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Radja Nainggolan: The Indonesia icon Serie A have been screaming out for

The best Indonesian never to play for Indonesia?

Radja Nainggolan's breakthrough season doesn't just have Cagliari's money-men rubbing their hands - but even Serie A's marketing bosses can see new opportunities opening up thanks to the young midfielder's heroics this season.

Nainggolan has taken to Serie A football like a natural. Signed from Piacenza last summer, where he had spent the last three seasons, the 23 year-old hasn't looked out of place in Italy's top-flight and such has been his impact, the nation's biggest clubs are now following his progress. Indeed, the top three of AC Milan, Inter Milan and Napoli have all been mentioned as potential destinations for Nainggolan this summer.

Born in Antwerp to an Indonesian father and Belgian mother, Nainggolan has a twin sister and three half siblings - all of whom are living with their father in Bali. The family separated when Radja was six years old, with his sister following Dad back to Indonesia.

Radja stayed with his mother and soon his talent was recognised by scouts at Germinal Beerschot.

"As a child I loved playing football, even at five years of age I started with a team in my city," he says. "At 10 I moved to Germinal Beerschot and learned my football there throughout my teens.

"Finally, when 16 years old, my agent told me that an Italian club was interested in me, so I moved to Piacenza.

"It was a dream come true: playing in Italy. At first, however, it was not easy, being just 16 years old, I found myself in a foreign country alone, but my determination allowed me to overcome these difficulties."

Nainggolan admits he's surprised himself with how he's handled stepping up from Serie B this season.

"Between Serie A and B there is an abyss both physically and in terms of tactics," he says.

"It's an honor to be coached by Roberto Donadoni, a person with a wealth of experience who can teach me much."

Former Cagliari coach Pierpaolo Bisoli admits he's a big fan of Nainggolan and believes he has the ability to play on a bigger stage.

"He's a major player," says Bisoli. "He's very strong physically and technically. He could already play for an important team like Napoli."

Nainggolan is well aware of the increased transfer rumours swirling around him, but insists he'll keep his feet on the ground.

Recently married to a local girl, the midfielder says he's happy developing his football at Cagliari under Donadoni.

"I'm happy in Cagliari and I am sure that this is the ideal place to grow and mature," he insists.

Canny Piacenza allowed Nainggolan to move to Cagliari in a co-ownership agreement and while the Sardinians have first refusal in June, there will be scope for the Serie B outfit to cash in on Nainggolan's rising star.

As there will be for Serie A's marketing men.

Nainggolan's Indonesian background is just the angle Serie A have been seeking as they battle the Premier League and Spanish Liga for attention in the Far East.

The Italians aren't sitting on their hands and have already started building on Nainggolan's increased profile in Indonesia, using him for extended interviews to help promote their TV coverage across the region.

"I was never actually born in Indonesia," laughs Nainggolan, "I grew up as a child in Antwerp. But I do plan to go there.

"I follow Asian football and I think it is changing fast, especially in Japan and South Korea - there are so many good players.

"Maybe physically they leave something to be desired, but these shortcomings are overcome with technique and speed."

Now capped by Belgium, the chance of turning out for Indonesia is gone. But Nainggolan's rapid progress guarantees a massive following for him in his father's homeland.

Cagliari president Massimo Cellino, like Serie A's TV people, knows they have something special on their hands.

"I'm willing to bet he will play for Real Madrid," declared Cellino. "He's only 23, but has great quality.

"But we will not sell him next summer. He will develop here and get better."

Which sounds just about right for Radja Nainggolan.

Chris Beattie
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Chris Beattie

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