BRUSSELS, Belgium, May 21 – Belgium have left midfield creator Radja Nainggolan out of their World Cup squad, coach Roberto Martinez said on Monday.
The absence of Nainggolan, who scored twice for Roma in the second league of the Champions League semi-final against Liverpool this month, was the biggest surprise in the 28-player list that will be reduced to 23 before the tournament.
Belgium face England, Panama and Tunisia in Group G at the World Cup.
The heavily tattooed 30-year-old has played 30 times for his country and is popular with supporters, but his relationship with Martinez has often been strained.
The Spanish former Everton manager said: “It was a sad and difficult decision. He is a player with a lot of class and he was voted Roma’s best player, but I’ve made my decision for purely tactical reasons.
“I have put in place a specific system that works. I can’t use Radja in a secondary role.”
Martinez said he had travelled to Rome to explain his choice to the player.
In Nainggolan’s place, Martinez has picked 21-year-old Youri Tielemans, who has had a low-key season at French club Monaco.
The decision to omit Nainggolan was criticised by former Belgian international Philippe Albert.
“We must be the only country in the world to be making the trip without one of the best players in the world. This is not the way to become world champions.”
Manchester City’s veteran defender Vincent Kompany is included, as is Barcelona defender Thomas Vermaelen, despite both being dogged by injuries this season.
Divock Origi, the Liverpool striker who has spent the season on loan at Wolsfburg, was left out.
Belgium face Portugal in a warm-up friendly on June 2.
Belgium’s 28-man squad:
Goalkeepers: Koen Casteels (Wolfsburg/GER), Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea/ENG), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool/ENG), Matz Sels (Newcastle/ENG, on loan at Anderlecht)
Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham/ENG), Dedryck Boyata (Celtic/SCO), Laurent Ciman (Los Angeles FC/USA), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht), Christian Kabasele (Watford/ENG), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City/ENG), Jordan Lukaku (Lazio/ITA), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona/ESP), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham/ENG)
Midfielders: Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yinfang/CHN), Nacer Chadli (West Bromwich Albion/ENG), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City/ENG), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham/ENG), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United/ENG), Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad/ESP), Thomas Meunier (Paris Saint-Germain/FRA), Youri Tielemans (Monaco/FRA), Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian/CHN)
Forwards: Michy Batshuayi (Chelsea/ENG, on loan at Borussia Dortmund/GER), Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace/ENG), Eden Hazard (Chelsea/ENG), Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Mönchengladbach/GER), Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United/ENG), Dries Mertens (Naples/ITA).