Having become a connoisseur of Calcio over the past few years, I have been able to witness first-hand the magic of Italian football that many miss out on. Sure there is its corrupted past and issues with racism and I understand that but you’re missing out on the charm of some of Europe’s most famous old footballing institutions. You have the Seven Sisters of Italian football in the shape of Juventus, Inter, Milan, Roma, Lazio, Fiorentina and Napoli and even clubs like Sampdoria and Parma who have all contributed to providing great stories and playing home to some of the all-time greats.
What makes Italian football so great is that it is different and one man who epitomizes that to me is Radja Nainggolan. A man who has played in Rome and Milan and now finds himself back in Sardinia with Cagliari, Nainggolan has been a mainstay in the top flight over the past ten years and you could make a strong case for labelling him one of the best midfielders to grace Serie A in that period.
As a follower of Inter, I was absolutely delighted to see the maverick enforcer join the Nerazzuri last summer. A man who could play as a four, eight or a ten, who could also tackle like he had iron shins and was partial to the odd long range beauty, I couldn’t wait to see him in blue and black.
His performances under Luciano Spaletti when at Roma had everything and even under the Rome side’s run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2018/19, he provided all round combative displays to run over opposing midfields.
Upon signing for Inter, he was joining a club in the midst of climb from mediocrity following their dismal demise from Treble winners to mid table fodder. Radja himself as good as admitted he was forced out of Roma by then new sporting director Monchi which raised early warning signs about the move.
As the season started, he didn’t look match fit. He was forced off after just twenty-five minutes of the derby after he was involved in a crunching tackle with Lucas Biglia and that was the last we saw of him until after Christmas. Upon his return from injury, he was suspended from the first team due to a number of lates to training and due to him being allegedly seen out in nightclubs in the early hours.
Nainggolan did manage to grab a place back in the squad and was key to getting Inter over the line and into Champions League qualification after their annual mid-season slump. A stunning volley in the draw with Juve and then the vital first in the final game against Empoli showed Inter fans that when he was fit he was a reliable source of quality who could add creative spark.
Just as it seemed he was settling in Milano, Antonio Conte stepped into the managerial chair in June and he began a cull of first team regulars who he believed threatened his regime. Out went Icardi, Perisic and Nainggolan who’s attitudes were deemed to not fit the manager’s criteria.
Nainggolan was very vocal in his disappointment of being let go, claiming that he had tried to convince Conte that he wanted to stay. Nainggolan knew that Inter hadn’t seen the best of him and he wanted to make it work at the iconic club. Offers came from Turkey and China but Nainggolan made an emotional return to Cagliari, the club where he made his name, so that he could be closer to his wife’s home as she battled illness.
So far the move couldn’t be working out better. Cagliari’s cleverly assembled squad, expertly coached by Rolando Maran, find themselves occupying a Champion’s League place which is a remarkable feat given the competition for those spots amongst the likes of Atalanta, Napoli and Roma.
Nainggolan has been in sensational form, scoring four and assisting as many in eleven league outings. Donning the captain’s armband, ‘Ninja’ as he is affectionately known due to his Mohawk hairstyle, has been every bit the man Inter thought they were getting. Leading the side by example and with all round style, Cagliari have found the man to lead them towards the top end of the league.
Nainggolan compliments midfield partner Natihan Nandez perfectly and finds himself supporting a red hot supply line for Joao Pedro and Giovanni Simeone.
In a summer that Cagliari lost their poster boy in Nicolo Barella to Inter, they gained Nainggolan. A man who was inspired to prove to people that his best days were behind him and that Inter were wrong to let him go before seeing the best of him. Nainggolan isn’t your average footballer. His whacky haircuts, low socks with legs and arms full of tattoo’s, he goes against the grain of the modern footballer. His discipline has been questioned over the years but he is once again proving that despite his maverick nature, he oozes class and at the moment Cagliari are the beneficiaries.
Midfield crisis at Inter. Nainggolan anyone?