Adriano: The spectacular rise and fall of Inter's 'Emperor'

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The Brazilian was tipped to become one of the greats, but he ultimately succumbed to the pressures of football fame

Adriano Leite Ribeiro - more simply known as Adriano - is considered the ultimate cult hero for a certain generation of football fans. Brazil has produced a seemingly endless line of talented attacking players throughout their history, from all the way back to Pele's glorious heyday to the current Neymar-led era. But Adriano was a special case.

There has never been a striker who inspired fear in his fellow man quite like the 6'2 titan from Rio de Janeiro. He was strong, blisteringly quick and technically brilliant, with a cannon for a left foot that famously earned him overpowered shooting statistics on Pro Evolution Soccer.

Even Swedish maverick Zlatan Ibrahimovic was left completely in awe of Adriano's quality in the prime years of his career. "He could shoot from every angle, nobody could tackle him, nobody could take the ball, he was a pure animal," the former Inter striker told Sport Bible in 2020.

However, there was a caveat to Ibrahimovic's assessment. "I enjoyed playing with him, playing against him, but it's a shame that it lasted such a short time," he added. "Fifty percent of everything you do is the mental part. If you don't have it in your head, it's difficult."

Adriano scored 74 goals in 177 games during his time at Inter, and recorded another 27 for Brazil at international level - which would be respectable totals for most centre-forwards. But he could have been a record-breaker had it not been for his unpredictable temperament.

His time at the top only lasted for a very short while, and his public decline was painful to watch. Adriano's career may be the most agonising 'what if?' story football has ever known.

That hasn't prevented his legend from growing year after year, though. And as Inter now stand on the brink of their fourth European Cup success, it seems a fitting time to look back on Adriano's incredible impact at San Siro and on the wider footballing world.

  1. From the favelas to Flamengo

    From the favelas to Flamengo

    Adriano was born in Rio de Janeiro’s notorious Vila Cruzeiro favela - an uncompromising environment riddled with crime, violence and corruption. He grew up in poverty and with only the basic necessities to survive, but it didn't break him.

    He developed a quiet resolve amid the chaos all around him, and found an escape in football. Adriano would take to the streets and dirt pitches barefoot to hone his skills, practicing relentlessly in order to earn a shot at the big time.

    When recalling those days in an interview with the Player's Tribune, Adriano spoke only of the "fun" he had, insisting he benefitted from a "real childhood, not this bullsh*t tap, tap, tap on the screens that these kids do now".

    At the age of seven, he joined Flamengo's academy ranks, after his family members had pooled their money together for him to attend the school in Gavea. For the next eight years, he worked towards his ultimate goal of becoming a professional footballer. Adriano never had any doubts that he would get there. "A ball was always at my foot. It was put there by God," he said.

    He eventually graduated to Flamengo's senior squad at the tender age of 16, despite some reservations from coaches over his size. Adriano went on to open his scoring account in only his second first-team appearance against Sao Paulo, and his intimidating physical frame soon became a weapon he would utilise to devastating effect.

    Adriano found the net nine times in his breakthrough 2000-01 campaign, while also becoming one of Brazil's youngest-ever national team debutants at 18, and scored three in his first five Brazilian Serie A appearances at the start of the following season. By that stage, Inter had already identified him as their next big superstar.

  2. Ronaldo's heir

    Ronaldo's heir

    Adriano announced himself to Nerazzurri supporters in his very first game: A glorified pre-season friendly against Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu. He showed no signs of nerves after being introduced to the action as a second-half substitute, running at the Real defence at every opportunity.

    When Inter won a dangerous free-kick right on the edge of the box, he wasted no time in putting himself forward to take it. Adriano proceeded to take a long run-up and smash an unstoppable shot into the top corner past helpless Real No.1 Iker Casillas.

    The special strike, which he claimed to have hit at a world-record speed of 105mph, sealed a 2-1 victory for Inter. And his overall performance made a huge impression on club captain Javier Zanetti. The Argentine told reporters after the game: "I said to myself: 'This is the new Ronaldo'."

    From that moment on, comparisons with Il Fenomeno would follow Adriano wherever he went. But he was made to wait for his big chance at Inter, who decided his development would be best served by a loan spell.

    Fiorentina snapped him up for the second half of the 2001-02 season, and he hit six goals in his first 15 games for La Viola, but Inter opted against bringing him back. Fiorentina agreed a two-year co-ownership deal with Parma that summer, and Adriano soon began living up to his billing as Ronaldo's heir at the Ennio Tardini Stadium.

    Over the next two seasons, Adriano racked up 23 goals in 37 Serie A games for Parma, forming a deadly partnership with Adrian Mutu along the way, and Inter realised they'd made a mistake letting him go. They moved quickly to re-sign Adriano for €23 million in January 2004, tying him down to a four-year contract.

    "I am happy to come back home," he said at his unveiling. "I'm sure that by playing with Inter I will become a great player." As it turned out, his prediction wasn't far off.

  3. 'The Emperor of Milan'

    'The Emperor of Milan'

    Adriano wasted no time in showing Inter what they had been missing. He was unstoppable towards the backend of the club's 2003-04 season as he scored nine goals in 16 Serie A appearances, including a stunning final-day brace against Empoli.

    His dazzling display during the 3-2 win at the Carlo Castellani Stadium earned him a permanent spot in the hearts of supporters across Milan, as Alberto Zaccheroni's side secured a fourth-placed finish and Champions League qualification. Empoli drew first blood, but Adriano equalised in first-half stoppage time with a brilliant header across goal after hanging in the air for what seemed like an eternity. His celebration was iconic, too, as he whipped off his shirt before flexing his muscles in front of the visiting fans. But the best was yet to come.

    Adriano effectively sealed the three points with a stunning individual goal 20 minutes from time, as he glided past three defenders after picking the ball up in the middle of Empoli's half. The towering Brazilian then bamboozled the goalkeeper with a brilliant dummy and rolled the ball into the empty net.

    His celebrations were more subdued this time around, but he was mobbed by his Inter colleagues. They knew they'd witnessed something extraordinary, and so did the players on the opposite side. This was the day that the 'Emperor of Milan' was born, and former Empoli defender Emilson Cribari remembers it vividly. "At his peak, he is alongside Ronaldo as the most difficult player to stop on the pitch," Cribari told ESPN in 2022. "There's that famous photo of him, celebrating without his shirt off in the game that granted him the Emperor nickname... It was I who was marking him. He scored a golaço against us. That day I saw all his power and quality."

    Adriano scored 28 goals across all competitions the following season and got his hands on the Coppa Italia, firmly establishing himself as one of the top strikers in Europe. But he was unable to stay at the top of the mountain, in no small part due to events outside of his control.

  4. Tragedy strikes after Copa America glory

    Tragedy strikes after Copa America glory

    Adriano had to bide his time before becoming a regular for Brazil, but his patience paid off when he was named in Carlos Alberto Parreira's squad for the 2004 Copa America. His first six months back at Inter had made it impossible for Parreira to overlook him.

    Key members of Brazil's 2002 World Cup-winning squad were given time off, including Ronaldinho, Cafu, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo, as Parreira sort to blood the country's next generation of stars. Adriano was joined by the likes of Julio Cesar, Maicon, Luis Fabiano and Vagner Love as the Selecao went in search of their seventh Copa title in Peru.

    Adriano quite literally filled Ronaldo's boots at the tournament, and managed to exceed expectations under the brightest of spotlights. Brazil opened their group-stage campaign with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Chile, before thrashing Costa Rica 4-1.

    Inter's 'Emperor' netted a quite magnificent hat-trick, with each goal encapsulating his very best attributes: sublime technique, power, aerial prowess and composure. Brazil sailed through to the quarter-finals and came up against Mexico, where Adriano took centre stage once more. He bagged a brace to help Parreira's side earn a comprehensive 4-0 win and set up a last-four clash against Uruguay. La Celeste provided a sterner test for Brazil as they played out a 1-1 draw after normal and extra-time, with Adriano on the scoresheet once again. He also converted in the subsequent penalty shootout as the Selecao won 5-3 on spot-kicks. Inevitably, the only team left standing in their way of the trophy were eternal rivals Argentina.

    And Brazil found themselves staring a heartbreaking defeat in the face when Cesar Delgado gave Argentina a 2-1 lead in the 87th minute. As the seconds ticked down and Brazil became more and more desperate, Adriano proved to be the coolest man inside the Estadio Nacional.

    He reacted quickest to a loose ball in Argentina's box and with his back to goal, flicked it into a shooting position before firing a perfectly executed volley into the bottom corner - cue absolute pandemonium. Adriano removed his jersey and swung it over his shoulder repeatedly like a lasso while sprinting away with joy, and the momentum of the contest shifted.

    Brazil clinched the trophy after another penalty shootout, with Adriano stepping up to score first in a 4-2 win. “I can’t explain how I’m feeling right now… This is definitely the greatest moment in my career,” he said while fighting back tears after the game. "This title belongs to my father. He is my great friend in life; my partner. Without him I am nothing."

    Adriano had the world at his feet. He returned to Milan with his Copa America winners' medal and the Player of the Tournament award, but then received the news that changed his life forever.

    On August 3, 2004, Adriano was informed over the phone that his father had died at the age of 44 after a heart attack. In the blink of an eye, he'd lost his greatest source of support, the man who raised him in the toughest possible conditions and helped him achieve his dream.

    “When he had the phone call about the death of his father, we were in the room,” Zanetti would later tell Tuttomercatoweb. "He thumped the phone [back on the hook] and began screaming in a way that one can’t imagine. It still shivers me today. After that phone call, nothing was the same as before."

  5. 'My love for football was never the same'

    'My love for football was never the same'

    Adriano's prolific record in 2004-05 was astonishing considering the emotional baggage he was carrying. He dedicated his goals to his late father by pointing to the sky in what became his new trademark celebration, but deep down he was struggling to cope.

    “My love for football was never the same," he said to the Player's Tribune. "I was across the ocean in Italy, away from my family, and I just couldn't cope with it. I got so depressed, man. I started drinking a lot. I didn't really want to train. It had nothing to do with Inter. I just wanted to go home.”

    Adriano's weight began to fluctuate and niggling injuries became more and more frequent. Fortunately, he was still playing in a very strong Inter squad, which helped paper over the developing cracks in his game. Roberto Mancini guided the Nerazzurri to another Coppa Italia crown and the Suppercoppa Italia in 2005-06, while they also ended up with their first Scudetto since 1989 despite finishing the Serie A season in third place. The initial winners Juventus and second-placed AC Milan were both punished for their part in a match-fixing scandal, with the former relegated to Serie B and the latter hit with a an eight-point penalty for the following season.

    Adriano finished the campaign with 19 goals to his name from 47 games, and made it into Brazil's final squad for the 2006 World Cup. He would finally line up alongside Ronaldo in Germany, as well as Ronaldinho and Kaka, but the holders were a shadow of the side that lifted the trophy in South Korea and Japan four years earlier.

    Brazil progressed to the last 16 with relative ease, topping their group with maximum points. Adriano scored in their 2-0 win over Australia, but Ronaldo overshadowed him with a brace in their 4-1 victory against Japan. Both men found the net as the Selecao thrashed Ghana in the first knockout stage, but they came crashing back down to earth in the quarter-finals against France. Adriano had to make do with a cameo appearance from the bench as Zinedine Zidane inspired Les Bleus to a 1-0 win.

    At just 24 years of age, the best years of his career should have still been ahead of Adriano. But the Inter frontman's motivation only plummeted further after the tournament.

  6. The long divorce from Inter

    The long divorce from Inter

    By the start of the 2006-07 season, Adriano was fighting a battle against addiction. He began falling out with Inter officials behind the scenes and missing games on a regular basis. The Nerazzurri retained the Scudetto, but he only managed to score six goals, with Ibrahimovic and Hernan Crespo leading the line more often than not for Mancini. The situation spiralled further out of control the following season.

    In November 2007, Adriano was sent to Brazil for 18 months unpaid leave. "I couldn't sleep, and presented myself drunk at training every day," he has said when discussing that period in his life with Brazilian magazine R7. He underwent an extensive physical and psychological rehabilitation program at Sao Paulo's training centre, and officially joined the club on loan that December. Adriano scored 11 goals in 19 outings for Sao Paulo, but he continued to make headlines for his antics off the pitch.

    He was still missing training sessions while being spotted out at nightclubs on a weekly basis, and it wasn't long until he was sent back to Milan. Sao Paulo sporting director Carlos Augusto de Barros e Silva said in June 2008: "We have a balanced squad and it was better for Adriano to go back."

    He returned to a San Siro dressing room overseen by a certain Jose Mourinho, who had been drafted in to replace Mancini with the brief to deliver the Champions League. And the Portuguese made his stance on Adriano clear when quizzed on his potential role in the team.

    "The team is more important than Adriano, he's one of 30 players I have available to me," said Mourinho. "Adriano will start when I say so, not the press." To Adriano's credit, he did knuckle down and focus on his football for a brief time after that. He was only used sparingly by Mourinho, but showed flashes of the brilliance that made him a star in his youth to aid Inter in their quest for a fourth successive Serie A crown. But he couldn't maintain a consistent level of focus or discipline.

    The writing was on the wall when he failed to return to Inter at the start of April after playing in World Cup qualifiers against Ecuador and Peru for Brazil. "I don't know if I'm going to stay for one, two or three months without playing. I'm going to rethink my career," he said when attempting to justify his decision.

    Adriano also denied the widespread reports claiming he was suffering from depression. "A lot of things have been said in the newspapers but everything I've done has been thought through," he added. "I'm not ill. Adriano's not dead."

    Inter were left with no choice but to cancel Adriano's contract one year early. Mourinho was surprisingly sympathetic before his exit was confirmed, as he told reporters: "Inter have done everything to help Adriano before I arrived and with me, as a coach and human being, so have the president and his team mates. The important thing is that he's happy. If he's happy like this, if you lose the player but the man is happy, perfect."

  7. Return to Brazil

    Return to Brazil

    Despite his acrimonious parting of ways with Inter, Flamengo welcomed Adriano back to the club with open arms. He signed a one-year contract at the Maracana in May 2009, and was given a glorious reception on his debut. It was reported that the club sold an extra 50,000 tickets due to Adriano's presence in the team for a clash against Atletico Paranaense, with the capacity crowd chanting after his emergence from the tunnel: "The Emperor has returned."

    Adriano marked the occasion with a goal as Flamengo ran out 2-1 winners, and the goals would continue to flow thereafter. On the surface, it seemed that he had rediscovered his passion for football.

    "People think that it was madness to give up the millionaire's contract [at Inter] that I had, but the truth is that there is not money enough to compensate for family," he said in October that year. "I gave up so many millions, but I bought happiness."

    Flamengo clinched their first Brazilian championship in 17 years and Adriano finished as the competition's joint-top goalscorer, with 19 goals. But behind the scenes, things weren't as rosy as they seemed. Adriano's fitness was still a cause for concern and he had run-ins with a number of Flamengo staff members. He was also interviewed by police over his alleged connection to a well-known drug trafficker.

    The official explanation for his absence from Flamengo's penultimate matchday of the season summed up the chaos. He was unable to play after turning up with a foot injury, which he supposedly picked up after stepping on a lightbulb, but no one in the Brazilian media bought that excuse.

    In the end, Flamengo found him too difficult to manage. But Adriano had done enough to convince some onlookers that he was still capable of delivering at the highest level, and the possibility of a surprise return to Europe emerged.

  8. Roma's gamble backfires

    Roma's gamble backfires

    Roma swooped to sign Adriano as a free agent in June 2010, despite seeing him left out of Dunga's Brazil squad for the World Cup in South Africa. The Giallorossi inexplicably handed him a three-year contract worth a reported €5m per season, and he talked a good game in his first press conference.

    "I am glad to be back in Italy and to hold the Roma jersey, which carries so much responsibility," said Adriano. "Today, I'm more mature and have returned to prove it." Any supporters that fell for his spiel were quickly left red-faced.

    Adriano was still overweight when he reported for pre-season, and quickly provoked the wrath of head coach Claudio Ranieri. “Wake up,” the Italian coach reportedly said to Roma's new No.9 in an early training session. “Quicker, faster, more concentrated. It’s like you don’t know what to do with the ball at your feet.”

    Injuries plagued Adriano once more as the 2010-11 campaign got underway, and he was unable to get a consistent run in the team. He made a rare appearance in a Coppa Italia clash with Roma's arch-rivals Lazio in January, but his night was cut short after he broke his right arm and dislocated his shoulder in an unfortunate fall.

    Adriano was granted permission to return to Brazil to continue his recovery, but he stayed longer than expected. After missing a series of flights back to Italy and failing to turn up for a medical, Roma branded his behaviour “unprofessional and indefensible”.

    The former Brazil international issued an apology when he eventually touched back down in Rome, but he hadn't learned his lesson. "I made a mistake, but I don't think there was any need for all this controversy," he added in his statement to the media.

    Roma released Adriano just a few days later. He wasn't even able to muster a single goal for the Giallorossi, who were left embarrassed by the whole sorry affair.

  9. 'A hole in my ankle and one in my soul'

    'A hole in my ankle and one in my soul'

    Adriano sought solace in his homeland once again, and set his sights on a third stint at Flamengo. However, then-head coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo reportedly blocked the move due to the striker's continued problems away from football.

    Corinthians were happy to offer him yet another shot at redemption, though, and Adriano was still adamant he had plenty to offer. "Corinthians won't regret it, I'm a fighting player. I'm not going there to create trouble, but to score goals," he told the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper.

    Adriano also denied that his perceived out-of-control lifestyle was the main reason behind his Roma exit, adding: "I simply saw no reason to stay on, I got injured three times, I had no continuity of matches, I thought it was a sign to return to Brazil."

    Less than a month after his unveiling, Adriano ruptured his Achilles in training, which delayed his debut for Corinthians by seven months. In truth, he never really recovered from the injury, and Adriano left the club in March 2012. He wouldn't return to the game until the following August, with Flamengo eventually bowing to outside pressure to give him one last shot. The forward was only given a contract based on "productivity" to the end of the season, though, which showed that they didn't have much faith left in their fallen idol.

    Inevitably, he only lasted three months back at the Maracana, and went on to take in similarly unsuccessful spells with Athletico Paranaense and Miami United in America before finally hanging up his boots in 2016 at the age of 34. Adriano has since admitted that he was well aware he was finished a lot earlier than that.

    "When I popped my Achilles in 2011? Man, I knew that’s when it was over for me, physically," he concluded to the Players' Tribune. "My explosiveness was gone. My balance was gone. Sh*t, I still walk with a limp.

    "It was the same thing when my father died. Except the scar was inside me." He then followed up with the heart-wrenching admission: "I have a hole in my ankle, and one in my soul."

    Adriano may have failed to reach his full potential, but that doesn't mean he won't be remembered as a legend of the game. He still boasts a highlight reel that most players could only dream of, and he's a hero to those who watched him at his peak in both an Inter and Brazil shirt.

    In 2021, he was inducted into the Maracana Stadium Walk of Fame, an honour which reduced him to tears. Only the most iconic players in the history of the game have earned that privilege, with Adriano standing alongside greats such as Ronaldinho, Pele, Romario, Zico and Garrincha.

    Adriano certainly deserves to mentioned be in the same breath. Long live L’Imperatore .