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The name Adriano is synonymous with one of the most tragic falls from grace in football, but people often fail to realize just how good of a player he was at the peak of his powers. The heir apparent to Ronaldo Nazário and dubbed the Emperor of Milan, Adriano Leite Ribeiro had the world at his feet before being dealt a soul-crushing blow that left his career hanging in the balance.
The Brazilian grew up in the notoriously crime-ridden Vila Cruzeiro favela in Rio de Janeiro and broke through at the Flamengo academy in 1999, at only age 17. Within 12 months, Adriano had been thrust into the first team and featured regularly. Despite his tender age, he towered over most of his peers and married an impressive physique with an already refined technical ability.
He was snapped up by Inter Milan following an impressive 2000/01 campaign and loaned to Fiorentina, where he continued to dazzle.
Rise to prominence
After Adriano scored six goals in 15 games in Florence, Parma came calling, and Inter was willing to sell. Soon, however, the Nerazzurri realized its mistake and brought the youngster back in January 2004 for a sum well in excess of 23 million euros, making him the second biggest transfer in the Serie A market at the time, after Hernán Crespo’s transfer to Chelsea.
Considering that he was surrounded by icons, one could have forgiven the boy for faltering, but you don’t leave the favelas of Brazil without resilience, and Adriano had plenty of it. The striker immediately wowed with his power, skill, and eye for goal. Simply put, he was a machine.
Standing six-two, with a left foot like a traction engine and panache rivaled only by compatriot Ronaldo, Adriano earned the nickname L’Imperatore di Milano—the Emperor of Milan. The ferocious forward rifled home nine goals in his first half season back at the San Siro.
Merely six months after his return to Inter, disaster struck and Adriano would never be the same. One day, the then 22-year-old learned that his father, who had been suffering from poor health, had passed at just 44 years of age. Adriano was inconsolable; the man he considered his best friend and mentor was gone.
On the pitch, it was business as usual for the forward. He scored 28 goals in 2004/05 and was even rewarded with a new and improved five-year deal. Off the pitch, however, his life spiraled out of control. Fitness and substance abuse issues plagued the latter years of his Inter stint, and eventually his contract was terminated.
Despite his obvious flaws, Adriano should always be remembered as a generational talent who was robbed of a brilliant career by the brevity of life.