An embodiment of an era, Adriano Leite Ribeiro’s meteoric rise coincided with a grand epoch in Italian football. He was already on his way to featuring on the cover of video games in 2003, as the Champions League hosted an all-Italian final at Old Trafford.
Transfer records were being broken and the world’s hottest footballing prospects had their eye on eventually reaching the pinnacle of domestic football. Before the plethora of deception was revealed, even before Fabio Grosso’s decisive kick sent Fabien Barthez and his fellow countrymen packing, the Serie A played host to footballing royalty.
Then there was “The Emperor,” he came through that revolving door to the Serie A, designated for talented Brazilian’s coming in or indeed heading out of Italy. It was Vampeta trudging through the same door in the opposite direction that opened up a move for Adriano. His initial arrival didn’t set the world alight as he was shipped to Florence for his apprenticeship in Italian football.
Only 20 at the time, his stint in Florence is not well-remembered but did serve as a pivotal learning curve as the youngster found the net 6 times in 15 games.
His return to his parent club Inter offered the Italian giants an opportunity they felt was too good to turn down. They utilized the excitement a young Adriano had generated in prizing Fabio Cannavaro from Parma. After using the leverage secured from allowing Adriano to move to Parma, they capitalized on Parma’s financial struggles in capturing Cannavaro. Inter’s loss was Parma’s gain, for the moment at least.
He was quick to show his prowess as he built a serious striking partnership with Adrian Mutu, conjuring 33 goals between them in their first and only season together.
It was Adriano’s second season at Parma that forced Inter to rectify an error in their transfer dealings. With Mutu having already left to join Chelsea, Adriano led the front line in blistering fashion, scoring eight in nine. That was enough. Inter came early, understanding the longer they took the more they would have to pay as the Brazilian’s worth was only just beginning its trajectory.
The impact was instant. Adriano arrived at the San Siro in January and simply picked up where he’d left off at Parma. It was not long before he was ordained as the heir to Ronaldo, the biggest star to come out of Brazil in the modern era. The first six months of his grand return at Inter Milan cemented a starting place in the Seleção and it was while on international duty that the first signs of vulnerability of this almighty talent began to appear.
Big players rise in big moments, that has always been an epithet in football. There is no grander sporting moment for a Brazilian athlete than to compete at an international final against fierce rivals Argentina. This moment came for Adriano in the Copa America in Lima, Peru on the 25th of July, 2004.
With Brazil on the cusp of a loss that would have been difficult to swallow, they regain the ball deep into stoppage time. Kaka can do nothing but loft a hopeful ball into a packed 16 yard box, late in the 93rd minute. The ball bobbles. The most renowned limb in world football reels the ball in, as Adriano hammers in the equalizer. The swinging lights, the flashing yellow. Adriano runs topless, swinging tee in hand. The ensuing penalty shoot-out was only going to herald one victor.
“This title belongs to my father,” he sobbed. “He is my great friend in life; my partner. Without him I am nothing.” These were Adriano’s words after Brazil were crowned champions in the Copa America.
Not long after his return to domestic duty, Adriano received the earth shattering news. “He got a phone call from Brazil,” Javier Zanetti, former teammate and club captain, remembers. “’Adri, dad is dead’. I saw him in his room, he threw the phone and started screaming. You couldn’t imagine that kind of scream.”
This wasn’t the end for The Emperor, big moments still arrived and he greeted them signaling to the sky in memory of his hero- his father, but it was the beginning of it. The goals at Inter began slowly but surely drying up, a chronological decline in his ability to find the net in his four years at Inter.
His teammates tried to prize him from the lull he was in. Fellow South American Ivan Cordoba, offering him forgotten comparisons to Brazilian footballing royalty, showing him what the world knew; that he could be the very best there is. It was not enough.
“Adriano has confessed that he was terrified by the thought of becoming the man of the family,” Tim Vickery wrote. This fear no doubt contributed to the downturn in the premature autumn of Adriano’s career.
The years that followed showed a predictable drop in form, a back and forth through the aforementioned revolving door, a move to his boyhood club Flamengo, and after a brief period of hope in Brazil, once more flailing into mediocrity.
The statistics that surround Adriano’s career, such as 77 Serie A goals in 180 games, do not paint an accurate picture, especially when just 10 of those goals arrived after his 24th birthday. Instead, it is the popular videos, the gaming equivalent or even the stories people recount about the left foot easily mistaken for a heatseeker, the roulette and nutmeg that left Valencia’s David Navarro wonder whether he’d chosen the right profession. A golden period at Inter that allowed the world, just a for a brief moment, to look longingly at what could have been.
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