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There is More to Radja Nainggolan's Belgium Exclusion Than Meets the Eye

Nainggolan, whose Indonesian father abandoned him when he was a toddler, left home as a teenager to make his name in Italy. Few have worked harder or overcome more obstacles to get to the top. And almost no one puts in as intense or ferocious a shift on the field. A few sneaky puffs, as he channels his inner Johan Cruyff, aren’t going to change that. His non-selection, like that of Redondo, could just be the missing nail that jeopardises an entire campaign.

Dileep Premachandran | News18 Sports

Updated:May 23, 2018, 11:54 AM IST
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There is More to Radja Nainggolan's Belgium Exclusion Than Meets the Eye
A file photo of Radja Nainggolan. (Twitter/ Squanka News)
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It’s now two decades since Daniel Passarella, who captained Argentina to World Cup glory in 1978, decided to omit Fernando Redondo from his squad for France ‘98. The reasons don’t matter. It’s hard to believe that Passarella was so monumentally daft that it was the length of Redondo’s hair alone. Whatever the trigger, his face didn’t fit. And an Argentine squad brimful of talent, but missing the midfield serenity and nous that Redondo brought to the great Real Madrid sides that won the Champions League, went out to The Netherlands in the last eight. They haven’t had a better team since.

Robert Martinez will say that the current situation with Belgium is different, especially since Radja Nainggolan played only 96 minutes in what was a dominant qualifying campaign. But there’s little doubt that ‘discipline’ has played a big part in the Ninja’s omission from the preliminary squad, and Belgian fans, especially in cyberspace, haven’t been slow to express their disgust.

In the Instagram age, when every little thing is blown out of proportion, much was made of Marc Wilmots, then the coach, giving Nainggolan a room with a balcony during Euro 2016, so he could indulge in the odd cigarette. Such was the outrage in some quarters that you’d have thought that all he did was puff away. Instead, he scored two of the goals of the tournament, leathering shots from distance against both Sweden and Wales.

Martinez’s supporters will also say that Nainggolan just doesn’t fit into the system that Belgium currently play. For Roma, he’s the all-action hero, a notional No.10 who does so much more. Such a player doesn’t fit into Martinez’s 3-4-3, they’ll tell you. That is nonsense. Nainggolan isn’t just a warrior. He’s one of the most complete midfielders in Europe, a modern-day Steven Gerrard capable of slotting into various roles. It’s no coincidence that he was the heartbeat of a brilliant AS Roma team that punched way above its weight in this season’s Champions League.

It was his misplaced pass that pretty much settled the semifinal tie in Liverpool’s favour at the Olympic Stadium in Rome. But instead of letting his shoulders drop, Nainggolan kept running, kept looking for openings. His two late goals ensured that Liverpool fans had no nails left by the final whistle.

There are other stories too, of him being a minute late for a training session, and missing another. But on the field, Nainggolan is the coach’s dream, a perpetual motion machine capable of both the telling pass and the thunderbolt shot. In marquee Champions League match-ups against Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Liverpool, you couldn’t take your eyes off him, and that wasn’t because of the Mohawk and tattoos.

In so many ways, ‘discipline’ is the most overrated word in sport. Over a decade ago, during the cricket World Cup in the Caribbean, a former cricketer pointed out a private room upstairs at a nightclub in Guyana. It was famous, he said, because of a former West Indian legend who used to entertain his lady friends there. “Some nights, there’d be four or five of them,” he said with a laugh. “But the next day, he’d invariably go out and take five wickets.”

An even bigger legend said quite bluntly that the only excesses were those that prevented you from giving your best on the field. “If you didn’t perform on the field, no one wanted to know you off it,” he said. “You quickly learned what you could get away with, and what you couldn’t.”

Nainggolan, whose Indonesian father abandoned him when he was a toddler, left home as a teenager to make his name in Italy. Few have worked harder or overcome more obstacles to get to the top. And almost no one puts in as intense or ferocious a shift on the field. A few sneaky puffs, as he channels his inner Johan Cruyff, aren’t going to change that. His non-selection, like that of Redondo, could just be the missing nail that jeopardises an entire campaign.
| Edited by: Madhav Agarwal
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