Sometimes, for a goalkeeper, not even instinct can help you.
You throw out a hand, driven by muscle memory, and you’re left with the reverberations from where the ball once was, or where it merely might have been. In front of you, defenders lie strewn on the ground as if in a war zone, bodies horizontal and backs turned. The ball? Well, that’s nestling serenely in the back of your net of course.
For a short time in the mid-2000s, when Inter Milan’s giant Brazilian striker Adriano got things right, there was only ever one ending.
If only his career wasn’t similarly there and then gone, almost before you could properly slow down to appreciate it.
There’s a sense that video game versions of footballers are meant to be exaggerations to the point of near-parody.
It’s how Pro Evolution Soccer let Roberto Carlos’ banana kick take on the status of a combo move in a beat-’em-up, or why recent incarnations of Fifa games go to extreme lengths to incorporate trademark celebrations.
Recently, when asked on social media for their favourite weapon from a video game, one of the most popular answers was “Adriano’s left boot on Pro Evo 6”. There’s no hiding from the fact that it was more weapon than limb.
However, for a time, that definition extended beyond the computer game and into real life, if only briefly.
If other players could be described as having a rocket for a left foot, Adriano’s was more like a slingshot: if you waited long enough for him to pull it back, your fate was already in the lap of the gods. The ball was going to fly straight and true, and if anything got in the way it would be pure luck.
The slingshot was evident for one goal he scored goal against Roma in the first-leg of the 2005 Coppa Italia final. You could barely get through the first syllable of the phrase “What’s he doing shooting from there?” before the ball hit the back of the net.
This is almost to be expected in a video game, where even a beginner can mash buttons in a valiant effort to somehow escape danger, but this sort of thing just isn’t supposed to happen in real football. Tactics have evolved to the point where “a big guy smacking the ball as hard as he can” shouldn’t have been a viable approach, and yet…
What helped, of course, was that Adriano had the technique and wherewithal to go along with that left foot. He knew when to pull the trigger, and he was smart enough to know when subtlety was required.
There was one goal against Perugia in the 2003-04 season – his first after returning to Inter after a fruitful, if brief, spell with Parma – which really stood out.
Collecting the ball from a throw-in just inside the Perugia half, he used his body to hold off the initial challenge of Souleymane Diamoutene, but it was pure skill which left the Mali defender on the ground, along with Marco Di Loreto and goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac, before Adriano dinked the ball into the corner.
Throughout the run he had little in the way of support from his team-mates, but it felt as though they knew he didn’t need them. How could any defence cope with a striker with incredible strength, close-control and finesse at his disposal all at once?
If he didn’t beat you in the air, he’d have your defenders on toast with his movement and skill, and if you stood off enough to stop him beating you with skill there was always the slingshot.
Real life gets in the way
If real life was like a video game, reducing a footballer to his abilities and his abilities only, Adriano would surely have achieved even more.
In a perfect, video game world, he would have been able to trap those abilities and bottle that confidence rather than ending up with all that quality frozen in the mid-2000s forever. However, tragically, life intervened to a point where everything disintegrated remarkably quickly.
Adriano’s father died suddenly after the striker’s second breakthrough at Inter, and the moment is largely credited with his dramatic and rapid decline. Even if there were occasional outliers, such as that phenomenal chip for Flamengo against Curitiba in 2009, it’s hard not to divide his career into the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of that moment.
“Adriano has confessed that he was terrified by the thought of becoming the man of the family,”Tim Vickery wrote in 2011. “And there was something else: his great motivations to play football were to make his father happy and, of course, to make money.
“Now, with his father gone and his bank balance bulging, what was the point?”
Adriano’s talents may have sustained him a little longer, through to that memorable Pro Evo cover star season, but Inter team-mate Javier Zanetti would later recall that “nothing was the same” after that moment. Indeed, as soon as alleged “attitude problems” brought real life repercussions, the wheels came off.
As soon as he was given a moment to stop and acknowledge that his career would eventually end, leaving him with nothing left to strive for besides the responsibility of becoming the man of the family, Adriano’s mind conspired against him to bring that end ever closer.
If he had been around a generation earlier, it might have been easier for his decline to be managed to the point that it was only temporary: giving him time to return to Brazil and stay out of the spotlight might have been achievable were it not for the video game version of Adriano forever lingering.
It was like a reverse Dorian Gray, where any assessment of the real man couldn’t be removed from the exaggerated depiction, doomed to forever remain perfect in ways Adriano himself could never be expected to sustain.
Watching Adriano at his peak, there might be an argument that he should have been indulged at every opportunity – it’s certainly an argument given greater strength by the power of hindsight.
When you have a player of such devastating quality, someone who has all the ingredients and combines them so effortlessly, you can be fooled into thinking they are impossible to derail. You can view the career trajectory like the run and finish against Perugia: any challenge will be countered, and a solution will be found whatever stands in his way.
At the time Adriano should have been in prime form he was suddenly nothing special. Adriano’s career record of 77 Serie A goals in 180 games doesn’t tell the full story, when just 10 of those goals arrived after his 24th birthday.
Even now, just 16 Brazilians have more international goals than Adriano. Yet, at the age at which he should have been creeping up on the tallies of Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, and even Ronaldo, he was pulling on the shirt of the Seleçao for the final time.
The poignancy of his decline is enough to remind us how real life is nothing like a game, and how there are some things you can’t account for.
Still, that doesn’t make the Pro Evo depiction any less accurate – the game made him into an all-conquering superhero for a striker, but for a time that’s what he was. Ultimately we can feel grateful such a depiction exists, even if it serves as a reminder of what went wrong as much as what went right.