Bettitude Series: The Stars That Never Reached Their Potentials – Adriano Leite Ribeiro

“My father’s death left a huge void in me. I was very depressed and drinking made me happy”

Written By Omolagba Oluwayemi

Considered one of the best strikers in the world during this time and earning the nickname “L’Imperatore (the Emperor)”, Adriano had four prolific seasons in Italy with Italian clubs Parma and Inter Milan.

Finished within the top 10 of the Ballon d’Or in 2004 and 2005 and also awarded the IFFHS World’s Top Goal Scorer of 2005, Adriano was a key figure in Inter’s 2005–06 Scudetti win before his career was, however, marked by inconsistency and a decline in his performances which coincided with the death of his father, he moved back to his native Brazil in 2009 and went on to win a Brasileirão with both Flamengo and Corinthians. He later retired in 2016 at the age of 34.

The Emperor as popularly called, Adriano was tipped by many to rule the world of football like many and as many would say, he is the hier of Ronaldo Delima.

Dreadful in attack, his presence on the pitch put fear in the hearts of defenders and made goalkeepers melt. His left foot became a trademark for PlayStation gamers because once the ball gets to that foot no matter where he is on the pitch, you can be sure of a goal once he shoots.

Immense in attack, fast, powerful, strong, energetic and good in the air, Adriano hardly scored easy goals, you could easily refer to him as the man that scores difficult goals.

For a generation of fans, Adriano’s stats on Pro Evo 6 summed up the limitless potential of possibly becoming Ronaldo’s heir. Instead, The Emperor’s reign was ended by an incredible cocktail of injuries, tragedy and the activation of a self destruct button.

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 saw him score eight goals in nine Serie A matches which 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, Adriano became the shadow of himself following the tragic death of his father.

One event more than any other transformed Adriano from Ronaldo’s heir to the 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.”

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 in 2018. “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.

“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.”

In an interview with R7 magazine via Football Italia, Adriano said: “Only I know how much I suffered. The death of my father left me with this huge void, I felt very lonely. After his death everything got worse, because I isolated myself.

“I was alone in Italy, sad and depressed, and then I started drinking. I only felt happy when I was drinking, I’d do it every night.

“I drank everything I could get my hands on: wine, whiskey, vodka, beer. Lots of beer.

“I didn’t stop drinking and in the end I had to leave Inter. I didn’t know how to hide it, I arrived drunk in the morning for training sessions.

“I always showed up, even if I was completely drunk and the medical staff had to take me to sleep in the infirmary and then the club told the press that I had muscular problems.”

Inter covered for their star by inventing injuries but nobody could hide the crushing disappointment of the 2006 World Cup. Brazil’s ‘magic square’ featured three Ballon d’Or winners – Ronaldo, Kaka and Ronaldinho – plus another player who seemed destined for the award.

But Adriano was notably chunkier than he’d been at the Copa America two years earlier. He scored twice but he and his teammates failed to spark the magic as Brazil limped out in the quarter-finals.

A year later, he was back in Brazil on unpaid leave as Inter desperately tried to help their homesick and troubled star.

It was the beginning of the end. There was a return to Inter, a brief spell at Roma, plus false starts and fleeting moments of glory at various Brazilian sides. Clubs were willing to take a risk on such a magnificent talent, but he’d never fulfil even part of his potential.

Although the transfer left a dent in the striker’s pocket, he believes that for his overall happiness it was the right thing to do.

In some cases he was surrounded by members of a notorious criminal gang. Yet despite his drinking and a run-in with the police, those who know him best say Adriano is a shy, withdrawn figure; one who retreated to the favela because this was where he’d grown up and felt most comfortable.

Adriano hasn’t played a game in eight years, while the last of his 48 Brazil caps was over a decade ago. Despite the four Serie A titles, the 27 international goals, the Brazilian league titles, Adriano’s career actually peaked just as we all thought it was blazing into life.

It turns out, in a purely football sense, Adriano was right. Without his father, he could never find the stability and motivation to complete what should have been one of the all-time great careers.

Adriano was once touted as the natural successor to Ronaldo. Zanetti, talking to Dream Team, believed he had the skills to “become the best player ever.” The 40-year-old still enjoyed a wonderful career, but there will always be the question of what might have been.

Destined for greatness and probably would’ve been the best thing to have happened to the world of football going by the early sparks he showed in life. Adriano Leite Ribeiro, the football star that never attained his full potentials.

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