Adriano: Inter’s Brazilian superstar who flew too close to the sun

The story of Icarus and his father, Daedalus, is one of recklessness that results in a tragic fall from grace. It also provoked the idiom “Don’t fly too close to the sun.”

In the mid-00s, Adriano Leite Ribeiro was the latest poster boy for Brazilian football. Game developers at Pro Evolution Soccer gave the striker a shot rating of 99 – partly due to his infamous left foot, but also because he was Konami executive Shingo Takatsuka’s favourite player.

Adriano’s route from the Vila Cruzeiro favela in Rio de Janeiro – an area engulfed in crime and poverty, governed by heavily armed drug traffickers – to the pinnacle of the national game wasn’t unfamiliar. For many Brazilian superstars the road from rags to riches was like a rite of passage.

In 2002, the area was the scene of the barbaric kidnap and murder of Brazilian investigative journalist Tim Lopes. Lopes had his limbs hacked by a samurai sword before being burnt to death in a shallow grave, his body covered in tyres and gasoline in a practice dubbed micro-ondas (microwaves).

The crime highlighted the existence of poder paralelo (parallel power) where criminals control areas of Rio with impunity, leaving football as the only hope of escape for many. Fame and fortune are welcome side effects of this liberation.

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Vila Cruzeiro favela in Rio de Janeiro

Growing up this way leaves its mark. The striving for money and status becomes an addiction that forces individuals to walk a thin line between stardom and self-implosion. This determination was apparent as 16-year-old Adriano emerged through the ranks at Brazilian club Flamengo, fighting his way into the first team within a year.

As a youngster Adriano was marked out for greatness and labelled ‘the next Ronaldo.’ This habit of burdening young prospects with the baton of implication from past talents is prevalent in South America.

His path, once littered with obstacles and negative influences, became clear as he followed in Il Fenomeno’s footsteps, signing for Internazionale at the age of 19. Ronaldo was arguably the greatest number nine in history and a Brazil and Nerazzurri legend, so expectations were high.

Ronaldo’s knee problems offered an early opportunity for the wonder kid who notched his first goal in a friendly against Real Madrid – a ferocious free kick that emphasised his power. However, the return of the two-time Ballon d’Or winner hindered the apprentice’s chances.

The glamour of Milan was far removed from the poverty of the favela and Adriano struggled to adapt. The robust defending in Serie A and lack of game time made adjustment more difficult. The boy dubbed the ‘Emperor’ needed minutes and a loan move to Fiorentina provided them.  His impressive performances for Viola prompted Parma to agree a two-year co-ownership package.

There, he formed a formidable partnership with Adrian Mutu (who later moved to Chelsea and failed a drugs test), scoring 22 goals in 36 appearances and reaffirming his reputation as one of the biggest talents in world football. The 22-year-old had the world at his feet and his old employers came calling. In January 2004, Inter parted with just over €23m to bring the left-footed star back to the San Siro.

Later that year, he fired his country to a seventh Copa America title, claiming the Golden Boot with a last gasp equaliser in the final against Argentina in Peru.

Adriano had emerged from the Brazilian production line with the expected technical abilities, but he offered something different. An imposing figure at the spearhead of the forward line, his muscular frame combined with deceptive pace, strength, balance and power made him unplayable on his day. Like the result of some genetic experiment to create the perfect modern striker.

Inter’s decision to exercise their buy-back option looked to have paid off as he continued his goal scoring form. He was now almost unrecognisable from the boy that departed for Fiorentina and Parma. He was enjoying his football and life in Milan. But then tragedy struck.

Moments before a UEFA Champions League qualifier against FC Basel, Adriano received a heart-breaking phone call. His beloved father Almir had passed away from a sudden illness aged just 44. The young man who had grown into an unstoppable force was suddenly halted in his tracks.

Former Inter teammate Javier Zanetti described the phone-call that changed everything: “Adriano had a father he was very attached to. Before the season, something shocking happened. He got a phone-call from Brazil: ‘Adi, dad is dead’… 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. Since that day [Massimo] Moratti and I watched over him, as if he was our little brother.”

The incident galvanised the striker for a while. He continued to score goals and played like a man possessed. This form brought more rewards including sponsorship deals and improved contract negotiations. However, the man he once turned to for advice, the one who told him not to fly too close to the sun, was gone.

Adriano began a downward spiral both personally and professionally. As his depression grew deeper, the negative influences that were once easily avoided became a relief from the darkness. He filled the void with addictive substances that impacted his form and fitness. His dependence on alcohol and drugs also affected his discipline. His poor form darkened his mood further and both the player and club suffered.

By 2007, Adriano hit a new low as he clashed with Inter officials and playing staff over his poor attitude and work ethic. The once unplayable superstar had become an intolerable burden. Missed training sessions following nightclub visits became too much, something had to give.

Despite the demons, there were glimpses of form, but his role at Inter became a lonely one. He was sent home on unpaid leave on a couple of occasions to ‘sort his head out’ and even spent a spell on loan at to Sao Paulo. But despite a goal in the Milan Derby in February 2009, his time at Inter was over. In April, he reported back late from international duty and eventually rescinded his contract with the club.

BRASILEIRO 2009/FLAMENGO X INTERNACIONAL

Adriano signed a one-year contract with his first club Flamengo. A decent goal return prompted Serie A side AS Roma to give the striker another opportunity in Italy. A three-year contract offered security, but demons continued to haunt him and he made just five appearances for the capital club.

Without his father’s pride or the need for money to motivate him, the Brazilian no longer felt the need to endure the sacrifices of a professional athlete, preferring instead to drink. He returned to Brazil in 2011 and made four appearances for Corinthians before being released from his contract.

In January 2016, another chance emerged as Adriano announced a sensational move to NPSL side Miami United which included a 40% shareholding in the club. However, his poor condition limited him to one official appearance before he drifted out of the spotlight again.

In 2018, rumours of another professional return surfaced when he embarked on a new training regime at Flamengo. However, the 35-year-old has yet to sign a deal at the club.

Burdened by unfair comparisons to past greats and crushed by deep personal pain, Adriano’s glittering career was set on a self-destructive path. As he soared higher, his recklessness and hubris took control and drew him ever closer to the sun, his sudden rise only surpassed by his dramatic descent into darkness.

“We weren’t able to pull him out of the tunnel of depression. That was my biggest defeat, I felt powerless.” Javier Zanetti.

Words by Harry Collins: @HarryCollins9

Image source (top): Alex Carvalho; (middle): Eduardo P; (bottom): Alex Carvalho