The Fall of "The Emperor"
by Emil Staulund Larsen
Adriano Leite Ribeiro. Photo by Alex Carvalho
The ball is desperately launched forward in the dying minutes. The stadium is at a boiling point. 43.000 fans are in the stadium, millions are watching the match on television around the world. It's a classic in football. Argentina versus Brazil in a Copa America final. César Delgado had minutes earlier restored Argentina's lead and now all of Argentina is waiting for the judge to blow his whistle. The ball is headed away by an Argentinian player. The clock reaches 90 minutes. Time is up for Brazil. The ball is again crossed into the penalty box. Two players clash. The ball falls in front of a 22-year old kid. A defender tries to hit away, but with a neat touch, the kid lifts the ball above the swinging boot of the defender, twist his body around and hits it.
Now and then, a tournament goes down in history as 'that player's tournament'. This is one of them. Adriano Leite Ribero, commonly known as just 'Adriano', was that player of that tournament. Not only did he score the saviour's goal in the dying minutes, he also scored Brazil's first in the following penalty shootout, which they would end up winning, and he became the top scorer of the tournament with seven goals — four goals ahead of the second-best.

The world was at his feet in 2004. A combination of physical strength, technique, speed and a devastating powerful left boot. He was the heir to Ronaldo who won the Ballon d'Or few years before.

But he would never reach the level of Ronaldo. Instead, 'The Emperor' — a nickname he gained for his dominating displays — failed. Behind the stardom of football, talented footballers disappear. Often, they are blamed themselves for drinking too much, party late or lack motivation. The fall of 'The Emperor' would teach us a lesson about the dark side of the football world.

Black Holes and Shining Stars

A few months after Copa America, Adriano picked up his phone. It was a call from Brazil. There was silence while the other person was talking. Adriano was mute for some time — seconds that must have felt like hours. He took the phone away and with the power which have made him famous, he flung the phone through the room and let out a terrible scream.

In the years after the death of his father, Adriano suffered. He is far from alone, though. The player's own association FIFPro found that 26% of active players suffer from symptoms of depression and/or anxiety. A level higher than the general population. Multiple players have talked about the issue. Many of them in the end of their careers. Recently, the captain of Manchester United Michael Carrick opened on his struggles with training camps with the national team which he described as "depressing".

"I ended up in a black hole," he said. "People would tell me, 'pull yourself together and be grateful', but I just couldn't." The triggers for depression are individual, but for every player coming forward, it becomes more and more obvious that football is facing a problem.

From the Favela's Slum to Milano's Millions

The legend of Adriano began in the Brazilian favelas. Growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, a tough and poor neighbourhood where tourists are advised not to come for their own safety, Adriano had a tough upbringing. Many of the favelas' teenagers end up in small-time criminality, drug-dealing or even as part of the favela gangs.

The hard upbringing might have been a contributing factor to Adriano's hardship later in life. Studies have shown that growing up poor raises several problems, which can hinder a child's cognitive development and, in the end, make them more prone to be involved in crime or have mental problems. Simply put, Adriano was vulnerable for suffering.

But Adriano got out of Brazil. He was given the opportunity millions of kids are dreaming of — to play football in Europe. To play Champions League, on the national team, winning titles, getting rich and famous. But money is not equal to happiness.

Multiple studies have shown correlations between wealth, success and depression. For many, social relations become difficult when they get superrich. When one have topped the world in their field, the lack of motivation can appear too. After winning three Olympic gold medals, Sir Bradley Wiggins talked about his subsequent struggles. "For a while my life threatened to spiral out of control" he said, and added that life became stale when there was no more to reach for.

With extraordinary wealth and success, a sense, that mental problems are no longer applicable, comes along. When Aaron Lennon of Everton was detained for concerns for his welfare, the Daily Mail presented the story as "£55,000-a-week England footballer Aaron Lennon is detained under Mental Health Act after stand-off with police".

Adriano never reached his pinnacle. Still, he became a national hero and earned himself a €23,4 million contract, just 22-years old.

Loneliness and Suffering in a Dream

It's not clear what causes a depression. Major life events are often portrayed to trigger depression, but it might just be the last straw. Still, loss of form, injuries or the death of a family member can change a footballer's life. Nikola Saric was 17 when he earned himself a transfer to one of Europe's top clubs, Liverpool FC, and was labelled "one of Europe's most promising young strikers".

"I had seen all the hype about my switch to Liverpool in the media," he remembers. "The things that I have expected from myself has always been higher than what other have thought I could achieve. The biggest pressure came from me. The club never pushed me."

The dream turned into a nightmare. Injury upon injury ruined his time in Liverpool. Instead of training on the famous training ground, where many legends have put their feet, Nikola Saric was sidelined and on crutches.

"I was lonely in the beginning. I didn't know anyone in Liverpool. I felt helpless. I couldn't go down shopping because I had those damn crutches, I was not allowed to stand on the leg at all. I had massive phone bills, as I was calling people all the time. I needed to do something with my time," Nikola Saric tells.

Living far away from your family is difficult. Players from South America or Africa must say goodbye to family and friends to pursue their dream in Europe. In the music industry, many struggle on the road and away from family. 60% of musicians in the UK have suffered from mental issues, with many stating that touring is a draining experience. Despite living the dream in tabloid media, some describe hotel rooms as "prison cells" and are missing friends and family.

Adriano was far away from his family, when times were tough. Still, he scored goals; each time he pointed to the sky, dedicating it all to a man, whom he missed like no other. "Only I know how much I suffered," Adriano says. "The death of my father left a huge hole." Despite success on the field, his private life was in tatters. As many before him, Adriano ended filling the hole in his life with alcohol. When alcohol comes lurking into a life, depression often trails.

"I felt alone and I isolated myself when he died. I was sad and depressed in Italy, and that was when I started to drink. I only felt happy drinking, I drank everything in front of me: wine, whisky, vodka, beer…I didn't know how to hide it."

No Room for Sorrow

Week in and week out, the results are everything for the club. While it seems that mental health awareness is being taken gradually more serious in workplaces generally, the football world seems to be lacking behind. Author of the book "No Hunger in Paradise" Michael Calvin writes about the training environment for youngsters in England. Shouting, cursing and kids breaking down are normal.

"Our dugout is pumped up, like a drunken crowd at a greyhound track when the dogs come round the final bend. We're in an elite football environment, shouting and screaming, and thinking what the fuck have we become," he says.

From the players' perspective, there is no room for negative feelings, says psychotherapist and former professional football player Rasmus Daugaard. "It's a performance environment. I still read now and thennow and then that if you cannot be in this kind of environment, then you should leave. That means typically that there is no room for being nervous, sad, frightened or worried. It's an environment in which if you're afraid of making a mistake in front of 20,000 people, then we need to find someone else," Rasmus Daugaard tells.

Many footballers have talked about survival in football. Only the strongest survive, and if you show weakness you'll get dropped. And this is not just in matches, but also in training sessions, which means a constant pressure on players. Rasmus Daugaard looks forward to the day when the industry is ready to embrace negative feelings. There is a lot to gain for both team and players.

The Hateful Love of the Fans

In an ever-changing world, football fans stay the same. "You can change wife, politics, religion. But you cannot change your favourite football team," French football legend Eric Cantona once said. It's not even a joke. It's a marriage, rather than a love affair for the fans. 'Till death do us apart'. Roma legend Francesco Totti said he had cheated on all his girlfriends, "but he would never cheat on Roma." But like in marriage, things can turn sour.

"When times get hard and you go on a run of defeats, it does get frustrating. Your tolerance level drops significantly and you begin to criticise things that you normally wouldn't," tells Cammy Anderson, a fan of Dufermline and Manchester United.

It's all down to passion, he tells. You want to see your team winning and when performances are not good enough, the crowd can turn on their own players. "Lazy players in particular get turned upon easily. Fans get annoyed by what they perceive as a lack of effort on the player's part," Cammy Anderson says.

As a fan of both a local second-tier team and a top club in Europe, Cammy Anderson believe that fans are far quicker to turn on players in top teams. In case of local teams, fans feel more connected with the players, he believes.

All the involved parties want the team to play good football and win matches. But boos and criticism is not the right approach to make players perform well, Rasmus Daugaard adds. "I wish there was a softer tone from fans towards players. I don't think there's any football player who is fully honest when saying the fans' opinion doesn't affect him."

There are numerous examples of talented players who gets 'thrown under the bus' by fans. Top scorers, club captains, national heroes. No one is safe. Death threats are not unheard-of for making mistakes. Adriano too was booed by the fans, when his goals had gone missing.

"I get depressed when I am booed by the fans. If they and the officials think I don't deserve to wear the shirt, they only have to let me know and I will leave," Adriano says. The treatment by the fans risks worsening the form and the player's mental state, Rasmus Daugaard tells. "I think that would happen to any person. And that's first and foremost what the player is — a person."

Instead of lifting Adriano in his darkest hour, the fans pushed him further down. Not that he said that. He stayed 'professional' and stayed in character. "I want to say sorry to the supporters of Inter because I am not having a good time. I know I can give much more for the team... I have had many problems in my life, and I am not smiling or happy... I am a very lucky person because I still have a chance to play for Inter... I expect to score goals soon and make the supporters of Inter happy."

Live and Die Football

Adriano was prone to parties, girls, alcohol. He was gaining weight, losing his touch, speed and his killer instinct. He was no longer that Adriano who haunted defenders and whose thunderbolt was feared by goalkeepers. Questions about his work ethics, determination and attention were raised.

"He is a champion, but he must rediscover his motivation, the right spirit and focus," his national coach Dunga explained after dropping him from the team. Two years after amazing the football world, Adriano 'won' the Bidone d'Oro — the 'Golden Bin' award given to the most disappointing player of the year in the Italian league. Just two years after he lost his father, he was mocked for his lack of goals.

"People who are not in the elite business of sports find it difficult to understand. People say, 'You have it so easy'," Nikola Saric tells. "Everything was about how you performed the next day. You are being watched and assessed all the time."

For many, there is no plan B or hobby outside the sport. The sole-purpose makes failure even harder, tells Rasmus Daugaard. Something that can be seen in many elite-environments like dancing or acting. Failure is not an option. And with talent, responsibility to fulfill it will follow.

"Adriano is the classic example of how to destroy your talent. Talent is secondary though, if you don't balance it with dedication and professionalism — two things he completely lacked," a former teammate Figo said.

Farewell to 'The Emperor'

For Adriano, the pressure became too much. He left Europe to find himself and his joy of life again. After some time in Brazil, he refused to go back to Europe. "I have lost the joy to play," he said. "I don't want to play in Italy. I want to stay in peace with my family in Brazil." He insisted that he was healthy. "I am not ill," he said. "Adriano is not dead."

But Adriano, adored by the fans in 2004, was dead. He would never get back to that level again, while fans and experts ponder what he could have become. Adriano is a unique talent, but his sufferings are not. The death of his father may have been the trigger for his depression and fall from the throne, but it's the tough culture of football that puts players in a vulnerable position under extreme pressure. The fall of Adriano is a lesson for all footballers for how bad things can go. But it's also a lesson for the fans and media to see footballers for what they are – people.
About the author: Emil is a Danish freelance journalist working with European and regional issues around Europe. He has been working with a series of Danish and European papers through his reportages. Emil has mainly been working as a writing journalist, but also has some experience with podcasts and radio. For this piece, Emil chose a different topic than usual taking a critical look at a passion of his, football, and trying to understand why one of his idols ended up failing.

Emil Staulund Larsen
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