Adriano: The emperor whose reign was cut short by tragedy

Max Cooper
Inter Milan v Empoli
Inter Milan v Empoli / New Press/Getty Images

Adriano is only 39 years old. A decade has passed since one of the most promising and unplayable forces in football history quietly exited from the main stage, having not even celebrated his 30th birthday.

But how did L'Imperatore's demise escalate so dramatically?

Well, football, just like any other walk of life, is all about moments. Moments of luck, moments of genius, moments of despair. They all contribute to the bigger picture, and are often forgotten when we reflect on the brilliance or plights of our heroes and villains.

Serie A: Inter Milan v AC Milan
Serie A: Inter Milan v AC Milan / New Press/Getty Images

And the Emperor's reign in Europe emerged through another man's moment of misfortune. Inter had signed a South American talent by the name of Vampeta in 2000, and hopes were high that he could become a global star. Unfortunately he was simply not up to the task, and after making only one appearance at San Siro, I Nerazzurri were left feeling pretty shortchanged.

Having agreed part ownership of Vampeta with Paris Saint-Germain, the two giants sent him packing to Flamengo, and the Brazilian club offered the duo a player each in return. PSG were gifted a forward called Reinaldo, and Inter were handed a raw, up-and-coming unknown entity by the name of Adriano Leite Ribeiro.

If Vampeta had been as impressive as his moustache, then the future of world football could have been completely different.

But Vampeta's loss was most definitely our gain.

Adriano announced his arrival in Europe with a goal against none other than Real Madrid in a friendly, and this thunderous strike offered a glimpse of what we should come to expect in the near future.

Fiorentina v Roma X
Fiorentina v Roma X / Grazia Neri/Getty Images

Standing over a free-kick on the edge of the box, Adriano sized up his options, debating whether to go for power or placement - before clearly settling on harnessing both skills. The youngster lashed a devastating strike beyond a helpless - and probably fearful - Iker Casillas, and in less than a blink of an eye, he was off the mark.

According to the striker himself, that ball was travelling at 105 miles per hour as it assaulted the back of the net. I wouldn't argue with him, either.

And just like that, in one moment, with one fierce strike of a ball, the heir to Ronaldo's throne was born, primed to be crowned. But despite his heroics in Spain, Inter didn't feel that Adriano was ready to challenge their current superstar, and he was loaned to Fiorentina to learn his trade.

However, it quickly became apparent that the forward required little teaching. Adriano made such an instant impact with La Viola, that he was immediately drawing comparisons with the aforementioned Ronaldo - but his uncanny ability with both feet saw him tipped to surpass the exploits of his compatriot.

Adriano was very similar to Ronaldo in stature, although the former stood a couple of inches taller and possessed a sturdier, stockier frame than the latter. And it showed when the Emperor had the ball at his feet - once it was under his spell, there was simply no getting it off him.

The youngster was able to bounce free of challenges, bulldoze his way towards goal like an elegant wrecking ball, and there he was as lethal as he was imposing. For goalkeepers, facing up to an Adriano pile-driver was a living nightmare.

But Adriano had plenty of finishes in his locker, despite being remembered largely for his hammer of a left foot. The striker could leave the brute force aside when he fancied, and opt for a classy clip or ruthless slotted strike to humiliate his adversary.

Inter soon recalled their wonderkid from Florence, but having seemingly not learned their lesson, I Nerazzurri then sent him to Parma as part of another co-ownership deal. It was here that Adriano really began to turn heads, striking up an electric partnership with the eccentric Adrian Mutu, and the Brazilian star crashed in 22 goals in 36 appearances.

And finally, after proving himself on two separate occasions, Inter were ready to let the Emperor reign over Milan. Adriano returned to Inter in January 2004, and he made up for lost time, scoring 12 goals in the second half of the season for his new side.

Ronaldo's heir was finding his groove in the throne, and the crown fitted nicely.


His superb form at domestic level led to international recognition, too. Adriano travelled to Peru as part of the Brazil squad for the 2004 Copa America, and on the biggest stage in South America, the big striker stole the show.

Adriano finished as the competition's top scorer, scooped the Best Player award, and was the undeniable hero, lashing home a dramatic last-gasp equaliser in the final - a match Brazil would subsequently go on to win. Football is a game of moments, after all.

The forward was now a legend in his home nation, and he was fast becoming a bandiera at San Siro. Now at the peak of his powers, not one defender was capable of stopping Adriano from becoming one of the greatest players to ever live.

But one moment would change the striker's life forever. Adriano was informed by a telephone call that his father, Almir, had suddenly died of a heart attack in 2004, and his passing stirred an uncontrollable and inescapable sadness within his son.

Adriano suffered terribly from depression, and turned to alcohol to ease his pain. He began drinking throughout the day and night, partying all hours and missing training sessions as his stern exterior mask began to slip.

As Inter teammate Javier Zanetti pointed out, "After that phone call, nothing was the same." Footballers are human beings, and no matter how strong, talented or even rich they are, they still suffer from the same frailties and heartbreak as us supporters.

And Adriano suffered more than most.

But despite the agony and turmoil, the Inter star posted the best numbers of his Nerazzurri career in the 2004/05 season, scoring 28 goals in all competitions for the Milan giants.

Perhaps the routine of being a footballer kept the striker focussed enough to survive the day-to-day life, and with him hitting his very best form, even mental torture couldn't halt him from demonstrating his superiority.

But it was after that high that the cracks truly began to show.

Although he managed 13 goals the following season, Adriano was not the same. He was dropped from the Brazil national team by Dunga, who demanded that the striker changed his behaviour, and that sentiment was shared in Milan.

Eventually, after trying to resurrect his career, Inter deemed it best to send him back to his homeland, loaning the forward to Sao Paulo. But he was sent back to Italy earlier than planned, with his attitude once again the cause of another broken relationship.

The next few years were no easier for Adriano, who continued to score goals, even as his weight ballooned and he started to bear no resemblance to the lean, mean footballer he once was. Five appearances with Roma were enough in 2010, and he left Italy, having seemingly lost the appetite for top-level football altogether.

The rest of Adriano's CV reads of a man who many took a gamble on, but quickly cast aside, having failed to recapture the Emperor of old.

But the man with the most powerful left peg on Pro Evolution Soccer will forever be remembered as a star who burnt brighter than we could have ever dreamt of, even if he faded all too quickly.

Whatever happens, Adriano will always be the Emperor.