Radja Nainggolan has long since proven to have the abilities to play at the top level, but his return to Cagliari might have also proven that he needs them as much as they need him. A kind of unconditional love that only a family can give.
After struggling to make a real impact at Inter last season, having left behind a great relationship with both club and fans at Roma, he admitted the choice was easy when Cagliari came knocking. Nicolo Barella moved the other way and left the heads of the Sardinian faithful hanging. But when rumours surfaced about a possible return for the midfielder, the whole island lit up.
Coach Rolando Maran has stressed how he encourages ambition every day, and he showed it during the summer transfer window. Cagliari are seventh in the League, leading the best of the rest in Serie A so far. And Nainggolan might represent the next step for the club. If they are able to tie down a player of his calibre and prove to be a squad with the wind in their sails, more big names may follow.
Five years after Radja departed Sardinia to make his desired move to a top club in Italy, he is now back where it all started. And the experience he has gained along the way might be more valuable than ever.
The tone of his words was already completely different to when he went to Inter. He wasn’t part of Antonio Conte’s plans for the Nerazzurri, and he knew exactly how to get th crowd going as he made his way through Elmas airport, stating: “I’m only on loan, but if the President [Tommaso Giulini] decides to buy me…”
The Rossoblu seem to have built a strong unit under Rolando Maran. Former Fiorentina striker Giovanni Simeone scored the winner with a touch of class on Wednesday, while Nahitan Nández has brought the flair and precision that supporters have been craving. Joining him in Cagliari’s engine room is Marko Rog, whose defensive qualities give them the perfect balance to punish opponents on the break. Tying these individuals together with a link as proven and experienced as Nainggolan must be a dream come true for Maran.
So what’s next? Older players have come to Sardinia in recent seasons, seemingly to cash in at the brink of retirement, while taking in all the sunrays the island has to offer. Bruno Alves was a leader at the back, but he wasn’t hungry. Darijo Srna played like a real professional but was nowhere near the level expected of him when he signed on the dotted line.
On the other hand, Nainggolan has made a huge impact on the high-fliers. Although controversy has tended to follow him wherever he has gone, Cagliari have always been home to the Belgian. That and his Sardinian wife Claudia Lai currently battling cancer have prompted the 31-year-old to cut a far more mature figure, which earned him the captain’s armband in the win against Bologna last time out.
Radja’s past tells us we shouldn’t get carried away just yet, given his notoriously-volatile character, but something about this second spell at Cagliari feels different. Home is where the heart is, and Nainggolan’s heart resides in the heart of Sardinia.