This time 15 years ago, Adriano Leite Ribeiro was on top of the world.

This was a footballer with the same awe-inspiring combination of blistering pace, startling power, nimble footwork and Pro Evo-approved thunderous shooting as the original Ronaldo, and he was getting a lot of people very excited. His form with Parma in the early stages of the 2003/04 season – eight goals in nine Serie A matches – was enough to earn him a big-money move to Inter, where he seemed destined to become one of the biggest stars in the game. It was all but inevitable.

Yet, despite the Nerazzurri winning four Serie A titles during Adriano’s stay there, his is another ‘what if?’ story.

After years of living a lifestyle perhaps not suited to an elite sportsman, he now spends most of his time at home in Barra da Tijuca, an upper-class region to the west of Rio de Janeiro. Sometimes he visits friends in Vila Cruzeiro, the northern Rio favela where he grew up. That’s when he looks happiest, riding around on scooters with his friends and handing out free Big Macs to local kids.

Adriano is now 36, but still resembles a child – albeit one who is slightly better behaved than he once was. “There are some parties every now and then, but they’re much quieter than they used to be,” says engineer Carlos Almeida, one of his neighbours. “They used to get crazy, with dozens of people constantly coming and going, and neighbours complaining to the building manager. He’s toned it down. He’s a good boy now.”

That may not seem like noteworthy personal growth, but it represents quite a gear shift for a player who has been known to drink heavily; who has had more than one run-in with the police; and who was once photographed posing smugly with a gold-plated AK-47.

His friends tell FFT that he could yet make a professional comeback – two years after his single outing for lower-league American side Miami United – although it seems that few reputable clubs are as confident. He may have curbed his partying, but the belly he so proudly displays on his Instagram account suggests Adriano isn’t massively interested in training hard enough to give his career the spectacular ending that it warrants.

Adriano Flamengo

Staying on the straight and narrow long-term will prove tricky for the striker whose mental state, according to close friends, is a long way from that of the days when he would mercilessly power his way past terrified defenders and blast home long-range scorchers. The confidence and power that he displayed so readily during his peak years as a player have been replaced by self-doubt and lethargy.

So where did it all go so wrong for Adriano, a striker so powerful and deadly at his peak that he was nicknamed L’Imperatore – The Emperor – by the Italian media and public?

The moment things changed

One event more than any other transformed Adriano from Ronaldo’s heir to a shell of a man who barely kicked a ball after his 30th birthday. It was the death of his father.

In Lima on July 25, 2004, Adriano scored a dramatic stoppage-time equaliser in the Copa America final, with a powerful-yet-precise shot on the turn. Brazil beat Argentina in the subsequent penalty shootout, with The Emperor setting the tone by coolly stroking home their first spot-kick. There was only one man he wanted to pay tribute to after the match. “This title belongs to my father,” he sobbed. “He is my great friend in life; my partner. Without him I am nothing.”

Adriano Brazil

His father, Almir, had recently been suffering from ill health. Nine days after his son’s moment of glory in Peru, he died of a heart attack, aged 45. It hit the 22-year-old forward like a freight train.

“Adriano had a father who looked after him a lot and kept him in line,” former Inter team-mate Javier Zanetti said in an interview last year. “But then something unimaginable happened: he got a call from Brazil and was told that his father had died.

“I saw him cry. He threw the phone down and started screaming. From that day on, [Inter chairman Massimo] Moratti and I decided to take him in like a brother and protect him.”

In the immediate aftermath of that final, Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira had seemed shocked by just how brilliantly Adriano had performed. “He will be making history in football,” said Parreira. “He will play in the next three World Cups, for sure.” Instead, Adriano’s career was soon completely derailed. He may have been partying every night, but he didn’t have much to celebrate.  

No sleep ‘til training

“At that time, I only felt happy when I drank,” Adriano said in a 2017 interview. “I could only sleep if I drank. My [Inter] coach, Roberto Mancini, and my team-mates noticed that I was hungover when I arrived for training. And I feared arriving too late, so I didn’t sleep and went to training still drunk. I slept in the medical department and Inter had to tell journalists that I had muscular pain.”

Try as they might, his team-mates just couldn’t help him to cope.

“He kept playing football, scoring goals and pointing to the sky, dedicating them to his father,” said Zanetti. “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?’ But we didn’t ever succeed in pulling him out of depression.”

Adriano Milan derby

Adriano was still struggling to refocus on his game when the biggest opportunity in his career rolled around two years later.

Just days before Brazil travelled to Germany for the 2006 World Cup – a competition for which they were favourites, thanks to a glittering array of talent that included Ronaldinho, Kaka and Adriano himself – he put on a shindig for his pals. “It was at a club called Quebra Mar, near the future site of Rio’s Olympic Park,” a longtime friend of his recalls to FFT. “We were all excited for Didico [Adriano’s nickname among his closest friends] – we expected him to be the top scorer in Germany, win the World Cup and carry the trophy around our favela when he returned home. He was still mostly a shy, quiet boy, but to us he was a hero in the making.”

The venue was selected because it was deemed safe for those members of Adriano’s inner circle who had criminal records due to drug trafficking. Some were in the Comando Vermelho (Red Command), one of Brazil’s biggest criminal gangs. Adriano had known them since childhood, when they’d played football barefoot on the streets of Vila Cruzeiro. But while he’d risen to be Emperor, many of his old friends entered a life of crime, and one particularly close to him was allegedly involved in a fatal police shooting.

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Such drama has taken its toll, both psychologically and emotionally.

“Depression and alcohol have been part of his life since those days,” continues his childhood friend, who prefers not to be named. “And now he’s more lonely than ever. His Instagram account may show him surrounded by people all of the time, but he is alone. He is mostly quiet. He lost the joy of playing football long ago.”

The 2006 World Cup should have cemented Adriano’s status as one of the game’s greats. Instead, he was a shadow of himself. He found the net twice, against Australia and Ghana, but barely touched the ball in Brazil’s quarter-final defeat to France.

Adriano was just 24 years old, yet he would make only 12 more appearances for his country, and 156 more in competitive club football. It was already the beginning of the end.

Adriano scored only six goals for Inter in 2006/07 and started 2007/08 just as slowly. Sensing the striker needed a change of scenery, Moratti sent him back to Brazil on unpaid leave. He trained with Sao Paulo and eventually agreed to join on loan for the rest of the season: he scored twice on debut, and fans queued around the block to buy replica shirts.

New setting, same story

But things went downhill fast. He was sent off for headbutting Santos full-back Domingos, then fined by his club for arriving late to training and getting into a heated exchange with a photographer. He returned to Inter early but was back in Brazil in 2009, though this time with far more success, scoring 19 goals as Flamengo secured a first national title in 17 years. Roma took the bait and lured him back to Europe, only for his spell to last just seven months and eight appearances.

Adriano’s last great moment came with Corinthians in November 2011. He’d actually joined in March, and was seen once again as the heir to Ronaldo, recently retired. Perhaps it was grimly fitting that he immediately faced a lengthy layoff with a ruptured Achilles tendon. And, unable to strike fear into opposition defenders and goalkeepers, Adriano once again sought solace in his other passion: partying.

Adriano

One friend, nicknamed Alemao, tells FFT that this time it was above board… relatively speaking. “Adriano drank mostly beer – alcohol was more than enough,” he says, rejecting claims that drug-taking was rife at these gatherings. “There were all sorts of drinks, women we had never seen before and a sense that he would still be able to deliver great performances once he got back, even though he was clearly overweight and depressed.

“Sometimes the parties would be in his apartment, but Corinthians kept an eye on what was happening there, so sometimes we went to nightclubs. One morning, the club had arranged for him to have a physiotherapy session at home, but he missed it because we were still out from the night before.”

Back on the up

And yet, when Adriano finally returned after six months out, he was just in time to score his first Corinthians goal: a stoppage-time winner against Atletico Mineiro that put his club within a whisker of the title.

Played in by Emerson Sheik, the striker appeared to have let the ball run too far as he rapidly approached the goal-line wide of the six-yard box. But, summoning the Adriano of old, he unleashed a left-foot howitzer from an acute angle, cannoning the ball off the far post and into the net. He celebrated by vaulting the advertising hoardings and clumsily removing his shirt to expose a less-than-trim figure.

The strike won over any Corinthians fans still sceptical about his signing. Barely two weeks after the club were crowned champions, however, The Emperor lost his new groove.

Having left a Rio nightclub in the early hours, Adriano was accused by 20-year-old Adriene Pinto of accidentally shooting her in the hand while drunkenly playing with his bodyguard’s gun. A few days later she changed her story, saying it was she who’d pulled the trigger. Regardless, Adriano was back in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

The comeback emperor?

Adriano Flamengo

Now, after a couple of years away from the game, is there time for an unlikely last hurrah? Leo Moura, a title-winning team-mate of his at Flamengo, still believes that Adriano could make a comeback with the Rubro-Negro. “I feel that he wants to play again,” Moura tells FFT. “He might be a little out of shape, but he has moderated his bad habits and deserves a chance to end his career on a high.”

Brazil coach Tite, however, isn’t so certain that a return to competitive football is the answer. The 57-year-old was Corinthians boss during Adriano’s brief stay at the club and has previously said he feels the centre-forward is unfairly scrutinised by the press, and pressured by those fans who insist he should play again, regardless of his mental state. As such, he is reluctant to talk too extensively about his former charge, telling FFT only that, “One of the big frustrations of my career is failing to help Adriano get back to his top performances.”  

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Adriano’s presence at a Corinthians match in August triggered rumours of a return, but club president Andres Sanchez – who had signed L’Imperatore a few years earlier – quickly put out that fire: “He was just being courteous and visiting; he is always welcome here.”

Despite the spurned chances and ‘errors of judgement’, there’s still a lot of love for Adriano in Brazil, and a real will for him to go out on the right note. He couldn’t claim to have been a model professional at all times, but circumstances have worked against him, too. “I have never hurt anyone,” he said in 2017. “The only person I hurt is myself.”

Many argue that Adriano deserves to go out with a bang. And given he’s got a foot like a traction engine, there’s always a chance.

This feature originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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