When Roberto Martinez opened his press conference earlier today, he could have said, ‘The players who got us to Russia have done a great job but as a country we are lucky enough to have one of the game’s top midfielders who didn’t participate much in the qualifiers. Radja Nainggolan can come into the squad and give us something different.’
Instead, Martinez informed the media, and the world, that the Roma midfielder was a top player but had been omitted for tactical reasons. Very few people believed that, but whatever the truth of the matter, Nainggolan had missed what was likely to be his last chance to play in a World Cup tournament.
Back in 2014, the situation had been almost identical. Marc Wilmots had pencilled in Axel Witsel, Mousa Dembélé, Marouane Fellaini, Steven Defour and Nacer Chadli, and he didn’t see the need for the Roma midfielder. Instead he sprung a surprise by taking Adnan Januzaj.
Fast forward to 218 and the cast of characters has hardly changed. The same five central midfielders are likely to travel and even Januzaj could once again, surprisingly, be included. That’s the same Januzaj who refused to play for the Belgium U21s, and was subsequently left out of that squad by coach Johan Walem.
Admittedly, Nainggolan has had problems off the pitch. Wilmots said that the player had to have his own room at the Euros, where he had finally made the party, as he could not stop Nainggolan smoking. Apart from that his internationally-linked misdemeanours were when he was officially unfit for the national team but took part in a practice match with Roma, when he was a minute late for a team meeting prior to the game with Estonia and, worst of all, in Belgium after the game with Greece, he had a night out and was found sitting in his car, over the limit, at 7.00 am.
Away from the international scene, Nainggolan has shown a liking for the good times. What he recently termed, “being himself”. At Christmas, he celebrated a little too much and put the results on social media, not a clever move. He was subsequently banned by Roma for one match.
Does all that add up to enough reasons to be omitted from a World Cup squad? It may well do depending on the coach, but Martinez has never said that a lack of professionalism was the reason for the omission. He simply pointed out that Nainggolan was out for tactical reasons.
That did not ring particularly true as every man (or woman) and their dog has been arguing that Martinez’s 3-4-3 formation may not be particularly effective against the likes of Brazil or Germany, the likely quarter final opponents.
Nainggolan can fit in as a ‘6’, ‘8’ or ‘10’ and imagine if Martinez had the option in Russia to switch to either 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 with Nainggolan playing centrally, alongside De Bruyne and Witsel or Dembélé. The opposition would be worried by the presence of a player who has made more passes and tackles than any other player in Serie A in the last three years.
When Wilmots left out Nainggolan in 2014, you could argue that the player had not got enough experience at the top level; a few months only with Roma. That’s no longer true as Nainggolan has been a stand-out player for the last four years and has been one of the principle reasons why Roma reached the Champions League semi-finals this season.
The other argument is that Nainggolan has rarely distinguished himself with Belgium, under either Wilmots or Martinez. Sadly, that’s true. He’s rarely started though, and he’s usually been given the odd half-hour as a substitute. Nainggolan’s perhaps a player who needs to be loved – as he has been by Rudi Garcia and Eusebio Di Francesco at Roma – and so far, that’s a commodity that has been sadly lacking on the international scene.