In the fourth installment of our Lovely Left Footers series, Nicholas Meredith tells the story of the troubled genius of Brazilian striker Adriano. Nicholas writes his own tactical blog, Dots & Crosses, and can be found on twitter @NTMeredith
It is Sunday the 17th of October, eight minutes in to the Internazionale – Udinese game. Christian Vieri was fouled over 30 yards out by an Udinese player. A towering Brazilian, recently returned to Inter, picked up the ball and stood over it. The San Siro faithful, usually so noisy, fell silent as a hush swept across the stadium. The Brazilian took a long run up and thundered the ball towards goal. Morgan De Sanctis in the Udinese goal was vaguely aware of the ball whistling past him and into the top corner of the goal. Adriano was off and celebrating before the ball had even hit the back of the net. L’Emperatore had introduced himself in stunning style.
The case of Adriano is a topsy-turvy one, and it is a sad one. For three years, he was the premier striker of Serie A, and one of the most lethal in the world. A big, hulking centre forward with a rocket of a left foot, a dominant aerial presence and a touch that belied his size, Adriano had it all. This was neatly summed up in the aforementioned Udinese game, where after his explosive freekick he then ran the length of the field, dribbled past three opponents, and finished high past De Sanctis.
This was Adriano in his pomp, but those days are gone. His motivations for playing football – primarily for money and the happiness of his father rather than for pure love of the game – eventually fell away as his father died prematurely after being caught in the crossfire of a shootout and he rose to become one of the best-paid stars in football. It is another great tale of unfulfilled talent, but those who write Adriano off forget how he once ruled the world.
Born in 1982, Adriano Leite Ribeiro grew up in the murky, dangerous depths of Rio’s Vila Cruzeiro favela. Coming from a poor family, the gangly teenager chose football as his life and the centre forward as his position, following in the footsteps of other famous Cariocan strikers such as Ronaldo and Romario. He grew up quickly, marrying his large frame with the technical skill that is inherent in so many Brazilian footballers, and quickly progressed through the Flamengo youth ranks into the first team. He made his debut in 2000 at the age of 18, and never looked back.
What was remarkable about Adriano in his early years was his hunger, his desire to succeed. His need to prove himself and make enough money to lift his family out of the favela led to him taking on a debilitating schedule, working himself into the ground in order to better himself. As he himself put it, “When you’re small, you dream of having a big car. Your mother is the most important person in your life, and you dream of giving her a big house. And you see the top footballers with beautiful and glamorous women.“
His meteoric rise was such that he went from Flamengo’s youth ranks to being signed by Italian giants Internazionale in a little under two years.
Adriano continued his rise to power in Italy. Unlike many of his compatriots, he settled into life in Italy quickly: after a period of bedding-in with Inter, he was sent on loan to Fiorentina where he bagged 6 goals in 15 appearances. He then went on to truly prove himself in Serie A in the 2002-03 season with Parma, scoring 16 league goals in 26 starts. Proper international recognition soon followed as Adriano forced his way into contention for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazil side. Throughout this tenure he remained in touch with his family, sending them money regularly.
By the time he returned to Inter in 2003, Adriano was well established as a dangerous threat in Serie A. It was over the next three years that he would prove himself to be one of the best in the world. Scoring 65 goals in three seasons, and 26 in his annus mirabilis in 2004-05 alone, at times he was nigh-unstoppable. Standing at 6’3, Adriano retained a sure touch and skill on the ball that would shame many diminutive playmakers, let alone giant target men. His pace, power, short and long range finishing and lethal ability from set-pieces made him a shoo-in for both Brazil and Inter and earned him the nickname ‘L’Emperatore’ – the Emperor.
With his career going well, it was the death of his beloved father Almir in late 2004 that shook him to the core. Almir was not just his father, but also a mentor and an inspiration. Adriano publically said that making his father happy was probably his major motivation for playing. After his death, Adriano tried throwing himself into his football, but to no avail. Towards the end of the 2005/06 season, his performances tailed off. He regularly skived off training to sleep off the affects of hangovers, and went partying every night. He became visibly overweight.
Adriano later admitted the huge impact his father’s death had on his career. “My dad always supported me. He liked to watch me play. Without him I started to drown all my problems in alcohol. I was drinking heavily and couldn’t not go out.” His decline was precipitous. From being first choice for both club and country, Adriano was sent on unpaid leave to Sao Paulo in order to get himself in shape in late 2007, before the deal later turning into a loan. Although he did relatively well, his behaviour continued to be bad, and he returned to Inter earlier than expected.
He began the season in fine fettle, raising hopes that the old Adriano was back. Unfortunately for Nerazzurri fans, he couldn’t keep it up, and after going missing once again after an international break there were widespread fears that something bad had happened. Rumours surfaced that he had been kidnapped or even killed, but eventually Adriano re-emerged in Brazil, giving a shock press conference. The once-unstoppable forward was retiring at football aged 27.
“For now I’m quitting, I no longer find any joy in playing. I lost the will to train, for now I no longer want to play. I don’t want to return to Italy, I want to live in peace here in Brazil. I’m not sick, I only want to live here in Brazil happily with my family.”
It was now clear that Adriano was a broken man, fallen out of love with the game that made him. Many wished him well in his retirement, but it wasn’t long before he was back on the field once more. Only two weeks after he rescinded his contract with Inter, Adriano signed for his boyhood club Flamengo. It was immediately apparent how much happier he was back in his home, and he scored 19 goals in 30 appearances to reawaken memories of the Adriano of old. With his head seemingly sorted and enjoying football again, in 2010 he signed for Roma. His time was blighted by injury, and his return to Italy was an unhappy one, only making eight appearances and not scoring once. Roma were quite happy to tear up his contract after one year, leaving him without a club once more.
Adriano now stands at a crossroads. The recently retired Ronaldo used his considerable influence at the club in order to get Adriano signed up to a one-year contract, even though new signing Liedson is performing excellently. It remains to be seen whether Adriano can once more enjoy his football and tap into his mighty potential, but there are signs that he could yet come good. Adriano seemed easygoing and happy at his press conference, laughing and joking with reporters, and for a man so bound up in his emotions whilst playing that can only be a good thing. His ambition is to play for Brazil once more: there is not a football fan who wouldn’t want him to.