Remarkable players? Yes, AS Roma has had quite a few of those. There was no shortage of strange, controversial footballers at Roma during the past decade. For example, there was Dani ‘the pirate’ Osvaldo. Fabio ‘Hey, is that a hamburger?’ Simplicio. Adriano ‘Yes, that’s a hamburger’ Leite Ribeiro. Daddy’s boy Gerson. Mauro ‘Butterfingers’ Goicoechea. Or Rick ‘Say yes to tattoos, no to brains’ Karsdorp. I could go on all day.
But it takes someone truly special to be both remarkable AND amazing. Someone who looks like a ticking time bomb but in reality is a master in his job. A champion disguised as a mad man. All the guys I mentioned earlier left Roma without much ado. They will never be considered corner stones or valuable pieces of this club. Some funny memories, that’s about it. They remain a small footnote in Roma’s history.
However there was one man who looked like a complete train wreck, covered in tattoos, with a weird hairdo but who instantly became a fan favorite for almost 5 years. His name? Radja ‘Ninja’ Nainggolan.
The Belgian joined Roma from Cagliari on a six month loan but quickly become a pillar for Rudi Garcia’s juggernaut that ended second in Serie A with an astonishing 85 points. Roma were quick to tie down Radja on a permanent basis and the Ninja stayed on for four more seasons including two second places and two third places in the league.
Radja was also part of the 2018 Champions League team that surprised Europe and an important key during Roma’s record-breaking campaign 2016-2017 under the guidance of Luciano Spalletti (total of 87 points amassed). Radja scored an amazing 11 goals in Serie A that season. In Spalletti’s 4-2-3-1 / 3-4-2-1 / 3-4-1-2 systems Radja thrived as an attacking midfielder and became one of Italy’s most complete and versatile players.
Passing? Shooting? Stamina? Tackling? Grinta? You name it, Radja had it in abundance. If Roma needed a bulldog in midfield, Radja was there. If Roma needed someone to break down a defence, Radja unleashed a rocket from outside of the box. If Roma needed a guy to motivate his teammates when the going got tough, Radja was the man. Juve, Milan, Inter, Napoli, they were all jealous Roma got him in the first place.
For me, the Radja transfer is one of the high points of the past decade. If you look up Roma’s best moments between 2010 and 2019, you’ll notice Radja was always present. If Nainggolan was on fire, Roma was too. 2016-2017 probably was the pinnacle for both Roma and Radja. Of course you can’t ignore Totti and De Rossi as MVP’s but I reckon Radja would be close behind them, because he was so popular and had this bad boy attitude you simply couldn’t reject.
Alisson, Salah, Pjanic, Strootman, Dzeko, Fazio, They all had their moments in giallo e rosso. But boy, Radja was a special case. Whenever he had the ball, you just knew something was gonna happen. Roma and him were a perfect couple. Both were crazy as hell. Radja felt right at home from the start thanks to the crazy fans and the lively city of Rome.
Unfortunately Nainggolan didn’t stay at Roma until the end of this decade as he was sold to Inter in June 2018 for reasons I still don’t (want to) understand. The only good thing from that deal is that we got wonderboy Zaniolo in return but that’s just a small band-aid on a huge gaping wound for me.
Ironically Radja only stayed one year at Inter although Spalletti was his trainer, he then returned to the roots, his former club Cagliari, mainly due to his wife being ill. It wasn’t the best year for Radja, both professionally and privately, but whoever thought the Ninja would be done and dusted, they were wrong.
Until this very day Radja continues to amaze people. His Cagliari side is one of the surprise packages and the Sardinians are right in the middle of a CL hunt alongside Lazio and Roma. Radha himself has already scored 4 goals in 12 games (Cagliari-Lazio not included). At 31 years of age the Ninja isn’t beaten yet. Why am I not surprised.
Whenever I see this current Roma side play, I still miss the good old Ninja. I bet Fonseca could have used him in difficult games like Parma or Wolfsberger.
I would have loved to extend his Roman career with 2-3 more years but it is what it is. In the end I’m very grateful for all the years he did feature for Roma. And those years were arguably the best ones for AS Roma this decade.
What the heck, let’s just call it the Decade of the Ninja, shall we?