“Made it Ma, Top Of The World!” shouts Jimmy Cagney’s character, Cody, in White Heat, just before dying in a gas explosion he himself has caused. It is a line dripping with meanings – one of which is how ambition, if not carefully nurtured and managed, can ultimately lead to our downfall.
It is a phrase that could easily be applied to the career of Brazilian striker Adriano, accused by the Rio de Janeiro attorney’s office this week of involvement with drugs traffickers in the favela where he grew up, Vila Cruzeiro. From winning four scudetti with Inter Milan and being elected player of the year at the 2004 Copa America to accused of criminal activity,* few players as talented have fallen so far in such a short space of time.
Adriano was alleged to have bought a 600cc motorbike in 2007 and registered it in the name of the mother of his friend Paulo Rogério de Souza, aka Mica, a known traficante. The bike was then used by Mica in drug trafficking operations for the Comando Vermelho criminal faction, which controlled the Vila Cruzeiro region at the time. According to the attorney’s office, Adriano “associated himself with active traficantes in operation in Vila Cruzeiro, with the aim of facilitating the illegal selling of drugs and related activities.”
Sadly, the news will not come as a huge surprise to those who have been following Adriano’s life in recent years. From his O Imperador glory days at Inter Milan and Parma, when his speed, strength, and thunderous shooting made him at times unplayable, Adriano’s downward spiral has rarely looked like bottoming out.
“I’ve got great memories of him,” said former Italy World Cup boss Cesare Prandelli. “He spent two years with me at Parma and played tremendously well. He’s a great player, one of the strongest I’ve seen.” Zlatan Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, his teammate at Inter, has described Adriano as “one of the best in the world,” and few Inter or Brazil fans will forget the 40 goals he scored for club and country between July 2004 and June 2005.
But it has been years now since Adriano has looked like a force, and his career has become a gloomy, almost farcical odyssey as he trudges from club to club in search of redemption. Even an impressive spell with São Paulo in 2008 and a Brazilian league title win with Flamengo in 2009 could not be greeted with wholesale delight, for it meant he was back in Rio – and closer to temptation.
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Adriano’s relationship with the favela communities where he grew up is tangled. On one level, Vila Cruzeiro is the sanctuary he has always returned to when the pressure gets too much. But at the same time the complex web of social relationships, often with people on the margins of society, that awaits him there has put the player in situations that are hardly conducive to the life of a professional athlete.
One of those occurred in 2006, before the World Cup in Germany. According to Brazil’s Globoesporte website, Adriano was celebrating his call-up with friends, some of whom were allegedly wanted by the police, in a Rio club. After leaving the club, Adriano’s group was stopped by police. One of his friends tried to flee and was shot and killed by police. Photographic evidence put Adriano at the scene, and he subsequently received blackmail and extortion threats.
Then there was the curious case of the woman shot in the hand while a passenger in Adriano’s car in 2011. While the story turned out to be not much more than a prank gone wrong (the gun belonged to Adriano’s bodyguard, and the woman had apparently grabbed it herself), it demonstrated the remarkable ability the player has to attract the wrong sort of attention.
His time at Flamengo came to an end after a number of disciplinary rows and further rumors of involvement with traficantes. Then came a fruitless spell at Roma before another comeback attempt, this time with Corinthians, ended in failure shortly after he was dropped for “not trying as much as hoped in training.”
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By now Adriano’s decline had become a headlong plunge. He tried again at Flamengo in 2012, but visibly out of shape, he was seen more often in Rio’s bars and clubs than on the pitch. His last attempt to save his career in Brazil came at well-organized but unglamorous Atlético-PR in the southern city of Curitiba. “I’m going to get better bit by bit,” he said on making his debut after 22 months out of action. “Maybe I can still play for Brazil again.” Five months later, his contract was torn up by the club after he missed two consecutive training sessions.
While dreamers will hope his proposed move to French second division club Le Havre marks a change in fortune, warier observers will fear the worst. Le Havre owner Christophe Maillol has said that the player’s legal troubles will not affect the deal, but had expressed concerns over the attorney’s office’s intention to withhold Adriano’s passport.
It all adds up to a remarkable fall from grace for a player who seemed, like a number of other talented Brazilians before and after him, to lose motivation with their best years still ahead. Adriano has long cited the 2004 death of his father, whose health problems worsened since being hit by a stray bullet in Vila Cruzeiro in 1992 (the bullet remained lodged in his skull), as playing a huge role in his unhappiness. Coupled with the loneliness he felt when away from family and friends in Europe along and his long-term battle with alcohol, it made for a dangerous brew.
“Many players leave Brazil to play abroad and have no problems. Others, like Adriano, don’t have a support network to deal with the changes in their lives, the success, and the glamour …” psychologist Paulo Ribeiro, who worked with Adriano in 2009, told Globo. “Coupled with the loss of his father, the ingredients work like a bomb.”
As in so many areas of life, much of the problem arises from social background. Another former Brazilian superstar, Kaká, represents the opposing pole. The former Ballon d’Or winner is the privately educated middle class boy, eager to learn Italian and Spanish, thrilled by the prospect of immersing himself in foreign cultures. Adriano is the lad from the wrong side of the tracks, blessed with only the most rudimentary of educations, most content when he is back home drinking with his pals in Vila Cruzeiro.
Tragically, while the favela is where he says he is happiest, it has been his inability to separate himself from some of the darker elements of Brazilian society that has contributed to his downfall.
* – Editor’s note: On Thursday night, a Brazilian court rejected the attorney’s office charges against Adriano, concluding there was not enough evidence to sustain the accusation. Our second paragraph, as well as the tense referencing the charges throughout the piece, has been edited to reflect the case’s dismissal.