Adriano: the Emperor who missed his chance to strike back

Updated: April 16, 2014

Before the dawn of wireless headset warriors and learning to taunt your 11-year-old online opponent by boastfully chanting, “We are the champions, no time for losers” in a host of languages, from Italian to the Gheg dialect of Albanian, football button bashing was much more enjoyable electronic interaction.

Konami ruled the playground way back in 2006 and despite FIFA having secured a then 20-year-old Wayne Rooney and Ronaldinho as their cover stars, Pro Evolution Soccer – or PES, if you like – was still very much the preference of the average adolescent gamer.

As reigning Premier League champions, London FC was the team of choice for most, but how about a fiery match up between Man Blue and Merseyside Red? You’d have to work hard to grind out a result at Magpie Park against Michael Owen’s Tyneside FC, that’s for sure.

However, ask any devoted PES pupil who they would elect to lead them on their path to virtual glory and the response would be unanimous. Surprisingly, it wouldn’t be a team of 11 they would stick with, but just the one player.

Adriano was splashed across the front cover of PES 6 in notorious samba yellow uniform. Head down over the ball, upper torso twisted mid-action, the lethal number ten is depicted unleashing a venomous strike destined for the top corner of an imaginary net.

This video game’s golden-boy was irrepressible. As with every cover star, it was obvious the Inter Milan striker would be blessed with the best conceptual statistics available. Still, his high ratings in shot power (99); body balance (98) and aggression (92) were not equivocal seeing they were punched in after a 40-goal season.

A strapping brute of a man, each inch of Adriano’s 6’3” muscular frame oozed tenacity and raw horsepower. He bullied his opposition into submission all whilst delicately caressing the ball with the slenderest of touches — until he came to pull the trigger, that is. With a formidable left-foot deserving of it’s very own health warning, he tore nets from the frame of the goal most weekends in Serie A.

Each wrist wrapped in trademark white taping, the beast-like forward continually produced the sort of stellar performance well worthy of frequent comparison with “the phenomenon”, his international strike partner, Ronaldo. Like many who tried and failed before him, Adriano had even twisted the arm of the Italian press, who affectionately blessed him ‘L’Imperatore’, or The Emperor.

But in the months that followed Adriano’s simulated stardom, a new set of hidden player ratings were unlocked. Sadly these characteristics, including dedication (0), reliability (0) and integrity (0), were far too real. His record of three Bidone d’Oro awards (2006, 2007 and 2010), a tongue-in-cheek prize given to the worst player in Serie A, still stands.

As anecdotes of off-pitch escapades began to hit the headlines, it became apparent that Adriano’s social life was just as graphic and fanciful as his pixelated alter ego. Personal battles with extreme weight gain; an onset of heavy depression and an outright refusal to shake his party-boy reputation paved the way for premature retirement – aged just 27.

Adriano Leite Ribeiro, to use his full name, is no stranger to abjection and emptiness. He was raised in the Rio de Janeiro favela of Vila Cruzeiro, a notoriously violent and hostile slum plagued by drug importation, crime and corruption.

Many tried to escape the vile neighbourhood – infamous for the kidnapping, murder and butchery of journalist Tim Lopes, caught secretly filming drug deals as part of an undercover investigation into Brazil’s narcotics industry in 2002 – yet, oddly, Adriano was eager to fritter away a career in football to return to the place he called home.

“For now I’m quitting. I no longer find any joy in playing,” he proclaimed when abandoning Inter back in 2009.

“I lost the want to train, I no longer want to play. I don’t want to return to Italy, I want to live in peace here in Brazil.

“I’m not sick,” he urged. “I only want to live here in Brazil tranquilly with my family.”

His dramatic retirement was short-lived and after just 12 days, Adriano penned a one-year deal with his childhood club, Flamengo. His 19 goals – worthy of the Golden Boot – helped his side their first Campeonato Brasileiro title in 17 years. He even managed to squeeze himself into Brazil’s starting XI against Ireland in a 2010 friendly. It would be his last ever appearance for the Pentacampeões.

With reports of his weight ballooning to near 16 stone, the plump poacher began to waddle from one eyebrow raising controversy to the next.

During his time at Flamengo, he struck up a bromance with fellow international and party partner, Vagner Love. The duo were given a label more cringe worthy than a 1990’s WWF tag-team — “The Empire of Love”. Their strike rate of 27 goals in 18 games was much less embarrassing, thankfully. But it was all to end in tears. Vagner Love’s tears to be more precise.

Brazilian newspaper O Globo claimed the pair had “fought bitterly” over a woman, believed to be Adriano’s girlfriend, at a party “attended by many beautiful women and flowing rivers of beer.” Witnesses told reporters that a fuming Adriano demanded that the DJ mute the music whilst he physically ejected his sorry pal, seen sobbing hysterically, off of the property. Boys, huh?

The petty fracas was dwarfed considerably later that very same week, when local newspaper O Dia published pictures of the 28-year-old posing with one of Brazil’s most wanted felons. Stood shoulder-to-shoulder with drug lord Fabio Atanasio da Silva, the pair could be seen posing with what appeared to be AK-47 assault rifles. Adriano was seen making hand gestures in another snap, a C with one hand and a V with another, believed to be a sign of support of Rio’s most feared drug gang, Commando Vermelho.

Remember those naughty boys your Mum warned you to steer well clear of? Yes, well Atanasio da Silva was most definitely one of those. In 2008 he was accused of the murder of a prison chief and the year following that he was believed to have been responsible for shooting down a police helicopter, resulting in the death of three officers.

In a most miserable attempt to curb the damage, Adriano claimed that he was merely playing with a paintball gun, and that his new chum was guilty of possessing a lamp stand. State prosecutors failed to see the funny side, hauling him in front of court to demand answers as to why they had discovered a $33,000 bank transaction between the two.

An unhealthy fixation with firearms came back to haunt him in 2011. Now at Corinthians, stories started to surface of an accidental shooting outside a Rio nightclub. The victim told police that she was shot in the left hand after Adriano was seen fooling around with his bodyguard’s .44-calibre pistol in the back seat of his car. The unreliable injured party later withdrew her complaint, but the incident still served as a cold reminder of the company the great underachiever was keeping.

Adriano took a brief hiatus from his turbulent tale, until last week (April 9), when, unbelievably, he made the back pages for all the right reasons. Appearing for his seventh professional club, Atletico Paranaense, he brought an end to a two-year goal drought during a 2-1 Copa Libertadores defeat to Bolivian champions The Strongest.

“I would be lying if I said it’s impossible to return to the national team and play in the World Cup,” he buoyantly reflected recently.

“The World Cup is one of the titles I have never won, along with the Libertadores, but I have to keep working hard here at Atletico to regain my space, bit by bit.

“I have every reason to believe it will all end well,” he added. “I’m on the right track.”

He was forced to chew upon his comical prediction on Saturday (April 12) after being released yet again. It took him just four games to fall foul of club directors, who weren’t amused by a videotape of their new striker dancing in a nightclub the evening before he missed a training session.

What is clear is that Adriano’s desire to be surrounded by characters he loved, no matter how unsavoury, far outweighed his once burning passion for professional football.

Every video game has a big boss. An evil baddie hell-bent on destruction. A level-ender. Adriano’s demons weren’t played out with hand held controllers – he fought them at the bottom of a bottle.

So, as he gets comfortable for his nations home opener against Croatia at the Arena Sao Paolo this summer, he may find himself hankering for the same respect as his clean cut Pro Evolution doppelganger. But for this player, it’s now game over.

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