Radja Nainggolan is certainly one of Belgium’s most recognisable players and one of their most popular too. A quick scan of Twitter reveals plenty of dedicated fan accounts and this week every one of them have been united in their outrage that their man was left out of the squad to face Gibraltar and Greece in World Cup qualification.
Belgium manager Roberto Martinez has copped plenty of criticism for opting against the Roma man in his midfield selections and calling players like Youri Tielemans and Axel Witsel instead.
That criticism came not only from certain sections of the support but also from the player in question. No sooner had Martinez announced his squad for the games than Nainggolan was sounding off in the press about his non-selection.
“It makes no sense,” the 29-year-old told Nieuwsblad .
“He calls Youri Tielemans who is sitting on the bench and playing only a few minutes at Monaco.
“When he was appointed, Martinez said that the Red Devils must play in top competitions. Now that Axel Witsel is in China, suddenly that doesn’t apply any more. That’s all fine, but I have to step up my game?”
Nainggolan also declared he would be quitting international football but revealed in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport later in the week that no such decision had been reached on that front. As things stand he remains available for Belgium with one eye on next summer’s World Cup in Russia.
But Nainggolan nonetheless came out on the attack and pushed all responsibility for being left out on others.
He was unapologetic about his smoking – an issue which is known to have caused consternation with Martinez - and one which also drew remarks from Marc Wilmots when he was in charge.
Indeed the ex-Belgium coach revealed that at Euro 2016 Nainggolan was to be given a room with a balcony so he could smoke without setting off the smoke alarm. The midfielder would have “trashed” his room otherwise.
Nainggolan referenced his own drinking habit too in that interview with Gazzetta but remained steadfast in his belief that he was not “a rebel” and committed “120 per cent” to any manager who picked him.
That commitment does not stretch to being on time however. Nainggolan was late to a team meeting in June ahead of a qualifier against Estonia. He insists that he was not the only one who missed the deadline and qualifies it further by stating that he wasn’t even that late.
But if Nainggolan misses his second World Cup in succession – after being ignored by Wilmots for 2014 – then he’s only got himself to blame.
It’s no use pointing to Tielemans’s bench time at Monaco or Witsel’s lack of intensity in China with Tianjin Quanjian. It’s no use defending his smoking habit or making light about the fact he’s not always on time.
The easiest way for Nainggolan to make it back into Martinez’s plans is to take responsibility for his own actions.
A manager’s authority over a team is tested every hour of every day he spends with his squad. Players understand discipline and react when breaches in the group discipline are permitted for certain ones and not for others.
Belgium boasts one of its most talented group of players in history – with Nainggolan certainly deserving his place in that description – but Martinez is right to impose the rules.
It’s not difficult to be on time. It’s not too much to ask to knock the smoking on the head until your career is over. If the difference between going to a World Cup and not going to a World Cup is your consumption of a bottle of beer, then it doesn’t take a Nobel Prize winner to work out that maybe you should hold off on drinking it.
Nainggolan’s petulance when dropped will not have done him any favours either. Martinez called him personally before the announcement to give him his reasons for not being selected and the player’s first reaction was to go straight to the press and give his side of the story. One thing an international manager cannot tolerate is a leaky camp. Nainggolan would have been better advised to keep his head down and his mouth closed.
In the event Belgium didn’t miss him in their win against Gibraltar. The Red Devils equalled their biggest-ever win by beating the part-timers 9-0. Who knows what the score would have been had Martinez not been forced to sacrifice an attacking player to accommodate Moussa Dembele in midfield after Witsel was sent off in the first half.
That avoidable red card provides Martinez with a selection difficulty for the game tonight against Greece. There will be plenty of Nainggolan fans out there gloating in the fact that Martinez doesn’t have him available to replace Witsel in Piraeus. But it’ll be Tielemans, Dembele, Maourane Fellaini or Steven Defour occupying that slot – capable players that have proven they can follow the rules.