Adriano Leite Ribeiro, better known as Adriano, is a player that obtained legendary status from many football fans at the time for his 99 rated shot on a video game called Pro Evolution Soccer.
Yet, to fans of Parma and Inter Milan, he means much, much more.
Born in the favelas of Vila Cruzeiro, Rio de Janeiro, Adriano grew up in a very poor neighbourhood where his family battled poverty like many in the area.
However, this did not detract his parents from providing the love and support to their son’s dreams of one day joining such legends as Pelé, Zico, Romário and Ronaldo in the pantheon of Brazil’s greats.
From an early age, Adriano’s passion for football translated onto the bare grounded streets of the favelas, where he played with his boyhood friends. His raw talent from an early age saw his boyhood club, Flamengo, scout him to their youth system in 1999 at the age of 17.
A year after joining, Adriano was called up to the senior team where he debuted on 2nd February 2000 in a Torneio Rio-São Paulo game against Botafogo.
Though he did not score on his debut, it would be in the following game against Sao Paulo where he would get off the mark in what would be the first of many career goals.
From the Favelas to Milan
Despite signing a two-year contract with Flamengo, his undeniable talent along with a debut season of scoring twenty-four goals in ten appearances, garnered the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs.
In the end, it was Inter Milan who won the race for the 18-year-old in August 2001 in a deal involving PSG and Inter’s Brazilian midfielder, Vampeta.
The deal saw the Nerazzurri sell Brazilian midfielder Vampeta to PSG for €9 million, as the player was part owned by both clubs. Vampeta would then be sold on to Flamengo in exchange for Adriano, who was valued at €23 million.
It wouldn’t take long for the Brazilian forward to get off the mark with his new club. In a pre-season friendly against the mighty Real Madrid, Adriano would come off the bench to score a goal that is still remembered by Inter fans to this day.
From a free kick, he would unleash one hellacious strike past a helpless Iker Casillas in the blink of an eye. This strike showed the footballing world a glimpse of what was to come as no one had ever beaten the Spanish number one keeper that easily till now.
Adriano’s performance off the bench against Real Madrid would impress his new teammates, especially the club’s captain, Javier Zanetti, who said in an interview in 2017:
“We were playing a friendly match against Real Madrid, he scored an impressive goal. I told myself – Javier, this right here is the new Ronaldo! He’s got it all!”
Guidance from an Idol
However, despite his potential, Adriano would only manage one goal in eight appearances for the Nerazzurri, as he also had the challenge of adapting to a new language and culture.
For Adriano, Italy was a whole new world compared to the poverty stricken favelas he grew up in back home and with this came his exposure to the nightlife of downtown Milan.
In his first year at Inter, Adriano gained a reputation for being a ‘party boy’ who loved a night out, drinking and women. It would be his childhood idol and the man many at Inter felt he was destined to succeed, Ronaldo, who would talk the young Brazilian out of this habit.
In an interview, Adriano described the impact his idol had on this change of lifestyle during his early years in Italy:
“Ronaldo gave me hints on how to behave on the pitch to win the crowd. His playful spirit was super important to make me feel at home. He made me stop spending nights with ladies in the Italian hotels”
With a change of attitude to the game, the Brazilian would see his first spell at Inter only last a season, as a new challenge would arise. Fellow Italian giants Fiorentina acquired his services on a 6-month loan deal in January 2002.
During this 6-month stint in Florence, Adriano would announce himself to the world of football and enthrall the Gigliati fans in the process by netting six times in fifteen appearances. Not only did Adriano’s six goals see him finish the club’s top scorer that season, but his presence up front was something that the team had lacked since the departure of their talisman, Gabriel Batistuta, back in 2000 to Roma.
It was here at Fiorentina where Adriano showcased the size and strength he possessed, causing many defenders in Serie A to have nightmares about how to mark the man touted as the ‘Heir to Ronaldo’.
Murmurs of the Brazilian’s impressive displays in the purple of Fiorentina would reach back to his host club, Inter who, by all accounts, were impressed with as the striker was still relatively new to Italian football, yet still managed to strike fear in those who faced him.
Learning his trade
Following his successful loan spell at Fiorentina, lnter decided to send Adriano to fellow Italian side Parma in another co-ownership deal worth €8.8 million in 2002, as a chance for him to develop further and further integrate himself into Italian football. The deal would see Adriano head to Parma on a two–year deal, with him returning to his parent club at the end of the two years for an agreed fee.
However, Adriano would not be the only forward addition Parma acquired, with Romanian striker Adrian Mutu making the switch from Hellas Verona. The two strikers would develop a friendship on and off the pitch that saw them touted as being the men to fire Parma back to glory, despite their youth.
Parma, financed by food conglomerate Parmalat, had experienced quite a collection of silverware. In the ten-year period before, the club brought home three Coppa Italias, two UEFA Cups, one Cup Winner’s cup and a European Super Cup. Yet, in 2001, the club would see a slump in form resulting in some of their top players being prized away by Italian giants Juventus. It would be under the guidance of the new coach, Cesare Prandelli, that the glory days were expected to return.
Prandelli’s 4-3-3 formation would provide the platform for Adriano, Adrian Mutu and Japanese attacking midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata to express themselves as the new look strike force that could fire Parma back to winning ways.
In a Q & A session with current Inter striker Romelu Lukaku, during the lockdown of 2020, Lukaku asked Adriano who the most influential manager of his career was. The Brazilian answered by naming three: Mancini, Mourinho and Prandelli, with him saying the following about how the latter helped him become the player we all know of today:
“Then I went to Parma. I learned a lot. That is why I mentioned Prandelli earlier.”
“He taught me all about the movements a forward should make. After training he showed me what to do. I learned so much from Prandelli.”
The dynamic duo of Parma
Adriano and Mutu in particular were a match made in heaven under Prandelli, scoring a combined thirty-nine goals in thirty-six appearances during the 2002/03 season. This goal return saw them propel Parma up the table in Serie A and to runners–up position in the Coppa Italia. Of the thirty-nine goals scored between them, Adriano would provide seventeen in his thirty-two appearances, with one goal in particular against AC Milan earning him affection with the fans of his parent club.
Typically, Parma had been blowing teams away with their attacking trio terrorising defences throughout the league. Yet, the team were still seen by many as being the best of the rest due to their inability to get results against the big three: Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan.
Their luck would change for the better in a game against AC Milan on 5th April 2002 where the dynamic duo of Adriano and Mutu would link up for what would turn out to be the winning goal in a last gasp 1 – 0 victory over the Rossoneri.
After an amazing through ball from Mutu across the six-yard box, it would be Adriano with a quick change of pace to leave Milan captain Paolo Maldini behind, then cheekily flicked the ball over the outstretched leg of Dida.
The end of the 2002/03 season would see Parma finish a respectable fifth with Adriano and Mutu both finishing second and third in the top scorer list respectively.
The end of Parma
The 2003/04 season came with an expectation that this dynamic partnership would take Parma to new heights once more, but it would prove to be nothing but a short love affair. Parma would end up selling Adrian Mutu to Chelsea in the summer of 2003, leaving Adriano to lead a forward line without a worthy replacement for his strike partner brought in.
Nevertheless, Adriano would go into the first half of the new season starting where he left off, scoring seven goals in eight appearances to become Serie A’s second top scorer at the time.
However, a serious hamstring injury suffered in a 3-2 win against Brescia in November 2003 would see the striker ruled out for the remainder of the year.
The injury to their star striker would only prove to be the tip of the iceberg for Parma as the club’s owner, Calisto Tanzi, was found guilty of financial fraud in late 2005 after embezzling money from his company, Parmalat.
This scandal resulted in the Parma becoming bankrupt mid-way through the 2003/04 season as their debts stood just over €346 million. However, due to many concerns over the implications to the league pyramid, Parma received permission to see out the remainder of the season before eventually folding.
Returning to Milan: the dawn of the emperor
With his current club’s eventual demise on the horizon at the end of the season, Adriano would receive a lifeline through his former club, Inter Milan, due to the agreement reached back in 2002.
Parma received a fee of €23.4 million in January 2004 for the Brazilian, as agreed two years prior, but even this sum of money would not help Parma’s financial difficulties at the time.
Now back at his former club, Adriano would not let the same opportunity, presented to him two years earlier, pass him by again. In the eighteen appearances he made for Inter to finish the 2003/04 season, Adriano found the net twelve times, becoming a favourite amongst the fans of Inter. This fandom saw him hailed as their new ‘fenômeno’ (Phenomenon), after the original Ronaldo.
Adriano’s spirited effort in the form of his goals and overall contribution on the pitch helped lead Inter to finish in a position that guaranteed them Champions League qualification at the end of the season. This achievement is very important to the fans and clubs within Europe so it was no surprise that the Inter faithful crowned Adriano L’ Imperatore de Milano – The Emperor of Milan.
The summer of 2004 would prove to see Adriano carry on his ruthless form on the pitch as his seven goals helped Brazil win the Copa America, with Adriano being named the ‘Player of the Tournament’ at the age of 22.
In an emotional speech, Adriano dedicated the win to his father, who had been suffering from ill health, saying:
“This title belongs to my father. He is my great friend in life; my partner. Without him I am nothing…”
However, it would be off the pitch where a major turning point would take place back home in his native Brazil that would impact the young Brazilian both on and off the pitch.
Nine days after international glory, Adriano would receive the news that his father, Almir, had died of a heart attack at the age of 45 back home in Brazil. Adriano’s teammate Zanetti described the impact he saw it take on the young Brazilian whist they were away on pre–season. During an interview in 2017, Zanetti said:
“Adriano had a father that he was very attached to. Before the season, something shocking happened. 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 could not imagine that kind of scream. I get Goosebumps even to this day. From that day, Massimo Moratti (the Inter President) and I treated him as a younger brother.”
A man possessed:
Despite personal tragedy off the pitch, the young Brazilian’s performances did not diminish as his trajectory rose in the 2004/05 season under new Inter coach, Roberto Mancini. The Emperor would be unstoppable, playing as if he were a man possessed with every goal he scored being dedicated to his late father.
This unstoppable form would see Adriano finish as the club’s top scorer this season with 28 goals in all competitions as well as winning his first piece of silverware at club level, as Inter won the Coppa Italia. In a 3-0 aggregate win over Roma, Adriano’s two goals in the first leg of the tie would be enough to see off their challengers for cup silverware.
The success would not stop here, as he would help guide his beloved Brazil to further international glory in the Confederations Cup, finishing as the competition’s top scorer with five goals.
In September 2005, Inter rewarded Adriano with a new five-year deal that would see him remain at the club until 2010. This deal showed the club’s desire to build their future around The Emperor in the long term but not even this would be enough to prevent the striker from heading down a dark road.
Though on the pitch the striker was still a force to be reckoned with, many close to the player sensed that something had changed in him.
“Meanwhile, he kept on playing football; he scored goals and watched towards the sky dedicating them to him. Since that phone call nothing was the same.”
This quote above is from Zanetti in 2017, describing how he and the rest of the team saw a change in the player, despite the performances he was showing on the pitch.
The 2005/06 season saw Adriano finish as the club’s top scorer with nineteen goals and part of a team that would go on to win a domestic treble of the Serie A title, Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana silverware. Despite the Brazilian continuing to show what a dominant force he was on the pitch, the facade would slowly diminish behind the scenes at Inter where the heartache of his father’s death continued to weigh heavily on the young striker.
A weight too heavy to bare
This loss of his father would eventually take its toll as the striker would begin to battle depression and try to mend the emotional hole in his heart by seeking solace in his old lifestyle – one of partying. Most nights, the young Brazilian partied with many of his inner circle, most notably those in the Comando Vermelho (Red Command) – one of Brazil’s biggest criminal gangs, whom Adriano had known since childhood.
When interviewed for The Players Tribune back in 2017, Adriano described this time in his life and how the death of his father affected him personally on and off the football pitch:
“After that day, my love for football was never the same. He loved the game, so I loved the game. It was that simple.”
“It was my destiny. When I played football, I played for my family. When I scored, I scored for my family. So when my father died, football was never the same.”
Old demons and new lows
The familiar road of alcoholism and partying would see Adriano lack any motivation for the beautiful game he once loved, a game where he brought so much joy to those who saw him play and to those he played alongside. This lifestyle soon spilled over into his playing environment as he began missing training sessions resulting in him being involved less and less by Inter, who soon could not tolerate his behaviour anymore.
The domino effect would continue, as Adriano’s lack of involvement at club level would result in Brazilian coach Dunga dropping him from his squad for that summer’s World Cup, as he wanted to see the Brazilian change his attitude.
In the same interview, Adriano looked back at this dark road he travelled down and how those around him saw a change in him right away:
“At that time I only felt happy when I drank. I could only sleep if I drank. My coach, Roberto Mancici, and my team mates noticed I was hungover when I arrived for training.”
“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 the journalists that I had muscular pain.”