Adriano back on top to end year his life unravelled

He walked out on Inter amid a battle with drink and depression – but the striker is firing again, winning the title in Brazil

On April Fools Day Adriano pulled off his iconic yellow jersey and decided he had had enough of football. Instead of flying back to Italy and his Serie A duties with Internazionale, he returned to his native Rio de Janeiro, a once fêted career for club and country apparently in tatters.

Brazilian football has never been short of troubled characters; the genius on the pitch assailed by demons off it. Garrincha's legend stands as the sternest warning of where the path can lead, and with the huge rewards of today's game the ascent can be all the more dizzying, the temptations all the greater. Adriano was tempted: "I was only happy when I was drinking and I never stopped."

Six months on and he is still in Rio, but today it is a markedly different Adriano. He has, it seems, travelled his road to redemption.

On Sunday night the Maracana, football's legendary venue, was heaving. There are many days when it cannot lure half its 85,000 capacity, but on Sunday Flamengo, the people's club, were one win from their first championship in 17 years and the man who had carried them to the brink was Adriano. When the old concrete bowl is full, the supporters can shake the upper tier and the atmosphere can rarely have been as febrile as the eruption that greeted the final whistle, signalling a 2-1 triumph over Gremio and the crowning of a club and a player reborn. He may not have scored on Sunday, but the Emperor, as Adriano is lauded, is back on his throne.

Flamengo's recent history has been almost as troubled as Adriano's. They sacked their coach, Cuca, after a poor start to the season and turned to his No 2, Andrade. He promptly lost five of his first six games, and had to contend with Adriano failing to turn up for training on at least a couple of occasions. But then the striker began to score, the club began to win and the fairytale began.

Adriano's story began at Flamengo, the side that takes its name from the Rio beachfront bairro that sits in the shadow of the statue of Christ the Redeemer. A bullocking, free-scoring front runner he came through the youth ranks – heralded as the new Ronaldo – but spent only a season in the first team before Inter whisked the 18-year-old to Italy. As is common with Serie A clubs, he was loaned out to Fiorentina and then Parma where he continued to score goals. When finally given his chance at San Siro the goals still came freely, and so did the honours – he has three Scudettos to his name – but so did the distractions. Never a lightweight, he became noticeably bulkier and his off-field antics became steadily more newsworthy than his feats on the pitch. He missed training and was left out of games amid reports of nightclubs and a growing problem with alcohol.

An exasperated but still supportive Inter shipped him back to Brazil for a loan spell, but with Sao Paulo rather than any of his hometown clubs. Two goals arrived on debut, a headbutt and a red card a few games later. Then he failed to turn up for training. "We do not miss him," said the club and returned him to sender. But the following season, 2008-09, began brightly, there were goals and good behaviour. December arrived and Inter agreed to let him return home to Brazil for an extended winter break. He never went back to Italy.

After sitting on the bench for Brazil in that World Cup qualifier in April Adriano reached breaking point. He lost himself in Rio, disappearing into a favela for a time to spark fears that he had been kidnapped. He split with his long-term partner and retreated to his family home in the city to lick his wounds.

In October Adriano finally spoke of his downfall in Italy. "After the death of my father I fell into a depression that I only manager to cure with alcohol," he told a Brazilian magazine. "I went out every night and drank whatever happened to be in front of me: wine, whisky, beer ... a lot of beer. I turned up every day drunk – they [Inter] used to send me to sleep in the infirmary. I started again with parties, women and alcohol."

Jose Mourinho, his manager at Inter, gave him every chance, as Adriano has gratefully acknowledged, but it had gone too far and his contract was torn up. "People think that it was madness to give up the millionaire's contract that I had, but the truth is that there is not money enough to compensate for family. I gave up so many millions but I bought happiness. I did it from the heart."

From the nadir ... In May, aged 27, he returned to his roots, and by the end of the month he was ready. It took 46 minutes to score his first goal back in the red and black shirt, rising to head home a winner against Atletico Paranaense. The goals are flowing again. He finished with 19, making him the league's top scorer and a recall to the national side followed.

With Adriano there will probably always be complications of some sort – he has gone awol already a couple of times this season – but he is on course for South Africa next summer.

Come the final whistle on Sunday he was mobbed by ecstatic team-mates and supporters. Flamengo are known as O Mais Queirido, the most loved, and Adriano has finally become its heartbeat. "It's unbelievable," he said. "This is the greatest dream."

Down and out in Italy: A star's fall from grace

*In November 2007, after being used sparingly for Inter for most of the year, Adriano was sent on 18 months unpaid leave to a training centre in Brazil. It was later revealed the centre was used to help the striker beat his depression and alcoholism, he would turn up to training drunk most days – "I couldn't sleep, and presented myself drunk at training every day."

*In June 2008, while on loan at Sao Paulo, because of numerous incidents on and off the pitch, including a two-game ban for headbutting, he was sent back to Inter before the end of the season.

*On 5 April 2009, he went missing in Brazil; Inter doctor Marco Aurelia said: "He has disturbances he can't control." Adriano said: "Right now I'm only thinking about my health." Later in the month, and still absent in Brazil, his contract with Inter was terminated amid reports he had retired at 27. Adriano responded by saying, "I no longer find joy in playing but I'm not sick." A month later he joined Flamengo.

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