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Nainggolan: “I’m a leader by nature, especially when the going gets tough”

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Inter’s Ninja opens up ahead of Sunday’s derby.

FC Internazionale v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Group B Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

What would it mean for Inter to beat Milan in Sunday’s Derby della Madonnina?

What are the differences between playing for Inter and playing for Roma?

Why do you dislike Juventus so much?

What’s happened to your mohawk?

And what’s it like sleeping at the training ground with Luciano Spalletti?

If you’ve ever wished you could sit down with Radja Nainggolan and ask him some of those questions, you’re in luck: that’s exactly what the Gazzetta dello Sport did with the Ninja this week, as part of their buildup to the big match at San Siro.

Gazzetta dello Sport, 17 Oct 2018, p. 2-3.

True to form, Radja had plenty to say and didn’t hide away from saying it: as we know, he’s not one to beat around the bush. Which makes him all the more interesting for us.

Will Ninja be Inter’s magic man on Sunday? One can only hope. In the meantime, let’s see what’s on his mind on the eve of the derby.


Radja, how are you feeling ahead of the derby?

“I’m pretty calm. The ability to prepare every match in the same manner is one of my virtues.

“I’m curious to play in my first Milan derby, though: they’re the matches I enjoy. You can tell how much is on the line.”

PSV Eindhoven v FC Internazionale - UEFA Champions League Group B Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

How does it compare to the Rome derby?

“There are a few fans who stop me in the street asking me to play well, but here it’s much calmer.

“In Rome the encounters with supporters were endless, and if you lost they’d still be reminding you about it two months later.

“Spalletti keeps telling me that the two games against Milan are worth an entire season. I’m sure the noise inside the stadium will be awesome.”

Does it feel like you’re on the brink of a turning point in Inter’s season?

“Winning six games in a row has given us confidence. We’re a good team but we still need to improve.”

Where do you need to improve?

“We need to make less hard work of winning. It’s good to grind wins out sometimes - victories like the one against SPAL are very important. But you need a comfortable win every so often.”

Are Inter a better team than Milan?

“We have many players who are of a higher level. But I’ve seen Milan’s last few games and I think they’re a very good team, who’ll cause us plenty of problems.”

Is it too simplistic to depict the derby as Mauro Icardi vs Gonzalo Higuaín?

“Higuain moves around the pitch and plays with his teammates more, but I wouldn’t swap him with Mauro.

FC Internazionale v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Group B Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

“He only needs half a chance in the box and he’ll score, that’s what he lives for.”

Let’s imagine Spalletti tells you on Saturday that you’ll be on the bench: what do you say?

“OK boss, no problem... [laughter]. What can I say - I don’t tend to sit out these kinds of games.”

Would you rather beat Milan on Sunday or Barcelona on Wednesday?

“Do I really have to choose?

“I said this to a friend the other day: if I lose both derbies but at the end of the season I reach the Champions League and Milan finish fifth, I’m happy all the same.”

Which Milan player would you want on your team?

“Bonaventura. He has good technique, he’s intelligent and he knows how to make the difference.”

Do you wish you’d faced Gattuso as a player?

“I did play him once, when I was at Cagliari. He won everything with Milan, I’d have liked to face him with a top team like Inter are today.”

Spalletti keeps telling us: ‘Nainggolan is giving us three or four moments of magic per game, but normally he provides 20-30.’

“I know what he wants from me. I’ve paid the price of getting injured [during pre-season] but I’m getting close to full fitness now.”

What was it like spending all those nights with him inside Roma’s training ground?

“One day he took me to one side and said: ‘We need to change something here. I want to protect you, you need to stay here at the training ground for a few days.’

“I said: ‘OK then, I’ll do that.’ I turned up and he was there waiting for me.

“I was surprised but it was very pleasing: he’d given up his free time to stay with me. He knows how to handle me.

“Of course, I have my flaws, but I like living life to the full.”

It’s a bit of a risky philosophy...

“I’ll give you an example: I’m always full of adrenaline after a match. I find it impossible to sleep.

“So with that in mind, instead of watching TV until 5am why can’t I go out with my friends? I find it much more relaxing and I wouldn’t be sleeping if I were at home anyway.”

There are other leagues, such as the Premier League, where people pay less attention to what players get up to in their free time. Have you never been tempted by a move there?

“I had the chance a couple of years ago [when Antonio Conte wanted him at Chelsea], but it would have been a real change in culture. I’ve always made my decisions based on the quality of living.”

UC Sampdoria v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Paolo Rattini/Getty Images

When it came to leaving Roma in the summer, though, you had no choice.

“It wasn’t my fault that my time at Roma came to an end, at least not completely.

“I was disappointed about a few things they did that as a man I cannot accept.

“I made mistakes for sure, like that video of me partying on New Year’s Eve... but they decided everything without telling me anything. Real men speak face to face.

“Roma wanted to sell me to raise money. They reached agreements with a few overseas clubs that I would never have moved to and I only found out afterwards.

“They treated me like an unimportant player, and they did everything behind my back. At that moment Spalletti called me and I didn’t need to think twice.

“I had some regrets at the start but I’ve had an incredible welcome here at Inter.”

What differences are there between the two clubs?

“Inter are a very organised club. They know what they’re doing and everyone has a presence: Steven Zhang is always here.

“At Roma the president turns up once a year... and I think people should always be present in the businesses they own.

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“It’s important for the fans as well: every year they sell off three or four key players. Perhaps if the president was on the scene he’d be able to explain why the club took certain decisions.”

Going back to Spalletti, how did he convince you to start playing as a trequartista?

“He never spoke to me about being a trequartista. He told me: ‘you will be our extra midfielder.’ He was worried that if he called me a trequartista I would have stopped tracking back.”

Do you feel like the leader of this Inter side?

“I’m a leader by nature, especially when the going gets tough.

“It’s when you’re not winning that you need to be an example for your teammates, get stuck in more and give people an extra reason to keep believing.”

Are Juventus in a league of their own?

“They’re great, they’ve been winning for seven years. But it’s a long season and there haven’t been that many head-to-head matches so far.

“At the moment we’re behind so we have to make sure we make as few mistakes as possible. They’re the ones with all the pressure, we need to make sure that they know we’re ready to pounce when they slip up.”

Where does your dislike for Juventus come from?

“I’ve received so much stick and after a while you just can’t ignore it anymore.”

The Juventus fans would say that you don’t like them because they’ve never wanted you.

“They tried to sign me for five summers running! I’ve always said no to them and perhaps that’s why they still have a problem with me.”

Bologna FC v FC Internazionale - Serie A Photo by Mario Carlini / Iguana Press/Getty Images

What does Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival mean for Italy?

“It’s an opportunity to give more visibility to a league that’s lost a lot of it. And it’s an extra incentive for us who want to try and beat him.”

Ronaldo or Messi?

“I choose Leo. Cristiano needs the team around him whereas Messi can dribble past four or five players and win games on his own.”

You knocked him out of the Champions League last season though...

“There was something strange in the air that night. Juan Jesus had the game of his life against Messi, the fans were up for it, Dzeko scored immediately...

“Roma-Barcelona was the most exciting match of my entire career.”

What does the Champions League mean to you?

“In a way it’s easier to play in the Champions League than in Serie A. You have six games in the group stage and everyone is playing to win.

“In Italy, everyone puts 10 men behind the ball and it can be a real struggle.”

FC Internazionale v Cagliari - Serie A Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

How many tattoos are you up to now?

“I don’t know, I’ve lost count. My first one was a star: I only got it so I could feel how painful it was.”

Where’s your mohawk gone?

“Enough. I’m 30 now, you won’t see it anymore. I kept it for a long time and it was great to see all the kids copying my hairstyle.”

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

“In Rome, because that’s where I want to raise my kids.”

What’s it like living in Milan?

“It’s very comfortable here.

“Whenever I wanted to go to the Casal Palocco in Rome it would take me over an hour, whereas here you can get anywhere in 20 minutes.

“It’s all more organised, the traffic... and the traffic lights [laughter]. They had a fashion week here recently and I had a great time.”

Is Nicolò Barella really your natural successor?

“I see a lot of myself in him. Did you see his debut for Italy?”

Who’s the best player you’ve ever played with?

“It would be too easy to say Totti. I’m thinking of Pjanic, because Juventus aren’t the same team without him.

“And then there’s Maicon: you’d watch him and you’d think ‘how the f*** does he do that?’”

Would signing Luka Modric have been enough for Inter to close the gap to Juventus?

“He’s the best midfielder in the world, but first I’d like to play together with him... in any case, I’m happy with the teammates I have now.”

Did you ever ask Javier Zanetti for his no. 4 shirt?

“Ha, I did make the joke but he didn’t respond.”

Will Inter be the last team you play for in your career?

“I’ve already got my future clear in my mind. They could be... not least because I don’t think I’ll play on for much longer. I won’t want anything to do with football in 10 years’ time.

“There are too many people in this world who aren’t direct, it’s not the right place for me. For the moment though I’m still enjoying myself, I still get excited.”