The Belgian has defied the odds to rise at Roma – and now he's poised for a big move, says Adam Digby...
The 60-second story
- Date of birth: May 4, 1988
- Place of birth: Antwerp, Belgium
- Height: 5ft 9in
- Position: Central midfield
- Club: Roma (59 apps, 5 goals)
- Former clubs: Piacenza, Cagliari
- International: Belgium (8 caps, 2 goals)
Like many of the current generation of talented Belgium internationals, Radja Nainggolan hails from a multi-cultural background and left his homeland at a young age to pursue his footballing career. It's a familiar path to that of Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku, who have all found themselves at major clubs in recent years.
Nainggolan's route is somewhat different to his team-mates', though, and the 26-year-old is undoubtedly a product of his tough upbringing. Abandoned shortly after he was born by his Indonesian father, Roma's midfield pitbull was raised by his Flemish mother, who worked long hours to overcome the heavy debts and tough Antwerp neighbourhood she and her family had been left in. "It was not easy for me," he later admitted. It got tougher when his mother Lizi passed away in 2010, shortly after he had signed a permanent contract with Cagliari.
By then, however, she had much to be proud of her son for. Nainggolan had been spotted by Swiss agent Alessandro Beltrami playing for his local club Germinal Beerschot, and soon a 16-year-old hopeful was on his way to Serie B side Piacenza.
Despite being alone in a foreign country he was determined to succeed, and four years later was given an opportunity to test himself in the top flight with Cagliari, initially on loan. He settled instantly in Sardinia, and adapted to his on-field challenges comfortably.
In January last year he turned down moves to Southampton, Juventus and Milan in order to join Roma, who paid an initial €3 million to loan him until the end of the season, plus a further €6m to make the deal a co-ownership agreement. The intervening four years saw him marry a local girl and have a son of his own, all while blossoming into a fine two-way midfielder fully capable of building play but destroying it too.
"When I think back to where I came from," he reflected in an interview with SportWeek earlier this year, "I was a really poor child, and I ate a lot of dirt to get where I am today." His omission from the Belgium squad that went to last summer’s World Cup now looks like a glaring oversight, such has been his contribution to Roma’s transformation over the last two years. "I still haven’t digested it because I deserved to be in Brazil," he declared. There's little doubt the rejection has only added fuel to the fire that drives him every day.
Why you need to know him
After quickly becoming one of the most prominent midfielders in Serie A, Nainggolan is once again attracting Premier League attention. In March, La Gazzetta dello Sport linked both Manchester clubs with summer moves in the region of €40m. This week, the Belgian has been tipped for a big-money move to Liverpool, with Roma reportedly unable to afford him permanently and Cagliari keen to cash in.
Manchester City would need no introduction to Nainggolan's talent, after he made his presence keenly felt when Roma travelled to the Etihad back in September. With three trademark crunching tackles, two interceptions and as many blocked shots, he shielded the Roma defence superbly, while completing 90.5% of his passes. One of those was a wonderful ball to Francesco Totti, which allowed his captain to become the oldest scorer in Champions League history, but more importantly secured a point for the visitors.
Looking at a player who averages 2.6 tackles and an interception every game, it's easy to identify energy, work-rate and tenacity as hallmarks of Nainggolan’s play – clearly he excels in those areas. Yet it is also to do him a disservice, as the Belgian is one of the calmest and most efficient distributors of the ball in Serie A, with Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo the only midfielders to complete more passes than him last season.
While Roma may be struggling to match last year’s record-setting campaign, Nainggolan has actually improved, weighing in with three goals and five assists in all competitions. With Strootman sidelined and De Rossi having joined Miralem Pjanic in suffering an alarming dip in form, it is the diminutive 26-year-old who is now widely regarded as the best among Roma's talented midfielders.
City's head of elite development Patrick Vieira is a fan, meanwhile, complimenting the Giallorossi man for his "good ability and hard work for the team". The ex-Arsenal man isn't the worst person to impress.
Standing only 5ft 9in, Nainggolan is understandably weak in the air and has won just 39% of the aerial duels he has contested this term. He also needs to curb his tendency to launch into rash challenges, a deficiency which has resulted in 12 yellow cards in his 39 appearances in 2014/15.
Suffice to say, his reckless abandon has won him few admirers among opposition fans with a style that appears to show little regard for the safety of himself and others.
Many January signings take some time to settle into their new clubs, but that was certainly not the case with Nainggolan – he completed 102 passes on his league debut as Roma ran out 4-0 winners against Genoa. “It’s like he did a pre-season with us,” said coach Rudi Garcia shortly afterwards. “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.”
Did you know?
Radja isn't the only Nainggolan making a good impression in the Italian capital, with his twin sister Riana starring for Roma's women. In addition, she recently received a first call-up for Belgium.
- Shooting 6
- Heading 4
- Passing 9
- Tackling 8
- Pace 7
- Dribbling 6
- Creativity 7
- Work-rate 8
What happens next?
In order to comply with new FIFA regulations, co-ownership in Italy will come to an end this summer, and it remains to be seen how Nainggolan’s situation is resolved. "I've heard that half of Nainggolan is worth €10 million and I think that's an absolute joke," Cagliari president Tommaso Giulini told Il Tempo in January, adding that a suitor would need to pay much more for "one of the best midfielders in Europe".
With Roma also ready to cash in, don't be surprised to see a Premier League bidding war soon enough.