pogba and Neymar transfer market, €9m seems like an absolute snip for a player of Nainggolan’s quality.

Upon leaving Sardinia, Nainggolan issued a heartfelt statement: “For a Sardinian, it is difficult to leave the island. It is for me, now that I have become Sardinian adoption. On the one hand I’m happy because the transfer may be an important step in my football career, on the other hand I am sorry because I am leaving the place where I grew up as a man and as a footballer.”

The Cagliari fans knew that when Nainggolan speaks, it’s not PR fluff or pre-approved vacuous statements. In a poignant moment, the Sardinians gave Nainggolan a standing ovation when he revisited their stadium with his Roma side that April, just two months after he signed for the capital side.

Roma’s new midfielder made his debut just two days after signing for the club, helping the Giallorossi qualify for the Coppa Italia quarter-finals in a 1-0 win against Sampdoria. It was in his league debut that he really made an impression, though – he completed 102 passes when Roma battered Genoa 4-0. “It’s like he did a pre-season with us,” said the team’s coach, Rudi Garcia. “He’s a high-level player. He has a lot of talent and I’m not surprised by his integration into the team. Our play suits him. We play with the ball on the ground and he knows how to do everything: steal the ball, pass it long.”

His first league goal for Roma followed shortly after in mid-February against Bologna, when the team walked away with a 1-0 win. His second goal – perhaps just as important – was against Fiorentina in a 1-0 win in April, ensuring that Roma gained automatic qualification to the Champions League. In three months he had scored almost a third of the goals he had managed with Cagliari in four years.

Roma ended the campaign in third position – just behind Napoli and league winners Juventus – up three places from the previous year. Nainggolan’s presence was influential, with the player able to make the midfield his own due to a long-term injury to the highly-rated Dutchman Kevin Strootman.

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That summer’s snub from the Belgian 2014 World Cup team – who went on to be knocked out by Argentina in the quarter-finals – obviously affected the midfielder, but he started the following campaign for Roma with a bang, demonstrating a new-found attacking potency to devastating effect.

In the season’s opening match – a 2-0 home win against Fiorentina – he scored a rocket of an opener, and then set up Gervinho to score the game’s final goal. The season couldn’t have started much better for the midfield metronome, and he was complementing the system set in place by Rudi Garcia.

Alongside the attacking prowess of Francesco Totti, the craftsmanship of Miralem Pjanić, the vigour of Daniele De Rossi, and the ferocious pace of Gervinho, Nainggolan was proving himself as not only the watercarrier of the team, but a player of the highest calibre who could play box-to-box, tackle, assist, pass, and score, too.

Most English football fans got their first taste of Nainggolan that September when Roma travelled to the Etihad to play Manchester City in the Champions League. During the match, he not only carried out his trademark hard-tackling style and flanking of the defensive line, he also completed 90.5 percent of his passes, one of which was a deft, first-time pass that found the 38-year-old Totti, who was able to chip an onrushing Joe Hart to make him the oldest goalscorer in Champions League history.

Roma started the 2014/15 campaign with a bang, recording five wins in five, but the performances petered out in early 2015, and they finished the season second behind stalwarts Juventus. The Giallrossi also finished third in their Champions League group – behind Manchester City and Bayern Munich – meaning an early departure, and going on to bail out to Fiorentina in the Europa League. Nevertheless, they were improving on each season’s final league standings.

The Achilles heel to that season’s Roma team largely came down to its inability to score enough goals, with lots of low-scoring draws curtailing their success. Totti managed to 10 league goals, but it wasn’t enough, with all of Roma’s top of the table rivals outscoring them by around 20 strikes, with the exception of Fiorentina.

In a bid to usurp their meagre goal tally, Roma went and signed Manchester City’s Edin Džeko and Chelsea’s Mohamed Salah on loan that summer, followed by AC Milan’s Stephan El Shaarawy in January.

The 2015/16 campaign was the one in which Roma started to take shape and become closer to its current incarnation. A string of poor performances saw coach Rudi Garcia sacked in January 2016, with the Giallorossi bringing in Luciano Spalletti – who was at the club from 2005 to 2009 – to replace the ongoing Frenchman. Spalletti at the helm of the team is noted as a defining moment in Nainggolan’s career, with the coach repurposing him from a defensive player to manic, attack-minded central midfielder.

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Roma finished the season in a similar style to the previous, but they were developing into a more streamlined package. With Spalletti afforded more time to implement his ideas, Roma morphed into a different proposition the following campaign, with Nainggolan completely reinvigorated.

After a lethargic start, he scored his first goal of the season in a win over Sassuolo at the end of October. Then came another goal against Lazio, followed by a winner against Milan a week later. The goals just kept coming for Nainggolan, who was benefiting from a more attacking role.

Towards the end of the campaign, Spalletti deployed the Belgian midfielder just behind Džeko. He also persuaded Pjanić and the Belgian to swap positions, a change that Nainggolan credits as transforming his playing style. He reaped the benefits of this tactical arrangement, which was arguably his most formative period in terms of developing the goal-scoring threat he represents today.

This role stretches all the way to the current day, where he has continued to impress under current manager Eusebio Di Francesco, who has taken Roma to even dizzier heights. While Roma are still finding it difficult to match the formidable talents of the Old Lady and the high-octane style of Napoli, they were comfortably Italy’s third best team last season.

The main takeaway from Roma’s 2017/18 season was that they made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League, pulling off one of the most shocking comebacks the competition has seen against Barcelona in the quarter-finals. While the Italian outfit were trampled by a swashbuckling Liverpool 5-2 in the away fixture, not to mention haunted by ex-player Salah’s awe-inspiring performances for the Merseyside team, they walked away from the tie with a 6-7 loss on aggregate. Nainggolan scored two late goals in the home leg, epitomising the determined, never-say-die attitude that has seen him coveted by the best managers and teams in the world.

You can see why Nainggolan’s name is thrown around with the likes of Paul Pogba and other deluxe, box-to-box midfielders. According to stats compiled by Squawka, he has created 196 chances and won 214 tackles for Roma since 2015/16 – more than any other player in Serie A and the Champions League. With this taken into consideration, it is all the more confusing to think that Nainggolan won’t be going to Russia, a decision that fans of the beautiful game will rue.

While Nainggolan’s rebellious attitude has made him popular with Roma and Belgium fans, it appears to not have served him well in this case. Martínez has been said to him as more of a number 10 – an in-demand position with a smorgasbord of world-class Belgian players able to play there – as well as not being impressed with Nainggolan’s attitude, which tested the Belgium manager most when the midfielder turned up late to team meetings despite a strong telling off about his punctuality.

Despite that, with players like Nacer Chadli, Axel Witsel, Yannick Carrasco, Marouane Fellaini, Thorgan Hazard and Adnan Januzaj making it in the team going to Russia – some of which are debatably not in the finest of fettle – it makes one question whether Martínez’s argument is just smoke and mirrors.

Radja Nainggolan, however, will be more likely found this summer smoking away on his favourite brand of cigarette and preparing for Roma’s next campaign than having a long, hard look at himself in the mirror. He’s come up against thorny situations before and, like then, he will rise again from it.

By James Fell @James_Fell

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