The fall and rise of 'The Emperor' (cont.)
"You think you're doing the right thing by going out," he says, "but time teaches you it's wrong. We earn a lot, but the demands are high. This means we can't have normal lives like everyone else. I see the traps now, and I'm trying to be careful with this." It is a narrow plank for any young man to walk -- especially one from Adriano's background.
Vila Cruzeiro, the favela in Rio de Janeiro where he grew up, became notorious in '02 for what happened there to Tim Lopes, a journalist for Brazil's powerful TV Globo. Lopes, working on a story about the narcotics trade, was secretly filming deals taking place at a baile funk party. He was spotted by drug dealers, captured, put on trial, tortured, killed and cut into pieces. Many Cariocas were bemused by the ensuing public outcry. The drug lords did things like this all the time. Just not to TV Globo reporters.
The violence in Vila Cruzeiro is not just about poverty. There are poorer areas of Rio. A bigger reason for the violence is the value of the favela to the drug trade. Vila Cruzeiro is well served by buses from prosperous zones, bringing wealthy consumers of the white powder. It is an area where plenty of young men are at their most articulate with an AK-47.
Adriano's father, Almir, carried a souvenir of the local troubles. A bullet was lodged in his skull since 1992, when he was caught up in a shootout. It may have been contributed to his death from a heart attack in August '04. A few weeks earlier, Almir had greeted Adriano at his finest hour, the triumphant return from the Copa América. In front of the cameras, father and son happily splashed water over each other like a pair of playful elephants.
Almir's death marked the start of Adriano's decline. The next season was his most successful for Inter, but, as he explains, "It took time for it to sink in that my father wasn't around anymore. It was then that I started losing focus, not concentrating properly. I lost control and started doing things I wouldn't do today."
He suddenly realized how lonely he was. He had pushed himself hard, paying the price for breaking into the Brazil team: Confederations Cup '03, Copa América '04, Confederations Cup '05, World Cup '06. Years with hardly a holiday. Something had to give. He was rich, so why not chase some pleasure? And there was a void to fill.
"My dad always supported me. He liked to watch me play," says Adriano. With him gone, soccer no longer seemed so important. Isolated in Italy, he missed the sense of community of Vila Cruzeiro's cramped streets. As the player told the Italian media in a much-publicized interview last year, "I started to drown all my problems in alcohol. I was drinking heavily and couldn't not go out."
Looking back on that time, when his performance was declining -- he scored only six goals in 30 games during the '06-07 season. Adriano says, "When things were going badly, I really thought about giving up soccer. There was a time when my mother said to me, 'Come home, son.' But I said, 'No, I'm going to beat this and come out on top again,' and that's what I've been doing. Thank God I'm stronger than all this."
In October '06, Inter allowed him to spend some time in Rio. Even his agent, former goalkeeper Gilmar Rinaldi, thought this was a bad idea. It presented Adriano with free time likely to be spent with people from Vila Cruzeiro who were not necessarily positive influences.
Finally, in December '07, Inter loaned him to Brazilian powerhouse São Paulo. He was busy training and playing, a few hundred miles from the temptations of Rio but still in a familiar cultural environment. With renewed fitness and confidence, he was an unquestioned success, looking strong and sharp as he scored six of the 10 goals São Paulo managed in its Copa Libertadores campaign, which ended in the quarterfinals. "Everything I achieve in football from now," Adriano says, "São Paulo is part of it."
Part of his '08 comeback is clearly related to an acceptance of his father's death. "I don't cry anymore," he says. "Of course I still miss him, but I can deal with it better now. You have to learn the lessons life teaches you. I know he's watching me from up there."
Now he's back in Italy, playing for Inter's new coach, the celebrated Portuguese skipper José Mourinho. In June, Mourinho went to the stadium in Belo Horizonte to watch his striker in action against Argentina and chat with him. He clearly liked what he saw. Although a muscular injury delayed Adriano's participation in the Serie A this season, he was named in the club's squad for the Champions League, with the experienced Argentine striker Hernán Crespo missing out. It's a sign that Mourinho thinks Adriano is back on track.
These days when you ask a professional footballer whether the game gives him the same pleasure that it did when he was a kid, the answer usually is no. All the traveling and the pressure for results take some of the gloss away. But Adriano has learned the hard way that, in his phrase, "happiness is in the little things," and one of the little things that makes him happy is kicking a ball around.
So when the question is put to him, a big smile comes over his face. "I think it is the same pleasure," he says. "Playing football, being in the stadium and scoring a goal that makes your supporters happy -- it's the same feeling."
That sounds like something from a daydream of one of Jota Jota's kids on Flamengo beach.