Tradition says that if you stand with your back to the Trevi Fountain and throw a coin into it, you are destined to return to that same spot in the Eternal City. Radja Nainggolan has probably closed his eyes and made that wish a thousand times since leaving Roma for Inter in the summer of 2018, but it’s not too late to fulfil that destiny after a journey of discovery.
The Belgian, who has spent his entire professional career in Italy, left Roma two years ago and followed Luciano Spalletti to the Nerazzurri. But the former Giallorossi coach was sacked in May 2019 and Nainggolan was off-loaded immediately after the arrival of Antonio Conte.
Rather than begin another domino effect of ill-advised transfers, he doubled back and returned to the other club and city where he was happiest: Cagliari. This wasn’t just a football decision, it was a lifestyle one, allowing his wife to be near family after her breast cancer diagnosis. It quickly felt as if he’d never left in 2014, growing comfortably into the role of a leader, even making Sardinia dream of a European berth. With the help of other newcomers like Marko Rog and Nahitan Nandez, and a prolific Joao Pedro stepping up in the absence of Leonardo Pavoletti, the return of Radja spurred the Rossoblu on to match their best start to a top-flight campaign since the Scudetto season in 1969-70.
Fast forward six months and Cagliari are back in the bottom half of the table. Rolando Maran, who seemed a genius only months ago, has been replaced by Walter Zenga – yet to lead the side from the dugout because of the pandemic. Even before the tragic crisis in Italy, Nainggolan would have had to take a massive pay cut to stay in Sardinia. And Ninja is facing another crossroads in the summer.
The experience has changed him, as after living in shadows of others at Roma and Inter, the Belgian finally became the experienced old hand leading the Cagliari midfield. He is precisely the figure Conte is asking for at San Siro and it seems the club could also be prepared to set aside whatever had prompted them to push the Belgian out in the first place.
However, there is an even more intriguing option, as Nainggolan can continue the journey of self-discovery by changing his biggest regret and revisiting that coin in the fountain. It’s the destiny he always wanted, and he’d return matured, like a fine wine. Monday was his 32nd birthday and just as his presence helped Nandez and Rog at Cagliari, he could shepherd the young talents of Lorenzo Pellegrini and Gonzalo Villar at the Olimpico, or Nicolò Barella and Stefano Sensi at San Siro.
Roma probably need Nainggolan more than Inter do, and vice versa. Paulo Fonseca is a coach better suited to getting the best out of the dynamic Belgian and he’d be welcomed back with open arms by the fans, who blame former director Monchi for shoving yet another favourite out the door. Unlike Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi, there is still time for Roma to make it right with Nainggolan. He has a destiny to fulfil, returning to the Capital having aged like fine wine.