By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Editor
It was the same day as the Milan derby, strangely enough. Grabbing my place at the bar of the Cafe Cinque Stelle after running from the Stadio Garilli at full-time, I made a note to call back the guy who’d been in touch during the week before settling down to watch Inter win 4-0 against their great rivals AC Milan. August 29, 2009 was the day I saw Radja Nainggolan play for the first time, and having been asked for advice on potential targets by a Premier League scout just days before, I was back on the phone within 24 hours to tell him the Piacenza midfielder was somebody he needed to see.
Further trips to Piacenza saw increasing improvement from the then-21-year-old, but when the Belgian moved on the following January, it was to Cagliari rather than England. Little did they know it at the time, but at least one EPL club had passed up their chance to sign a true diamond on the cheap. Now the Rossoblu’s most prized asset, Juventus have joined Inter and Milan in the race to add him to their squad, with a €10 million bounty sitting on his head.
And Nainggolan is worth every cent. Tenacious, intelligent, organised, energetic, belligerent, and with an eye for a pass when it is on; the Belgian of Indonesian heritage has become one of the most ridiculously underrated midfielders in Italy – and perhaps Europe – with displays of immense consistency regularly going under the radar.
In a world where a little hype, however misplaced at times, makes a player an internet phenomenon before most people have even seen him play, Nainggolan comes from the opposite end of the scale. Right-footed, but supremely comfortable to the left of centre, he has also shown an adeptness for covering the pivot role, while his ability to perform in the slot on the right of the midfield three is also unquestionable.
It takes a player of some talent to outshine Daniele Conti in the Cagliari midfield, but Nainggolan has done that. The club captain may well have just turned 33, but the Isolani’s long-term issue of looking limbless whenever Conti is on the sidelines has been overcome since Nainggolan was picked up two years ago. These days, they suffer little without their skipper so long as the Belgian is around.
Wherever he ends up, Nainggolan will continue to be something of a hero in Indonesia. While born in Antwerp, his father is of Indonesian Batak ancestry, which is heavily reflected in his name. While his surname is Batak, the name Radja comes from the Indonesian ‘raja’, meaning ‘king‘.
RADJA NAINGGOLAN | HIS SEASON-BY-SEASON STATS
It was during his days back at Piacenza that Nainggolan told Goal.com that he would prefer to play for Belgium over Indonesia, having already appeared for the European nation’s under-21 side. The Indonesian FA could have pursued that matter with the player, and many in the area still believe he may have changed his mind had they done so. But that has done nothing to change the high esteem in which he is held across the South East Asian islands.
And with a high-profile move potentially in the offing for Nainggolan, Indonesia could be about to explode with joy, as Goal.com’s Indonesian Editor Bima Said explains.
“We would love it if he were to play for a bigger club. That would be good for him and I believe he will do well with his new side. If he does sign for a bigger club, that would be massive news. And one thing is for sure: millions of people in Indonesia will buy his new jersey.”
That said, Nainggolan is more than a shirt-seller, and Juventus in particular would do well to remember that. Having signed Marco Borriello on loan despite the popular consensus not being favourable to the move, they clearly have a single-mindedness about doing things that they believe to be right for the team. And in that, Nainggolan’s talent must not be underestimated.
The 23-year-old has the all-round midfield game that few in Serie A can claim to be able to contribute to their club. All he needs now is the right platform. Back in his Piacenza days, he was occasionally pushed up to play on the left of a three-man attack – a role he carried out superbly – but it would be foolish to forego his superiority in the centre for any lengthy period. Here is a midfielder with grace and guile, performing week after week with the clear intention of doing his utmost for the team: win, lose or draw.
And with Juventus now edging ahead in the race for his signature, their fans would have every right to be getting excited about the prospect of the midfielder wearing the Bianconeri shirt. But that wouldn’t be the Nainggolan way, at least not yet.
Already a superstar in the land of his father, Radja could soon become the king in Turin.Follow Kris Voakes on