Adriano arguably reached his peak on an October afternoon in 2004. The general perception of his career is that he never reached the heights he could have, that this was a generational talent unfulfilled, but was that true? Was what we saw actually enough?
Mention the name Adriano and most will lament a lost talent, the man who should have been Ronaldo’s heir, a player with the skill and physical gifts to be one of the greats. They might speak of a career gone off the rails, demons having cut down a legend before he could write his story.
That’s all true, in a sense. Adriano didn’t win the things he could have. His career lasted into his 30s but his peak had come and gone by 25. He briefly played like a god, with the rare but unstoppable combination of pace, strength and finesse. He could have been an all-timer, a player with the promise to be another Ronaldo. The question is, whether the fact he ultimately didn’t reach those peaks means that his career is a let down, an opportunity missed, for us as much as him.
The reasons why he didn’t are either complicated or very simple, depending on how you view grief. Adriano charts his decline from the death of his father in 2004, the loss and the subsequent lack of purpose derailing what could have been one of the great careers.
And it really could have been great, but in Europe at least, it started quietly. While many young signings arrive at big clubs amid swirling hype, Adriano was almost an afterthought at Inter, a piece in a deal involving the highly-trumpeted and highly-moustachioed Vampeta. He made his mark straight away, scoring a rocket of a free kick in a pre-season game against Real Madrid that nearly took the net into the middle of the Real ultras, the sort of goal that gets people excited about a new signing.
But with a logjam of strikers including Ronaldo and Christian Vieri already available to Inter, he was sent on loan to Fiorentina, before a part-ownership deal was struck with Parma. There he formed one of the great ‘what if’ striking partnerships with Adrian Mutu, and was later described by Cesare Prandelli as “without the slightest doubt” the best player he’d ever coached, with “stratospheric” potential.
He returned to Inter in January 2004, before what was probably the high-point of his career, the Copa America in Peru: he finished top-scorer in the tournament with seven goals, scoring in all three knockout games and netting a 93rd minute equaliser in the final against Argentina, forcing a penalty shoot-out. Obviously, he scored his kick and Brazil won. Adriano dedicated the victory to his father, saying: “He is my great friend in life; my partner. Without him I am nothing.”
He came back to Italy a prince, who would surely become a king. But in August, he received the phone call that would define his career, and his life. His father died, suddenly, of a heart-attack, aged just 45.
“He threw the phone and began screaming in a way that one can’t imagine,” said Javier Zanetti a few years ago. “I still shiver [at the thought of it] today…After that phone call, nothing was the same as before. We weren’t able to pull him out of the tunnel of depression. That was my biggest defeat, I felt powerless.”
It seems counterintuitive that the season after his father’s passing was the best of his career, but grief is as unpredictable as it is vicious. Adriano was seemingly able to perform in those months after his bereavement because even before his bereavement he had been in Italy without his father anyway. So, as James Horncastle suggested on the edition of Golazzo dedicated to Adriano, when he returned from the funeral, the absence of his point of reference wasn’t as pronounced: he could continue still with the vague sense that his father remained ‘a presence’ in his life. It was only after Adriano returned to Brazil, at the end of the season, that it became clear he was gone.
After that phone call, nothing was the same as before..That was my biggest defeat, I felt powerless.
The numbers in 2004/5 are impressive (28 goals in all competitions) enough, but it was how he achieved those numbers that recalled his erstwhile teammate. Jorge Valdano famously said that Ronaldo “is not a man – he’s a herd”: Adriano was a stampede, but not one that would trample you, rather that would charge towards you then beat you with a surgical clip round the head.
Ronaldo is the obvious comparison, but on Golazzo Gabriele Marcotti suggested he was closer to another Inter great: “He wasn’t just a guy who whacked the cover off the ball, he had some delicate touches. He was Zlatan before Zlatan.” Indeed, Zlatan himself said that the first thing he said when he joined Inter in 2006 was to “demand” Adriano stayed.
You could pick any number of his games around that time and conclude he was the striking ideal, the art perfected. There was the hat-trick against Porto in which he flexed off opponents like he was facing 12-year-olds. A header against Bologna when he was being tightly marked by two defenders but through some sort of magic got to the ball first. Another versus Perugia when he span 360 degrees, putting one defender on his behind as if he’d just tripped over a dog lead, before lollipopping past another then clipping the most delicate finish over a keeper who had narrowed the angle perfectly, but also pointlessly.
Even the times he didn’t score he tended to produce something extraordinary: one particular effort against Palermo springs to mind, when he hit a shot from 30 yards out so cleanly that it hit the crossbar and almost rebounded straight back to him. That one was clocked at 90 miles per hour. Goalkeeper Matteo Guardalben didn’t bother moving: what was the point?
But the game – actually, the four minutes – that encapsulated Adriano so perfectly was when Inter faced Udinese at the San Siro on a sunny October Sunday. He had already nearly created a goal with a brilliant left-footed cross from deep, before in the seventh minute Vieri was barged to the ground about 35 yards out. A cross was the sensible option. Surely too far out to trouble Morgan de Sanctis, a goalkeeper who would be capped by Italy later that season.
Naturally, like most geniuses, Adriano scoffed at the sensible option, took a Roberto Carlos-length run-up and channelled the force of ten men through his left foot. De Sanctis barely had time to complete his dive, never mind save the thing. He hopped up afterwards with a half-smile of acceptance, very quickly realising that two Buffons probably wouldn’t have smelled that one.
Four minutes later Inter were defending a corner, Adriano nominally helping out, but really just sort of loitering on the edge the area in that way strikers tend to when they want to make it look like they’re helping out. Juan Sebastian Veron half-hooked the ball clear, which technically counted as the assist. Adriano picked the ball up about 25 yards from his own goal with three defenders in front of him, but they immediately knew there were problems, panicking like the farmer in ‘Withnail and I’ when they leave the gate to the bull’s field open.
I did not realise at the beginning, that I was there, in Italy, at Inter, or how good I was.
If Twitter was around in 2004, left wing-back Felipe would have suffered the indignity of being turned into a meme: backpedalling, he somewhat naively tried to keep up with the pace of Adriano’s movement, but in an attempt to change direction at the same pace as his opponent, his legs made the unilateral decision to give in, and sent him to the turf, face first. The only saving grace was that it happened in the centre circle, so nobody could really dwell on his humiliation, lest they miss what was about to happen.
Emilson Cribari was next up to try the impossible, but his feet were unwilling/unable to move at the required speed, eventually stumbling and looking that bit in a cartoon where the character starts to sprint on a bit of carpet, their legs just windmill in the air and the carpet bunches up behind them.
Their efforts were admirable, but pointless. Adriano slammed the finish into the corner, and jogged off in celebration. Cribari loosely looked around for someone to blame, before eventually realising that, as the Daily Telegraph’s Paul Hayward said about Leo Messi recently, you can’t insure against acts of God. “I did not realise at the beginning…how good I was,” he said a few years ago.
It’s probably unrealistic to think Adriano could have continued like that for the rest of his career. Even without the grief, the problems with alcohol and the psychological issues that the grief would exacerbate, that sort of brilliance only lasts once in a generation. Obviously, we wanted more, but perhaps it’s enough that we got any of it at all.
“A lot of people – me included – look back on his career as ‘what could’ve been?’” said James Richardson, about Adriano’s brilliance at the Copa America. “But that summer, and the subsequent year at Inter, it really was.”
This piece first appeared on the Totally Football Show in July 2019.
You can listen to every edition of Golazzo here, and even better, you can subscribe to The Totally Football Show here. If you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article or from the podcast please credit The Totally Football Show and include this link.