How A Family Tragedy Stopped Adriano From Becoming An All-Time Great
Teammates at Inter Milan called him a mix between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Brazilian Ronaldo - but just as he was reaching his peak, heartbreaking news changed Adriano's life forever.
"He got a phone call from Brazil: 'Adri, dad is dead'," said Inter legend Javier Zanetti of pre-season training in 2004. "I saw him in his room, he threw the phone and started screaming. You couldn't imagine that kind of scream... I get goosebumps even to this day."
The striker had become a national hero just weeks earlier. An injury-time equaliser in a Copa America final against Argentina ultimately led to Brazil's victory. It was a standard Adriano screamer - turning to rifle the ball home with a left foot that could either be a magic wand or a rocket launcher.
It was the stuff of childhood dreams, shortly before the phone call of childhood nightmares.
Adriano was 22 when a heart-attack took the life of his father who'd suffered from poor health, not helped by years spent with a bullet lodged in his skull. Rio's dangerous Vila Cruzeiro favela was home for the family, but Adriano had used his talent to build a new life for himself in Italy.
Fiorentina, Parma and Inter fans all marvelled at the strength, pace, skill and heatseeker finishing that saw Adriano nicknamed L'Imperatore (the Emperor). Even after his father's death, he continued to dazzle in Milan - but as Zanetti knew, his teammate's life was secretly going off the rails.
"He kept playing football, scoring goals and pointing to the sky, dedicating them to his father," Zanetti told Tutto Mercato. "But after that phone call, nothing was the same. Ivan Cordoba spent one night with him and said, 'Adri, you're a mix of Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Are you aware that you could become the best player ever?'"
Zlatan talking about the most talented player he's played with:point_down:
"When I came to Inter Milan, the first thing I said to the president was 'I demand him to stay' because he is the player I want to play with."
Happy 38th birthday, Adriano. :flag_br:pic.twitter.com/Qoy8YZepDi
- SPORTbible (@sportbible) February 17, 2020
Adriano couldn't be consoled. "The death of my father left a huge void in me," he later admitted to Brazilian magazine R7. "I was alone, sad and depressed in Italy and that's when I started drinking."
"I did not know how to hide it because I was drunk even at training," he said of the beer, wine, whiskey and vodka binges that took over his life. "I was completely drunk. They took me to the infirmary to sleep and then the club told the press that I had muscular problems."
Inter covered for their star by inventing injuries but nobody could hide the crushing disappointment of the 2006 World Cup. Brazil's 'magic square' featured three Ballon d'Or winners - Ronaldo, Kaka and Ronaldinho - plus another player who seemed destined for the award.
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But Adriano was notably chunkier than he'd been at the Copa America two years earlier. He scored twice but he and his teammates failed to spark the magic as Brazil limped out in the quarter-finals. A year later, he was back in Brazil on unpaid leave as Inter desperately tried to help their homesick and troubled star.
It was the beginning of the end. There was a return to Inter, a brief spell at Roma, plus false starts - and fleeting moments of glory - at various Brazilian sides. Clubs were willing to take a risk on such a magnificent talent, but he'd never fulfil even part of his potential.
Pictures emerged of him in Rio favelas, clearly overweight. In some he was surrounded by members of a notorious criminal gang. Yet despite his drinking - and a run-in with the police - those who know him best say Adriano is a shy, withdrawn figure; one who retreated to the favela because this was where he'd grown up and felt most comfortable.
Adriano has just turned 39 - younger than Ibrahimovic, who's still scoring in Serie A today. But he hasn't played a game in seven years, while the last of his 48 Brazil caps was over a decade ago. Despite the four Serie A titles, the 27 international goals, the Brazilian league titles, Adriano's career actually peaked just as we all thought it was blazing into life.
"This title belongs to my father," he said through tears after the Copa America triumph of 2004. "He is my great friend in life; my partner. Without him I am nothing."
It turns out, in a purely football sense, Adriano was right. Without his father, he could never find the stability and motivation to complete what should have been one of the all-time great careers.
Featured image credit: PA Images
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