Saying no to Nainggolan

Claudio Villa

Bren asked me to write a small bit on the exclusion of our Radja Nainggolan from Belgium’s national team for the upcoming WC 2014. Since we are all Bren, but Bren is not everyone (think it through, really), he turned to Chiesa’s local Belgian reporter to shine a light on the situation.

A situation which probably baffles a lot of you and rightfully so. But the Belgian enclave in this Church saw this coming a long time ago. While Radja undoubtedly is a favorite among Roman fans and Rudi, he is less spectacular and celebrated in Belgium. Why? Because unlike Courtois, Van Buyten, Mignolet, Lukaku, Kompany, Defour, Witsel, De Bruyne etc. he never played a minute in our football league, the Jupiler Pro League. He left the country pretty fast, at a young age (sixteen). He went to Piacenza, Italy and after a succesful career in Cagliari, he became the midfield bulldog he is now.

Ok, so what about Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Hazard, Mirallas, Mertens, Dembele and Alderweireld? Or even the unknown but called-up prodigy Origi? They also left Belgium at a young age and didn’t shine in the Pro League. Yes, that’s true but fact is that all those players made their fame in neighbouring countries: the Netherlands and France (French is an official language in Belgium, it helps). They are being monitored closely by our media, unlike Radja. Serie A really isn’t popular in Belgium, far from. It’s mostly news about the Bundesliga and Premier League really, sometimes a bit about Barca and Real or when PSG pays 200 million for a striker.

So Radja clearly had to make up arrears. But playing for a grey mouse like Cagliari is not the best way, although he did mighty fine during his Sardinian stint. In 2009 he received his first call-up for the NT for the Kirin Cup, a friendly and unmeaningful tournament in Japan (yaaaay!).  After that, he rarely featured for his country. He desperately needed a big club. He knew it, the media knew it. Enter AS Roma. Until now, Radja has collected five caps for the NT and still managed one goal, against Ivory Coast in March this year. A clear sign to our NT-coach, former Schalke 04-striker Wilmots, to include him in the team for Brazil. His main rivals? Witsel from Zenit (Wilmots’ absolute favorite and rightly so, he has been phenomenal in his DM-role), Fellaini from ManU and 37-year-old Simons from Belgian club Bruges.

Most Belgians predicted (and hoped) that Wilmots would include Radja in the selection, Simons was too old for such an important tournament while Fellaini usually plays a more attacking role under Wilmots. But Radja eventually didn’t make the cut. This is why:

The Belgian NT plays a 4-3-3. Which traditionally means six midfielders get a ticket (two for each midfield spot). The chosen ones:
Axel Witsel (Zenit St-Petersburg), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Steven Defour (Porto), Moussa Dembélé (Tottenham), Nacer Chadli (Tottenham), Kevin De Bruyne (Wolfsburg)

You can’t deny the sheer amount of talent Belgium has at its disposal. Radja wouldn’t have been a misfit but rules are rules: six isn’t a huge amount. Chances you get the call are few and far between in such a crowded position. Wilmots always had to keep talent at home (like Simons and Thorgan Hazard, Eden’s little brother) and disappoint people. The main problem (in my opinion) is Radja’s positon for the NT: Wimots sees a nr 6 in him, a defensive mid. While he doesn’t play that role in Rome, Daniele De Rossi does. Another example why Wilmots doesn't realmy rate the Serie A or even Roma. It seems the Belgian scouts clearly need a pair of glasses, fast. Radja acts more as a nr 8 in Rome, a box to box player, a ‘washing machine’ like Stroot manwho runs and cleans up stuff, defensively good and decent in the attacking department as well.

Second problem: the rise of Kevin De Bruyne, now at Wolfsburg. De Bruye’s a good winger but an even better CAM/trequartista. He has pace, vision and technique in abundance. So you know where this is going: Wilmots will use Kevin as a midfielder in Brazil which means another spot gone for Radja. Due to this move, Wilmots’ former CAM Fellaini will now be slotted in the role as vice-Witsel. And not Nainggolan.
Dembele and Chadli had good stints at Tottenham, just like Defour at Porto but none of them really made an impact like Radja did in Rome. But those three mentioned were already important key players during Belgium’s qualifying campagin for the WC 2014 and even before that. So Radja had an impossible mission: in the space of roughly four months (since his transfer to Rome) and a handful of minutes, he had to make an immediate impact and prove himself to the coach to earn his place among the usual suspects. Pressure was immense and it was mentally a huge task for Radja.

Fast forward two months after his first goal for the NT and Radja’s certain he won’t be joining his team mates on the plane to South-America. Is he sad and disappointed? Yes, of course. Is he a broken man? No, of course not. He’s a fighter, quitting is something he doesn’t understand. He already said he sees Roma’s CL-campaign as his very own WC this year. That’s a very good thing for the club, he will be even more determined and focused. And if we really put on our shiny Giallorossi-glasses: he won’t get gravely injured at the WC and won’t be fatigued by the start of preseason.

My advice: don’t fret too much about it, boys. Nainggolan is still young and has enough chances to prove himself on the big stage: the upcoming Champions League, the EC in 2016 and even the next WC in 2018, when he will turn 30 and be at his prime. Hopefully with a nice Roman trophy cabinet by then as well. In the end, he will make it impossible for Wilmots not to choose him.

Radja’s family has Indonesian roots, his first name means ‘king’ in Indonesia. He won’t be one in Brazil, but I reckon Rome’s not a bad place to be a king as well. Alongside Pope Francesco.

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