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Football News: What Should Have Been: Part 1 - Adriano

What Should Have Been: Part 1 - Adriano
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What Should Have Been - Part 1 - Adriano L'Imperatore

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This is an article series that has been requested a number of times, but this particular one on Adriano even more so:

Just a suggestion for an article for ed001 or maybe even MK. Perhaps an article or two about a player who was good but should have been great and didn't reach their full potential. Sort of like fallen stars of the game. Doesn't have to be Liverpool related. Adriano springs to mind as an example for instance. Anyway, just a a suggestion and keep up the great work all of you. - This post was sent in so long ago I forgot to note who sent it in sorry!

Ed the best players that never where. Through injury, life style or the club they where at. Who should of won he ballon dore if not for the Ronaldo Messi era. - Kloppsboss from the Liverpool site

Hi ed01. Just thought I would ask for you to do a report on Adriano. When I watched him for those 5 seasons in Italy I thought he was a Ronaldo on steroids. How good was he in his peak and what went wrong? - Browgun1982 from the Arsenal site

Ed001. What about something about talent that went wrong. Was talking with a mate about George Green a young talent with issues that got in the way of a promising career. There are many other player examples you could use. Thanks - Tedster from the Everton site


Adriano is, in part, remembered for being incredible on video games made around a certain period, as he seemed to be about as good as it got in every area of an attacker's play. It was not just video gaming fantasy either, for a short period he really was special. He was often described as being a combination of Zlatan and the Brazilian Ronaldo. He had pace, skill, strength, height, pretty much everything. Then it was all over for him, pretty much over night.

Adriano Leite Ribeiro was born in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro on 17th February 1982 and was obsessed with football from a young age: "I trained and practiced it [his shot] since I was a child. I always used to break doors and things in the house, it drove my mother crazy. So she decided to take me to Flamengo, to enrol in a soccer school. Although we had to pay for it, and my father knew we had no money and we couldn't afford it. However, my mother Rosilda did not deny me that dream: she told my father that our aunt could help us pay for it. That was a lie for the good of us all, and she started an extra job selling sweets on the street."

A few months later came an incident that changed everything: "I was ten years old, and on one seemingly normal afternoon I suddenly heard the hiss of bullets whistling in the street. One of them lodged in my dad's head, Almir. Hit by chance, by accident." While his dad was in hospital he would have to help out the family and earn money shining shoes on the street corner. His days became a blur of school, training with Flamengo, shining shoes, all while waiting for his father to come home. When his dad did come home, he still had a bullet lodged in his skull that doctors had been unable to remove.

In those days in Flamengo's youth team, where he started out as a left-back, that he set his aims in life. He wanted to "repay my parents. I had a clear aim: to buy a house for my family." He was promoted to the youth team proper in 1999 and less than a year later he was promoted to the first team squad, making his debut on 2nd February 2000. Four days later he scored his first ever goal in professional football against Sao Paulo.

Flamengo knew they had a real talent on their hands and he signed a 2 year contract with the club in June 2000. He was still only 18 when his Brazil debut came on 15th November 2000 in a game against Colombia. Already he was being targeted by European clubs. When a move to Europe did come about, it was a very convoluted deal involving a number of other players.

Inter Milan had signed Vampeta in 2000, expecting him to be a new superstar but he flopped and they agreed a co-ownership deal with Paris Saint-Germain very soon after. In the summer of 2001 both clubs had already given up on Vampeta and so a swap deal with Flamengo came about. Flamengo got Vampeta, PSG received Reinaldo, while Inter netted Adriano, who was valued at just over £10m in the deal. He joined an Internationale side that already had one great Brazilian striker, in the shape of Ronaldo, and Christian Vieri.

Adriano found himself being welcomed with open arms by Ronaldo, who helped the youngster, who spoke no Italian, to settle: "I also remember that Ronaldo welcomed me very well, even at home. At the beginning I was living in a hotel, then he asked me if I wanted to move to his house." Pre-season saw him quickly announce his arrival with a hammer blow free kick from the edge of the box against Real Madrid in a friendly and he quickly drew comparisons with his compatriot Ronaldo. Despite this, Inter were not sure he was ready to push either Ronaldo or Vieri for a first team place and sent him to Fiorentina on loan.

His impact was immediate and soon Adriano was drawing comparisons to Ronaldo, with the pair being similar physically, though Adriano was taller and stronger. His skill and pace stood comparison with with compatriot, his left foot could be a hammer that smashes the ball home one second but the next it was capable of a subtle chip. His excellence was such that a 2-year co-ownership deal with Parma was agreed in return for Inter getting Fabio Cannavaro and the other half of Matteo Ferrari. He had very nearly joined Manchester City instead, the deal was done and he was set to sign until Massimo Moratti blocked it as he did not want the young Brazilian to leave permanently.

At Parma, Adriano formed a prolific strike partnership with Adrian Mutu, scoring 22 goals in 36 appearances. The end of that season he started to look like fulfilling his potential with Brazil too. After scoring his first goal for his country in a friendly against Nigeria, he then led the South Americans attack with Ronaldinho in the 2003 Confederation Cup, as Ronaldo was out with an injury. Adriano scored two goals in three matches there, before returning to club competition and scoring eight in his first nine games of the 2003/4 season for Parma, despite the loss of Mutu.

Inter were quick to agree a deal to bring him back in January of 2004, despite competition from the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and Real Madrid. Adriano had been made very welcome by all at the club when he first signed in 2001. Fellow Brazilian striker Ronaldo, who Adriano often drew comparisons with, even offered to let him live in his house when he found out the youngster was living in a hotel. Club owner Massimo Moratti was like a father figure to him and Javier Zanetti was someone Adriano respected greatly, so it is little wonder he made the choice to return over the other offers available.

That summer, after his return to Inter, Adriano led the Brazilian attack in the Copa America. Adriano had already managed to score 12 goals for Inter in the second half of the season. He was key as Brazil reached the final and his stoppage time equaliser took the game to penalties, where he scored the first as Brazil won the shootout. On top of that he won the Golden Boot with 7 goals. After the final Adriano said: "This title belongs to my father. He is my great friend in life; my partner. Without him I am nothing."

Adriano's performances were such that they led Pele to say: "He's one of the best strikers around now and what's amazing is that he can get a lot better still." The comparisons with his compatriot Ronaldo were growing, the two had similar physiques, though Adriano was taller and stronger. Like Ronaldo, he could perform magic with the ball at his feet and his left foot could smash the ball with the force of a cannon but his technique was such that he could also play the soft chip over a keeper. Adriano had arguably developed into the perfect striker, with pace, strength, height and skill.

Just nine days after the Copa America final, everything changed for Adriano. "He got a phone call from Brazil, '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," remembers Javier Zanetti. Almir had been ill for some time but it was still a shock to Adriano to lose his father, who he had been exceptionally close to. "Football, goals, excitement. However, bad news knows how to hurt like a bullet. It can come suddenly and change your life. August 2004, Bari. I was on the bus with my teammates and my cellphone rang: 'Papa Almir is dead'. I thought it was a nightmare. I hoped it was. I can't describe my despair right then. I've never felt such awful, unbearable pain in my life. I rushed back to Milan looking for a flight. All I felt was suffocating anguish and a longing for Rio de Janeiro. Off I went, to Rome, then Brazil. Only I know how much I suffered. My dad's death left an irreparable void in my life," said Adriano later.

"I played with great champions. I played with players that were already.... wow. I played with players that I saw were a talent and became.... wow, but the one I felt could do it longer , and he didn't do it, was Adriano when I was at Inter. He could shoot from every angle, nobody could tackle him, nobody could take the ball, he was a pure animal." - Zlatan Ibrahimovic

"At that time, I only felt happy when I drank. I could only sleep if I drank. My coach, Roberto Mancini, and my teammates 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." It was not a recipe for a great player to remain great, though initially he continued to play well and score goals, it gradually began to affect his game detrimentally. Inter tried their best to keep him happy but his off field conduct was becoming more and more of a problem. Dunga dropped him from the Brazil sqaud, asking him to "change his behaviour" and to "focus on football", but his pleas fell on deaf ears.

Adriano's form began to plummet and he was regularly caught out partying in nightclubs when he should have been at home, twice on the night before games. Then, on 18 February 2007, Roberto Mancini's patience with him wore thin after Adriano skipped training due to a lengthy celebration of his birthday the night before, and Mancini dropped him to the bench. For a second time in just 18 months, Moratti sent him on unpaid leave to Brazil to sort himself out in November. Adriano spent a lot of time at Sao Paulo's training centre while in Brazil, trying to battle his alcoholism and regain some sort of fitness, as he was completely out of shape by this point.

Adriano wanted to leave Inter and return to Brazilian football, but interference from his agent stopped moves from happening. In December Thaksin Shinawatra's Manchester City made a move to bring him in to the club during the January transfer window. Eventually a deal was arranged for him to join Sao Paulo on loan for the rest of the season. After his unveiling there were huge lines of fans queueing up to buy his shirt and the move looked to have some promise after Adriano notched two goals on his debut. But it all started to go pear-shaped there too and in February 2008 he was sent off for a headbutt on Santos full-back Domingo. He could have been banned for anything up to 18 months, but was given just a 2-game suspension.

Later in the same month Adriano arrived late for training and then walked out early. On the way out he got himself into a verbal altercation with a photographer and the club fined him. Sao Paulo's sporting directors Marco Aurelio Cunha and Carlos Augustus de Barros e Silva both made comments which, in essence, said good riddance and that the team would not miss him. The striker was sent back to Inter early.

The following season was a fresh start at Inter under new manager Jose Mourinho and it looked like Adriano might be back to something approaching his best as he racked up 14 goals in 20 appearances. It was shortlived and his behaviour once again began to deteriorate as he partied with Ronaldinho in Milan. By December, Mourinho had had enough and Adriano was given special dispensation to return to Brazil early for the winter break. He did return to Inter but then on 4th April 2009 Inter announced that Adriano had failed to return to the club after international duty. On the 24th he rescinded his contract with Inter and said: "I have lost the joy in playing football, I'm taking a break. I was not happy at Inter, correction, I was not happy in Milan. I've been pressured since I was 18, I need a break. I've decided to opt for my happiness and to be near my family."

Just over month later Adriano signed a one year deal with Flamengo, saying that it had to be Flamengo he joined or his grandmother would kill him. He was a key player as Flamengo won the league title. That tempted AS Roma to step in and agree a three-year contract with Adriano in June 2010. It quickly became clear that he was no longer the player he was and a long way from the player he could be and in March 2011 Roma terminated the deal.

As Tim Vickery explained, his motivation was gone: "For all his physical strength, there is something of the lost, sweet-eyed child in Adriano. It became apparent after the premature loss of his father. Adriano has confessed that he was terrified by the thought of becoming the man of the family. And there was something else: his great motivations to play football were to make his father happy and, of course, to make money. Now, with his father gone and his bank balance bulging, what was the point? The sacrifices of the life of an athlete, once part of his routine, were now an unbearable limitation. Why bother with training when he could drink, either to mourn the loss of his dad or to celebrate the fact that he could buy all the drink that he wanted. The tragedy, of course, is that their talent has a sell-by date. In a decade's time, someone like Adriano will be able to go where he likes, with whoever he likes to wherever he likes. But he will surely feel better about himself if he can legitimately believe that he took his footballing talent as far as it could go."

Despite his clear lack of motivation, there were still clubs willing to take a chance on such a talented player. On the 25th March 2011 Corinthians stepped in with a 1 year deal, but Adriano was not able to regain fitness before he ruptured his Achilles tendon on 19th April, ruling him out for 6 months. It was the beginning of October before he made his debut. However part of that was down to his lifestyle: "Adriano drank mostly beer - alcohol was more than enough. 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."

Corinthians won the league, then less than two weeks later 20-year-old Adriene Pinto accused him of accidentally shooting her in the hand while drunkenly playing with his bodyguard's gun. A few days later she changed her story to claim she had pulled the trigger, but it did not save Adriano's Corinthians career and he was released in March 2012. A few months later he returned to Flamengo, but a couple of months later they gave up on him and released him.

It was about 18 months before anyone else was willing to take a chance on him and on 11 February 2014 Adriano signed for Atletico Paranaense. Two months later they also released him after he was charged by Rio de Janeiro prosecutors over his alleged links to drug traffickers. He was accused of buying a motorcycle in 2007 that was later used by dealers in the Rio Favela that he grew up in. It is claimed that Adriano had blown his fortune on expensive hookers and parties and was forced to move his family back to the Rio Favela he was from. The motorbike was in return for protection from the Red Command gang. It was around this period that he was pictured posing with a gold-plated AK-47. The charges carried a potential sentence of up to 15 years in jail.

Despite the charges hanging over Adriano's head, National Premier Soccer League side Miami United signed him on 29 January 2016. In case you are wondering, the NPSL is considered the fourth tier league in the USA. Even there Adriano was unable to hack it and was released on 28th May. In 2018 Flamengo's president Eduardo Bandeira de Mello offered him a contract: "At the 2018 World Cup he will be 36 and he is still better than anyone else. Plus, Flamengo need an idol. But he did not accept."

Adriano has not played since Miami and is often seen in his old Rio Favela riding around on scooters with friends and handing out food to local kids. Though he has not completely left the party life behind according to his neighbour Carlos Almeida: "There are some parties every now and then, but they're much quieter than they used to be. 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 guy." The drug charges are no longer hanging over him and were dropped in November 2020 for lack of evidence.

Sadly the man who could have been king of the world, in football terms, with the ability to be the best striker the game had ever seen, is a case of unfulfilled potential. In his case it truly is a case of what should have been, rather than what could have been. For those who played PES in that era, they will remember a quick, powerful striker with a hammer of a left foot from the game. Except in real life he was even better, Adriano had it all except motivation and drive to succeed and shows how important those character traits are in a professional player. Even the best can end up throwing their career away without them.

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Written by Tris Burke June 01 2021 10:00:49


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