Of all the international tournaments at which a player can make their mark, take by storm and forever be associated with, perhaps there is none more underwhelming than the Confederations Cup.
But perhaps there is no more fitting a match than the Confederations Cup and Adriano Leite Riberio, the player who will forever be associated with the 2005 edition of the official ‘year before the World Cup dry run’. At the time of the tournament, Adriano was one of the most fearsome strikers in world football, part of a Brazilian side that had sold its samba soul to Dunga.
Now, ten years after a tournament he made his own, Adriano is more readily associated with weight-gain, addiction problems and unfulfilled potential. His legend, however, still burns as brightly as ever in a very specific sub-set of football supporters – fans of the computer game ‘Pro Evolution Soccer 6’.
The 2005 Confederations Cup came at the end of what had been Adriano’s most impressive club season, where he scored 28 goals in 42 games for Inter Milan. His career with Internazionale had began in the summer of 2001 where some complicated dealing involving half shares in player between Inter, PSG and Flamengo all resulting in a move amounting to just over €13m for the striker.
The wheeling and dealing was not finished with there, as Adriano was immediately loaned out to Fiorentina for the 2001-02 season. After six goals in 15 appearances in Florence, the player was involved in another confusing transfer agreement – something worryingly common in Italian football at the time.
A two season shared ownership deal was struck with Parma, with a fee of nearly €9m changing hands. This move was to prove the first steps to prominence for Adriano, as he formed a significant strike partnership with Adrian Mutu and scored 26 goals in 44 games in his time away from Inter.
His form for Parma persuaded Inter to bring him back to the San Siro early, parting with around €23m to do so. After grabbing an impressive 12 goals in 18 games for Inter in what remained of that 2003-2004 season, he came back the following year for his most impressive domestic season in Europe and headed to the Confederations Cup in Germany with plenty of eyes upon him.
While hardly the brightest of stages upon which to shine, Adriano was the stand-out player in Germany that summer, carrying his form from his club seamlessly to his national team.
In fact, this was the second summer in a row in which the striker had been a star turn for Brazil. He had been the top scorer in the 2004 Copa America, scoring a last gasp equaliser in the final against Argentina, a match Brazil would go on to win on penalties.
He ended the Confederations Cup as both top scorer with five goals and Player of the Tournament, bagging a brace in both the semi-final against Germany and a crushing 4-1 final victory over old foes Argentina.
It was not merely the number of goals he scored in that 12 month period – bookended by top scorer awards at international tournaments – but rather how he was playing. When he was on his game, he looked the kind of player for whom the phrase ‘unplayable’ was coined. It appeared at times that he could do anything.
He had the strength and viciously magnificent strike of a ball befitting a man of his build but a turn of pace and touch that belied his size. Given the name ‘The Emperor’ while at the peak of his powers in Serie A, he ruled his empire with his deadly left foot, as likely to stick the ball through a defenders legs as he was to brutalise a shot toward the goal. In a time before Messi and Ronaldo became what they are today, it felt as though Adriano’s empire could have extended all across Europe.
It would never come to pass, however. The 2005-06 season brought a decent goal return for Inter of 18 goals in all competitions, but the fire of the previous season just was not apparent.
Carrying a weight of expectation on his shoulders, Adriano bagged two goals in that summer’s World Cup but found that games were not bending to his will as they had a year before. Throughout the tournament he was peripheral and Brazil eventually succumbed to France in the quarter finals.
A return to Milan offered no uptake in Adriano’s fortunes. In fact, it is at this point where his story begins to unravel. His tired, peripheral offering at the World Cup was perhaps explained as the striker felt the wrath of Inter boss Roberto Mancini for his unprofessional lifestyle and lackluster preparation. His relationship with the club suffered as Adriano suffered with personal demons.
A return to boyhood club Flamengo offered brief hope, but a battle with alcoholism was proving too much, his career sputtering along with single season stays at Corinthians and Roma amongst others until eventually ending up without a club.
Mentioning Adriano to most football fans now will draw wistful talk of wasted potential and sad comments about weight gain and his battle with addiction. The exhilarating joy of watching him burst past three defenders before rocketing – and I mean really rocketing – the ball past a defender has faded from the memories of the majority of fans, replaced with the sad details of the player’s decline.
However, say his name to a specific sub-set of football fans and watch as they get all misty eyed and begin chattering about something called a “Master League”.
Pro Evolution Soccer (Pro Evo) 6 was the third part in a trilogy of football gaming perfection from Japanese developers Konami. One of its two cover stars was the hero of this piece, Adriano (the other was John Terry).
It is not unusual for cover-stars to be treated very kindly by developers when handing out attributes in football games. But this was different. To say Adriano dominated this game would be doing his virtual rendering a serious disservice. He was so good to use him almost felt like cheating.
Anyone who plays football computer games knows that in some games, certain players just turn out to be rather wonderful, Benni McCarthy in Fifa 2006 is one example. However, Adriano in Pro Evo 6 is not the same as a striker in Milwall’s reserves in Football Manager 2001-02 turning out to be a world beater.
Adriano in this game felt like a realisation of his potential, it felt like an extrapolation of that 12 month peak over an entire video game. The things Adriano did in the game felt like things we could see him do in real life.
This writer’s favourite Adriano memory from Pro Evo 6 came in an unremarkable group game of a custom-created international tournament against Romania. Kaka made a burst to the right end line and chipped an inviting cross to the far edge of the box.
Adriano, who had been trotting towards the penalty spot, stopped his run and, meeting the ball as it fell from the sky, rocketed an exquisite volley passed a goalkeeper who did well to get out of the way. Replace the grace of Zidane’s 2002 Champions League winning goal with malice and you’ll get the picture.
Perhaps it is fitting that to best remember Adriano we must turn to a football video game because much of what he did on the pitch seemed almost like a glitch; a man of his size leaving defenders in his wake with his turn of pace or the sheer explosive power of his left foot making fools of goalkeepers. Some players make football seem very easy, Adriano at his best only made it look more difficult, almost unreal.
In real life, Adriano became The Emperor with no clothes, a boy from the favela who had the talent to conquer the world but whose demons ended up conquering his career. There will always be a sense of sadness and regret around Adriano’s journey in football, the sheer potential that went unfulfilled. In that video game, however, something truly magnificent is protected and enshrined.
Though he’ll never be remembered as one of the greats of the game, Adriano has been one of the most exhilarating and heart pounding players to watch in the last 15 years. And that is worth celebrating.