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Posted: Tuesday October 14, 2008 11:14AM; Updated: Tuesday October 14, 2008 3:25PM
Tim Vickery Tim Vickery >

The fall and rise of 'The Emperor'

Story Highlights

Brazilian Adriano has become one of the most prolific scorers of his generation

Adriano scored 61 goals over four seasons with Inter Milan, 25 goals for Brazil

Superstar is emerging from a deep depression following the death of his father

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Adriano has been a big part of the Brazilian national-team picture since he was 18; he has 26 goals in 42 appearances with the Seleção.
Adriano has been a big part of the Brazilian national-team picture since he was 18; he has 26 goals in 42 appearances with the Seleção.
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Reprinted from SI Latino

On Rio de Janeiro's Flamengo beach, with the Sugar Loaf Mountain as a backdrop, a white-haired guy known as Jota Jota explains to the kids in his soccer school the importance of passing the ball with the first or second touch.

Jota Jota's school began 20 years ago as a kick-about with his sons. It is free, and the kids are supplied with a meal. Most of them are from poor families in the city's hillside shantytowns or favelas -- kids born on the wrong side of the tracks in the land described by historian Eric Hobsbawm as "the world champion of economic inequality."

Jota Jota's school, called Nova Safra, really took off when word got around that some of his graduates had been picked up by European clubs. His kids are inspired by the dream of the Rio poor boy: not only scoring a goal and having the stadium chant his name, but also buying a house for his mother, driving a flashy imported car and having a glamorous girlfriend, preferably blonde. Some of the boys are 10 years old and wouldn't be able to find Europe on a map. But they know that all these things are on offer on the other side of the Atlantic.

"In the kids' minds, the ideal situation is to stand out here in Brazil and move abroad as soon as possible," says Jota Jota, 77. "In reality, the adaptation is not easy. The European people are much colder, there's the climate to get used to. It takes an adult a year to adapt. It's tough, but the kids are only thinking about the money, they're not thinking about the difficulties."

Adriano Leite Ribeiro is a Rio favela kid for whom the dream came true. With a howitzer left foot that is also capable of surprising subtlety, he became one of the most feared strikers in the world game. In Italy, where he plays for Inter Milan, he was proclaimed "The Emperor." As the money poured in, he lived in what one of his friends termed "Disneyland for grownups." And then he discovered the dark side of the dream.

"When you're small, you dream of having a big car," says Adriano. "Your mother is the most important person in your life, and you dream of giving her a big house. And you see the top footballers with beautiful and glamorous women. It all happened for me, and of course I was happy to be known all around the world. But if you're not surrounded by people who want what's best for you, you can end up feeling lonely. Success and everything that comes with it don't always bring happiness. Happiness is in the little things."

On the way to acquiring such wisdom, Adriano nearly threw his career away. He made his debut for the Rio giants Flamengo in February 2000, a few days before his 18th birthday. Ten months later, he was playing for Brazil, though it would take him nearly four years to establish himself on the national team. By then he would be a Serie A sensation.

Internazionale bought him in '01; he had successful loan spells at Fiorentina and Parma, and was then crowned Emperor upon his goal-scoring return to Inter. Between '02 and '06, he scored 61 goals in four seasons. For Brazil, meanwhile, his tally stands at a highly impressive 26 goals in 42 appearances, with plenty of important strikes that proved decisive in winning a Copa América, a Confederations Cup and a World Cup qualifier. He scored twice in the last World Cup.

But even before Germany '06, signs of Adriano's decline were apparent, and afterward he went off the rails. In his mid-20s, when he should have been entering his prime, he was so depressed and off form that Inter didn't know what to do with him. He had become the most striking example of a clear trend toward greater inconsistency at the elite level of world soccer.

The trend is hardly surprising. On the one hand, today's stars command wages much higher than, for example, the generation of Zico. On the other hand, the physical demands on players have also increased substantially, both in the number of games played and in their intensity. According to Brazil's physical-preparation specialists, in the mid-'70s, a player ran 3.1 miles per game. By the mid-'90s the number had doubled, and now some players are covering eight miles. Staying fit enough to do this every week means resisting the temptations that are so readily available to the wealthy -- as Adriano now understands.

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