When the Emperor conquered the continent: Adriano and the 2004 Copa America

When the Emperor conquered the continent: Adriano and the 2004 Copa America

“There are things that can’t be explained in football … we can’t explain what went wrong”. These were the words of a distraught Javier Zanetti on 25 July 2004. His beloved Argentina had just suffered defeat in the Copa America final to arch-rivals Brazil.

Penalty shootout exits would become something of a familiarity for La Albiceleste in future tournaments, but knowing that they would be leaving Peru empty-handed clearly weighed heavy on Zanetti and co, especially given that Argentina had led until the dying seconds of the game.

Zanetti’s assessment of the final sounds like the words of a man overwhelmed by the situation, and distraught in knowing that he was mere seconds away from his first major international trophy. However, the outcome that day is not beyond explanation. The answer is that Brazil had been dragged to the summit of that tournament by an all-conquering behemoth, and that nobody, not Argentina nor any higher power, could have stopped the almighty Adriano in his quest to lift the Copa America trophy that summer

When you think of Adriano, the bulky Brazilian forward widely touted as the successor to Ronaldo in the mid-noughties, it is common to reduce the man to memories of his avatar on Pro Evolution Soccer. In a sense, those ungodly stats and frighteningly powerful strikes remain his legacy in the minds of many fans growing up around the turn of the century, certainly more than his short-lived dominance in Serie A or his record for the Selecao.

As nostalgic as we remain to our well-spent youth, though, it does Adriano’s brief but important legacy an immense disservice. While he may have been effectively finished in football before he turned 30, it is hard to argue that his flame did not burn bright at its peak.

Signed by Inter aged just 19, Adriano found himself passed on to a chaotic Fiorentina on loan before a brief but successful transfer to Parma, where he formed an attacking partnership with another forward far from shy of controversies, Adrian Mutu. His form secured a return in January 2004 back to Inter, and it was at this point where he began to form a reputation as a replacement for his compatriot Ronaldo, both on the domestic and international scenes.

A year and a half before the young man from Rio switched back to the Nerazzurri for a hefty €23.4m, his national side claimed an unprecedented fifth World Cup. A star-studded team played the final in Yokohama in June 2002, but none shone brighter than Ronaldo. Brazil had struggled to even qualify for the World Cup that year, with Ronaldo out injured for the gruellingly long qualification campaign, but as Tim Vickery acknowledged, “With him, it’s a different story.”

Playing upfront with Ronaldinho and Rivaldo flanking him, Ronaldo claimed an eight-goal haul that included a brace in the final. The summer of 2002 truly belonged to O Fenomeno, but like the rest of the starting XI that stood head and shoulders above runners-up Germany that day, Ronaldo would not play a part in the Copa America two years later.

As they had done in previous editions of the tournament, Brazil decided to send a squad made up of younger talent eager to break into the Selecao ahead of their World Cup title defence. Rounds six and seven of the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers were being held just one month prior to the Copa America, and while Carlos Alberto Parreira stuck with his main squad for the qualification games, South America’s showpiece tournament would only get a Brazilian B side

Out went the likes of Ronaldinho, Cafu, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo, and in came some of Brazil’s promising stars who were looking to kick-start a career with the national team, such as Julio Cesar, Maicon, Luis Fabiano and Vagner Love. With plenty of raw talent in the side but not a single player over the age of 30, the competition was hardly considered a priority by the Brazilian Football Confederation. Of course, the fiercely passionate Brazilian fans remained optimistic about their team’s chances though.

The team were captained by 26 year old midfielder Alex, a relative veteran, but it was undoubtedly the big striker he was playing behind that really led Brazil to glory. Filling the shoes of the legendary Ronaldo would be no easy feat, but the tournament provided a golden opportunity for Adriano to make his claim as a starter for the next World Cup in Germany.

After all, Ronaldo’s recovery from his lengthy knee injury and subsequent performances at the 2002 World Cup may have been a remarkable comeback, but there would always be that lingering question of whether he could stay fit. Missing important games like the 2004 Copa del Rey final through injury, in which his Real Madrid side lost to Real Zaragoza, would certainly have added to this concern.

Adriano had already been given a chance to prove himself in Brazil’s Confederations Cup campaign of 2003. While the tournament was a disappointment for the team, seeing them knocked out on goal difference in the group stage, Adriano scored twice in three games and gave a much better account of himself than some of his teammates.

Undoubtedly, Ronaldo was still Brazil’s main man, even being singled out as “the player who makes the difference” by Parreira after scoring a hat-trick of penalties against Argentina in a World Cup qualifier win just a month before the Copa America began. Despite this, an undeterred Adriano was still knocking on the door for his spot in the team. By the end of July, he had smashed that door off its hinges.

The tournament began at the Estadio Nacional in Lima on 6 July, but Brazil would have to wait two days for their campaign to start roughly 1,000km away in the southern city of Arequipa. Their opening match against Chile did little to inspire hope for any Brazilians watching, but it did provide them with all three points courtesy of a very late winner from Adriano’s partner upfront, Luis Fabiano. Three days later, Brazil returned to the Estadio Arequipa to play Costa Rica, and thus began the impervious form of the “Emperor”.

Brazil stuck with the two-striker system for their next game against CONMEBOL’s guests, hoping it would prove more fruitful this time out. Suffice to say, the plan worked, with the game ending 4-1 and Adriano scoring a magnificent hat-trick.

Each goal he scored varied in technique, and seemed to represent just some of Adriano’s best attributes. His first highlighted an exceptional control of the ball and ability to strike with lethal power. This was followed by a towering header from the six-foot-two striker, and finally the physical strength he possessed to hold off a defender and finish a chance with precision.

A goal from defender Juan piled on to Costa Rica’s misery, but Adriano’s efforts had put the continent on notice. Already through to the next round, Brazil’s inexperienced defence conceded two sloppy goals and slumped to a 2-1 defeat against Paraguay, leaving them second in the group and drawn against Group B winners Mexico. It was a tale of mixed fortunes at the start of the tournament, but through Adriano, Brazil would soon take the competition by the scruff of its neck.

Up to Piura next, where in the city of eternal heat they would prove far too hot for Mexico to handle. This Mexican side looked strong going into the tie, having come out of their group unbeaten and claiming positive results against South American powerhouses Argentina and Uruguay.

Experience, particularly of international tournaments, also lay more in Mexico’s camp, as El Tri featured no less than nine players who made it past the group stages of the World Cup two years prior. With Mexico being captained by Barcelona defender Rafael Marquez, many expected a tight game in which they could hold off the so-far impressive Brazilian attack.

From the first whistle, however, Mexico looked inferior, with the running of Adriano proving to be their undoing. Unable to contain his charge into the penalty box, Adriano saw his shot rebound off of goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez before he collected it back and angled for a second attempt. As he did so, Sanchez slid in and the big striker came down, rather theatrically so.

The call was dubious, but a penalty was given nonetheless. Alex converted, and Brazil were ahead at the end of the first half. Not content with the narrow lead that he had afforded his side, Adriano would step up a level in the final 45 minutes to leave Mexico’s hopes of a comeback dashed.

Two goals showcasing his power, precision and ball control put Brazil into an insurmountable lead, before he stole the ball from the goalkeeper’s fumble and neatly backheeled to substitute Ricardo Oliviera, who had a simple tap in to make it four unanswered goals for the Brazilians.

Adriano’s near-flawless performance in Piura cemented a semi final spot against Uruguay, who had managed to see off Paraguay in their previous match. La Celeste, looking to improve on their exit in the penultimate round of the 2001 Copa America, this time took a more competitive squad with key players from some of Europe’s elite clubs. This included Manchester United’s Diego Forlan, Schalke pair Darío Rodríguez and Gustavo Varela, and Paolo Montero, a four-time Serie A winner with Juventus and one of Uruguay’s all-time great defenders.

The day before Brazil played Uruguay in the capital, Argentina ended Colombia’s ten game unbeaten run in the competition, and in impressive fashion too. A 3-0 win saw Marcelo Bielsa’s men comfortably through to the final, and perhaps added to Brazil’s determination to exceed the expectations of their makeshift team.

Uruguay, famously the architects of Brazil’s Maracana tragedy in 1950, had the chance to once again break their neighbours’ hearts. Jorge Fassati’s side made their attacking intentions known straight from kickoff, with long balls and crosses galore to test the Brazilian defence. Four corners in the first four minutes came to nothing, before a rapid counter-attack required Sebastian Viera to save two powerful strikes at the other end.

Both Brazil and their southern neighbour came out swinging early on, but it would be the latter that drew first blood. Maicon, still a young and inexperienced defender at the time, stuck out his foot to trip Christian Rodriguez and give Uruguay a free-kick in a good crossing position. Uruguay took full advantage of this gift, as Marcelo Soza met the curling cross with a diving header that left Julio Cesar feebly scrambling to stop.

Truthfully, Uruguay should have had a two-goal cushion, had it not been for a freak miss earlier on from Sevilla’s Dario Silva. Despite holding firm for the rest of the first half, they would come to regret this miss as both sides came out for the second half.

Adriano had so far been shut out and frustrated by Uruguay, perhaps best summed up by his double foul on Dario Rodriguez and Javier Delgado, but he would make amends early into the second half thanks to the work of Alex. Receiving the ball on the turn and quickly playing it behind Uruguay’s back line allowed Luis Fabiano to provide Adriano with a golden chance. Very few would have bet on anything other than a certain goal, given the striker’s form, and Adriano once again embraced the expectation.

Now level and with momentum on their side, Brazil battled with a tough opponent to try and force themselves ahead, but to no avail. Over the course of the second half, neither side could find a tie-breaking goal, and in the Copa America that meant going straight to a penalty shootout. Brazil would likely have wanted to avoid this scenario, given that the Uruguayans had beaten them on penalties to win the 1995 edition in Montevideo.

Psychological boost aside, Parreira’s men were just a few successful penalties away from a showdown against Argentina for the right to claim the continent’s most prestigious title in football.

Luisao and Luis Fabiano both stepped up for Brazil’s first two spot kicks, and the 23 year olds showed composure beyond their years to comfortably convert. Adriano was up next, with Uruguay having made no mistakes either. The big man scored past Viera for a second time that afternoon and kept Brazil ahead, if only for the moment.

The crucial moment would come in Uruguay’s fourth penalty, where Vincente Sanchez would find himself denied by Julio Cesar. The final spot-kick was left to Alex, who rewarded Parreira’s faith by dispatching the shot into the bottom right corner and taking the Selecao to a final with Argentina.

Lining up in those glorious canary yellow shirts with the squad numbers circled front and centre, Brazil walked out surrounded by 43,000 spectators eager to watch a classic between South America’s two greatest national teams. Finals and derbies are games that breed both optimism and nerves from both sets of fans, regardless of how well their team has recently performed. Brazil had good reason to be confident, namely in the tournament’s top goalscorer, but as the game progressed, this optimism would gradually become replaced with gloom.

Adriano made Argentine defenders sweat early on, as his charging run in the first minute was halted only by a dubious tackle that in the modern game would likely lead to a penalty being called. The tackle was ignored, and instead Argentina found themselves taking the first spot-kick of the night in the 20th minute. A clumsy tackle out of desperation by Luisao gave La Albiceleste the opportunity to open the scoring, and Brazil’s bitter rivals would not squander the chance.

Luisao would redeem himself on the stroke of half-time by meeting Alex’s whipped left-footed cross with his head, but Argentina regained control once play resumed. Brazil needed a spark to counter the blue and white onslaught, but would instead feel a knife to the heart in the 87th minute as a failed clearance was volleyed low, far beyond the reach of Cesar. Argentina’s players, fans and coaching staff all exploded in raucous cheers, with perhaps Bielsa remaining the only Argentine in the stadium to retain his composure.

Adriano had largely found himself frustrated thus far, often having to come deep for the ball and use his penchant for bulldozing runs to fashion half-chances for himself. Argentina’s tight defence left little space, though, and made it nearly impossible for him to muster up a good goalscoring opportunity.

Devastation, and indeed desperation, took over the Brazilians. Time-wasting as the game bled into injury time was met with a heavy tackle on Carlos Tevez, who predictably rolled around and antagonised further. Brazil still found themselves trailing as three minutes were added on for stoppages. Now, more than ever, they were in dire need of their inspirational forward.

Balls went long into Argentina’s box, and were duly caught or cleared, but the Selecao would not relent. One final cross was fumbled by two Argentines on the edge of the box, and the bouncing ball was quickly picked up by the one man they could not afford chances to. Facing with his back to goal, a deft flick with his left was required to wriggle the ball into a striking position, and once there the unstoppable volley soon followed.

A goal with the last kick of the game, to draw level against Argentina, certainly warranted the shirt coming off in the celebration that followed from Brazil’s saviour. No one could hold that against him.

Penalties it was. A cruel way to decide who would be victorious in this historic final. Julio Cesar braced himself ahead of the incomparable pressure about to be placed on his shoulders. It wouldn’t show in his performance, though. Andres D’Alessandro opted for Cesar’s right, and was denied the chance to start the shootout with the right momentum. Next up was Adriano. Who else could be relied on to take Brazil’s first? The forward had dragged his team this far, and he was not going to let them down at the final hurdle.

A measured shot found the bottom corner with ease, and with it, Adriano cemented his position as the Player of the Tournament. It wasn’t up for debate. Seven goals, ignoring two successful penalty shootout conversions, was a more than impressive haul from the big forward, and could not be ignored by Parreira when looking ahead towards the World Cup in Germany two years later.

Brazil would convert all four of their penalties, while Gabriel Heinze would spurn his chance from the spot too and give Brazil a breathtaking victory. As Juan Silveira dos Santos converted, and the team broke away from their huddle on the halfway line into jubilant celebrations, the microphones of the media were all being pointed in one man’s direction.

“I can’t explain how I’m feeling right now … this is definitely the greatest moment in my career,” claimed Adriano, the newest hero in Brazil’s diverse footballing folklore. The young talisman seemingly had the world of football at his feet. Nobody watching the Emperor in Lima that day would have dared to believe that he had just reached his zenith, but unfortunately fate would prove less kind in Adriano’s near future.

Although he would play a crucial role in Inter’s successful 2004/05 Serie A campaign, his career would begin to go off the rails following one devastating phone call. Adriano was informed, shortly after the Copa America final, that his father had died at 45 years old. Battles with alcoholism followed, as he could not bear losing the man that he had dedicated his greatest victory to.

It was a slow and sad decline for Adriano. He would at least get his place in the Brazil squad for Germany 2006, playing in a quartet of attacking stars alongside Kaka, Ronaldinho and, of course, Ronaldo. It was decided that rather than pick between the two mammoth strikers, Brazil would field both Ronaldo and his supposed successor.

Although Adriano did manage to score in group games against Ghana and Australia, Brazil disappointed and could not retain their crown, eventually getting knocked out by a Zinedine Zidane-inspired France in the quarter-finals.

Without the motivation his father had provided up until the day he died, Adriano became lost. After the World Cup, his erratic behaviour and increasing inability to show up for training saw him eventually leave for his homeland, where he failed to reinvigorate his career. A brief return to Italy via Roma provided only disappointment, with his contract eventually being torn up after a frustrating seven months.

Adriano was done with European football aged just 29, and his career would fizzle out with more failed moves from there.

Since retiring, he seems to be in a much happier place. Knowing a little about the low points of his life adds so much more joy to seeing him smiling on social media these days, and although his time at the top of the game is long gone, Adriano’s remarkable career, and especially his domination of the 2004 Copa America, should remain long in the hearts and memories of fans, both Brazilian and beyond.

By Bradley Hughes

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