Take a second to consider these footballers: Alessandro Del Piero, Andrea Pirlo, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Henrik Larsson, Clarence Seedorf, Javier Zanetti, Pavel Nedved and Patrick Vieira; the list of illustrious names to have shared the pitch with Zlatan Ibrahimovic is truly remarkable. Even so, it was the Brazilian striker Adriano who has recently been given the nod by the Swede as the greatest player he has ever played with.
Yes that’s right. The same Adriano who squandered his talent bingeing on alcohol and partying until the early hours in clubs all over Brazil and Italy. That very same Adriano who scored a grand total of four goals during his last five years as a professional soccer player while trotting along in Italy, Brazil and the United States.
THAT’s the greatest player the almighty Zlatan ever played with.
And yet, albeit for a frustratingly short period of time, Adriano was truly a phenomenon. Untouchable. “L’Imperatore” (the Emperor), as he was affectionately nicknamed in Italy.
Still a fresh faced teenager, Adriano joined the mighty Internazionale in 2001 after making an impression in the red and black shirt of Brazilian club Flamengo. After a brief loan spell with Fiorentina, Adriano joined Parma in a two-year co-ownership deal; the kind of deal that is so common in Italy but, quite frankly, nowhere else!
Ibrahimovic has described his former striking partner as a “pure animal” and it was in Parma where Adriano joined the breed of distinguished strikers that could dominate defenses on their own.
In just 36 games, the Brazilian netted 22 goals in a prodigious partnership with the similarly maligned Adrian Mutu. Mutu supplied the ammunition and Adriano delivered the destructive blows.
So desperate were Inter Milan to get their man back that they were willing to part with over €23 million to end his stay with the “Emiliani” six months prematurely in January 2004. What followed next is extraordinary.
With the physique of an ox and the finesse of a swan, Adriano was deadly. He ended the season with a further 12 goals in just 18 matches. His direct play and sheer power led to his team-mate Ivan Cordoba commenting that he was a mix between Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic. A real tour de force.
The following months were even more impressive. He single-handedly led Brazil to the Copa America after leading the charts with 7 goals, including a stunning last-minute equaliser in the final against eternal rivals Argentina. With the “Albiceleste” just 20 seconds away from their first trophy in a decade, Adriano picked up a hopeful long-ball at the edge of the area and back to goal. A second, and a body twist, later the ball ploughed into the back of the net.
The Brazilian’s 28 goals in his first full season led Inter Milan to the quarter-finals of the Champions League as well as the Coppa Italia title (where Adriano scored two goals in the final in a 3-0 aggregate win against AS Roma).
Imperious. Unstoppable. Invincible.
Heartbreakingly, that’s as good as it got for the Emperor.
Many accuse him of wasting his talent but, quoting Oscar Wilde, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple”.
Javier Zanetti, the Inter captain, describes the moment things started unravelling for Adriano. It all started with a phone call the striker received a few weeks after leading his nation to the Copa America.
“Adriano had a father he was very attached to,” said Zanetti. “Before the season, actually at the time we were playing at TIM Trofeo, something shocking happened. He got a phone-call from Brazil.”
His father had died.
“I saw him in his room,” continued Zanetti. “He threw the phone and started screaming.
“You couldn’t imagine that kind of scream. I get goosebumps even to this day. Since that day [Massimo] Moratti (the Inter President) and myself watched over him as he was our little brother.
“Meanwhile he kept on playing football, he scored goals and watched towards the sky dedicating them to him. Since that phone-call nothing was the same.”
A downward spiral followed as Adriano struggled to battle depression. He regularly missed training sessions and had significant weight and drinking issues. His excessive party lifestyle meant that he lost his power and a few yards of his pace.
The monster seen during a few months in 2004 and 2005 was gone.
Despite all this, what a joy he was during that brief stint! What an absolute pleasure to see a man mountain shrug off professional defenders with one turn of his body.
While the great player will never return, Adriano seems to be defeating his demons after years of struggle.
That is what really matters.