Personal problems meant Adriano never truly fulfilled his potential, but anyone that saw him play during his heyday would agree he’s still well worthy of celebration.
Brazil has never been short of talented, if occasionally wayward, attacking players. Yet even among the exalted company of the national team, Adriano was something special.
A powerhouse striker with pace, skill and one of the hardest shots in football, he could have been a world-beater but for desperately unfortunate family circumstances.
Born and raised in Vila Cruzeiro, one of Rio de Janeiro’s many favelas and shantytowns, Adriano was reserved, focused only on football.
Home to gangsters, drug runners and families just trying to get by, the environment he grew up in instilled him with a quiet resolve and determination to be the best. He practised relentlessly and was picked up by Flamengo. By 17 he was in the first team.
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One of the grandest and traditionally most successful clubs in the country, Flamengo’s glamour had faded somewhat since their irresistible dominance of the late 70s and early 80s, when Zico was the lynchpin of a golden era. The legendary midfielder had stayed until he was 30, returning after a brief Italian jaunt with Udinese.
But since then a great economic shift had changed the power dynamics of club football, and with it the expected career paths of South American superstars-in-waiting. By the end of the century, the process was accelerated and promising young players were transferred to Europe sooner than ever before.
Adriano was one of them. He lasted just a year in the Flamengo first team, scoring 16 goals in total, before Inter Milan came calling.
He would go on to spend the bulk of an often fraught, briefly exceptional, but always compelling career in Serie A.
As with many teenage signings by top clubs, Inter were keen for Adriano to continue his development elsewhere. He went on loan to Fiorentina and then moved on to Parma as part of a co-ownership deal, which saw Fabio Cannavaro head the other way.
In that latter spell, Adriano was electric. He formed a prolific strike partnership with the more creatively-minded Adrian Mutu and frightened opponents with his directness and physicality.
There were echoes of a pre-injury Ronaldo as he shrugged defenders off with ease, or else swatted them aside on another barrelling run towards goal.
The deal with Parma was ended prematurely in January 2004, with Adriano already on eight goals from nine league appearances.
His impressive performances continued back at Inter. From that summer onwards something clicked, and for an all-too-short period, he was virtually unstoppable.
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First he led Brazil to the Copa America title, scoring seven goals, including a precious last-minute equaliser in the final against Argentina, which was eventually won on penalties.
It was no ordinary goal. With the final whistle imminent, a loose ball fell to Adriano in the area, which he flicked up, pivoted and thumped low into the bottom corner.
He picked up the Golden Boot and Player of the Tournament awards for his efforts – a precursor to the best season of his career.
With confidence high, and his rocket launcher of a left foot firing on all cylinders, he struck 28 goals in all competitions for Inter in 2004-05.
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There was a first half hat-trick in a 5-0 demolition of Messina and another at home to Porto, ensuring Inter’s progress to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Adriano scored his first inside five minutes, picking up on a stray pass, accelerating past a defender and seeing his deflected shot loop up over Vitor Baia.
He was later slid through by Julio Cruz and stabbed another effort high into the net with the outside of his foot before putting the tie to bed late on. Released down the right, he cut inside the covering defender and wrapped the ball perfectly into the bottom corner.
At that time, Adriano was the best striker in the world. He could do everything.
In the first leg of the Coppa Italia final against Roma, for example, he rattled one in from 35 yards and then rose above his marker to head in powerfully from a free-kick.
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Adriano was adept at scoring direct from them too, thundering the ball in from distance. Subtlety was never his strong point as a finisher, but it rarely needed to be when he could strike with such targeted ferocity.
Although opponents would know he was keen to shift the ball onto his preferred side and get a shot away, they could do little about it. Many simply had to stand and admire as he did so.
Adriano was once more devastatingly good at the 2005 Confederations Cup in Germany, bagging a brace against the hosts in the semi-final.
Two more goals followed in the final itself as Argentina were comprehensively beaten. He opened the scoring by hurdling one tackle and thrashing his shot high into the net. Another came in the second half via a bullet header from Cicinho’s cross.
He seemed unstoppable – the true heir to Ronaldo, one of the greatest strikers of all time when in full flight, who was now heavy and leaden-footed. On the pitch, nothing could go wrong, but all was not well off it.
Adriano’s father had died suddenly and unexpectedly in August 2004, shortly after the Copa America final. Although not immediately apparent in his play, the loss had devastated him. He started drinking and partying to excess, desperate to block everything out.
He would routinely miss training, or else turn up drunk, and struggled to regain that unwavering focus that had carried him so far.
There were still glimpses of Adriano’s ability, but nowhere near as consistently. Having signed a long-term contract in September 2005 as reward for an excellent year, his performances soon went downhill. Inter were left covering for his erratic behaviour.
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Javier Zanetti recently said being unable to help Adriano overcome his difficulties was the “biggest defeat” of his career.
“When he had the phone call about the death of his father, we were in the room,” Zanetti told Tuttomercatoweb.
“He thumped the phone [back on the hook] and began screaming in a way that one can’t imagine. It still shivers me today.
“From that day, Massimo Moratti and I treated him as a younger brother.
“He continued to play football, scoring and dedicating his goals to his father by pointing to the sky. But after that phone call, nothing was the same as before.
“One night, Ivan Cordoba shared a room with him and told him he was a mix between Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and asked him if he was aware that he would become the world’s best.
“We weren’t able to pull him out of the tunnel of depression. That was my biggest defeat, I felt powerless.”
Adriano became a more peripheral figure for both his club and national team. He scored twice at the 2006 World Cup but was no longer an automatic starter, beginning the quarter-final loss to France on the substitutes’ bench and later being dropped from Dunga’s squad entirely.
In 2008, when he should have been at the peak of his powers, Adriano went on loan to São Paulo in search of home comforts and a sense of belonging. He fleetingly recovered his form, both there and at Flamengo who he joined a year later, but the addiction and depression brought on by his father’s death, and attempts to suppress the memory of it, were constant barriers.
Adriano’s return to Serie A with Roma failed terribly, and his contract was terminated after seven months. He has played just 12 matches since, for Corinthians, Atlético Paranaense and lowly American club Miami United.
His retirement has never been officially announced but at 35 Adriano seems unlikely to play again.
He is now back in Brazil and claims to feel happier and healthier than he has for a long time. While it’s tempting to wonder what might have been for someone so talented, some things are simply more important than football.
By Sean Cole
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