Nainggolan born to fight tooth and nail

Midfielder had tough upbringing and faces Ireland with a point to prove

 Radja Nainggolan was probably Belgium’s most effective player over the course of the qualifying campaign.

Radja Nainggolan was probably Belgium’s most effective player over the course of the qualifying campaign.

 

Many players see these European Championships as a shop window but few come face-to-face with their buyer in quite the way Belgian midfielder Radja Nainggolan did on Monday.

Antonio Conte has been trying to recruit the Roma midfielder for several years now – mainly for Juventus and more recently for Chelsea – but the player will have done nothing in Lyon to persuade the Italy coach that he should renew his pursuit after a €34 million bid from from Stamford Bridge was rejected a few weeks ago.

Nainggolan seems impressively unconcerned about it all. Chelsea had got as far as offering him a 50 per cent pay rise on the €4 million he currently earns in the Italian capital, a total €30 million over five years.

However, Roma, having just lost another fans’ favourite, Miralem Pjanic, to Juventus, promptly matched the offer and the 28-year-old has been talking a lot since of the importance of family.

Normally, that might be taken as referring to his wife and young daughter but Nainggolan is particularly close to his twin sister Riana, who followed him from Antwerp, and he has spoken in strong terms about seeing his past as being in the city of his birth and his future in the country he moved to at 17 in order to establish himself, initially in Serie B.

That past is quite something. The son of an Indonesian father and Belgian mother of Flemish origins, Radja and the rest of the family were abandoned by Marianus Nainggolan when he was still very young, leaving Lizy, his mother, to battle real poverty as she brought up five kids. The youngster learned his football on the streets.

Lizy died in 2010, five years after he had left home for Piacenza, and the loss appears to have had a profound effect on the young midfielder who has little or no contact with his father to this day. His affection for his sister, though, prompted him to wear rainbow laces in his boots during Roma games. “She is with a woman,” he says, “but it is good, people should live their lives in the way that makes them happy.”

Soft side

Federico Mattiello

That determination to win can sometimes be evident in his dealings with team-mates too. Nainggolan has a reputation for being outspoken in the dressing room and out on the field and though he insists relations are actually good, he makes no apologies for an approach he says is rooted in his childhood. “I have had to fight for everything I have,” he says. “Even in the kick-abouts I had with my friends, I always wanted to win.”

That desire to win, allied to his technical ability and considerable flexibility, make for a potent combination and his potential was spotted quickly after he arrived in Italy as a teenager, even if his move to Roma (for to €18 million in early 2014 when an initial loan move it was made permanent) took a surprising amount of time to materialise given the widespread interest.

At international level, his progress has been slower. Marc Wilmots’ decision to omit him from Belgium’s squad for the World Cup finals two years ago was seen as controversial.

The coach all but admitted it had been a mistake by putting the team’s lack of success at the tournament down to their inability to move the ball forward from midfield quickly. Nainggolan can do just that and has a mainstay of the recent qualifying campaign.

Spectacular goals

He can play anywhere across the middle of the park but prefers to be used in an attacking role on the left of the centre, a position from which he sometimes chips in with spectacular goals.

Wherever he plays, though, his range of passing – especially his ability to release team-mates with highly accurate, long balls – is seen as a major asset and it has enabled him to largely displace Marouane Fellaini.

All of those talents, though, didn’t prevent Belgium struggling to break down lesser opponents like Israel, Cyprus or, in particular, Wales over the course of the qualifying campaign.

Nainggolan was probably their most effective player over the course of the campaign but the side, for all its many attacking talents, has generally found it hard when opponents simply set out to shut up shop and there is an underlying tension between a coach who believes that the solution lies in rolling up sleeves and the many players in the squad who like to think they were meant for greater things than that.

Nainggolan, one suspects, is far from the most precious of them but he did not succeed on either front against the team coached by his foremost admirer.

The fear is, that like the team generally, he comes into the game against Ireland with a point to prove.

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