Monday, 21 November 2011

The Emperor Strikes Back: Troubled Adriano Stamps Mark on Title Race

We're on the home straight now reader.

Corinthians 2-1 Atlético Mineiro
Redemption comes in many shapes and sizes. On Sunday, it was wearing an XXL Corinthians jersey. Adriano, the striker whose career has been written off by so many, returned from limbo to land what could be a crucial blow in the current Brazilian title race. His last minute winner against Atlético Mineiro put the São Paulo side two points clear at the top of Série A with just two games remaining.

That moment of glory sat in stark contrast to the anguish that has marked Adriano's return to Brazil. Since signing for Corinthians in March, O Imperador (The Emperor) has been plagued by fitness problems: Sunday's appearance was only his fifth in eight months. The fact that many of the forward's corporal complaints have been entirely legitimate (a ruptured achilles suffered in an early training session hampered his progress for weeks), however, has been largely overlooked by sections of the national media, who have chosen to focus on something rather more tangible: Adriano's weight.

The Emperor's new clothes: Adriano in action on Sunday.

Yes, make no mistake about it: Adriano's return to Brazil has been the stuff of tabloid fantasy. The country's sports pages have, on more than one occasion, resembled gossip columns: "IMPERADOR WEIGHS OVER 100KG," "ADRIANO: STILL 10KG OVER IDEAL WEIGHT!" Photos of the star undergoing physiotherapy at the Corinthians training complex prompted a host of disparaging comments from the club's fans. "This is a football club, not rehab," read one particularly savage banner.

The player's defence, of course, would be that the combination of inactivity (he last appeared for Roma in January) and injury is hardly conducive to remaining in shape. This, however, will hardly convince his critics. Adriano has a history of drinking and eating to excess; a weakness has been unable to overcome during his career. Speaking to ESPN earlier this year, the striker admitted to being "pretty greedy," but claimed to be moderating his consumption. Actions, however, speak louder than words: Adriano's goal celebration at the weekend revealed a hefty beer belly. He remains, despite his protests to the contrary, more all-nighter than prize fighter.

Interestingly, however, Adriano's nocturnal exploits have received relatively little attention of late. The scrutiny he received during his time at Flamengo (brilliantly instantiated in the furore surrounding an early-hours visit to a hotdog vendor) has not been replicated to the same degree in São Paulo. This is not to say that the player has toned down his lifestyle (another notable quote from that ESPN interview: "Nobody will prevent me from doing what I want"). Rather, it appears that the weight issue has simply become the primary locus of criticism. (The Nightlife Police, incidentally, remain at large in Rio. Just ask Fred or Ronaldinho.)

All of this has thrown a serious spanner in the works of Corinthians' marketing strategy. Earmarked as the club's marquee signing ahead of the Brasileirão, Adriano was expected to fill the personality void created by Ronaldo Fenômeno's premature retirement earlier this year. So whilst his absence hasn't truly been felt on the pitch (Corinthians boast an decent roster of strikers, which includes former Portuguese international Liédson), it certainly has been in the gift shop. The opportunity to get one over on rivals Flamengo (where Adriano was a major hit, both commercially and in footballing terms) has also had to wait.

Belly laughs: Adriano gets one over on his critics.

It seems unlikely, of course, that Adriano's strike against Atlético-MG will sweep all of these matters under the carpet. Question marks over his future will remain, even if Corinthians choose to extend his contract (which expires in six months). Weight issues aside, the spectre of depression continues to haunt O Imperador: the death of his father in 2004 prompted a downward spiral from which, arguably, he is yet to emerge.

His career trajectory, too, must provide reason for regret. His inability to realise his colossal potential has echoed his infamous knack - developed during his years in Italian football - of missing return flights from Brazil. For better or worse, Adriano has always favoured home comforts over the bounty offered by international stardom. He is grounded, both literally and metaphorically.

It is possible, however, that Sunday's goal will represent a major turning point for the striker. For a player whose star has dipped to such an extent in recent years, merely having reminded the Brazilian public of his relevance must be seen as a victory. That the strike could prove crucial in the title race only serves to confirm its significance. With one swipe of his left foot, then, Adriano wrote his name into the story of the 2011 season. It may only be a footnote, but remember: redemption comes in many shapes and sizes.

A version of this article appeared on the Guardian Sport Network.

Brasileirão Gameweek 36 Round-up
Vasco ensured that the title race will go to the final two games, winning comfortably against Avaí in Rio. Veteran midfielder Felipe rolled back the years once more in that one, curling home a delightful opening goal with the outside of his left foot. Avaí, who have feared the worse for some time now, are now officially relegated. A Luís Fabiano brace sent São Paulo in the way to a comfortable victory over América Mineiro, who will also be playing in Série B next year.

Fluminense are still in with a mathematical chance of regaining their title: they thrashed Figueirense on Sunday evening, thanks in large part to a hat-trick from Fred. Goals from seleção starlets Oscar and Leandro Damião against Botafogo, meanwhile, kept Internacional in the hunt for a Libertadores spot. Elsewhere, there were wins for Ceará, Coritiba and Palmeiras, whilst Cruzeiro and Atlético-GO were held by Atlético-PR and Flamengo respectively.

(Photo credits: (1) Tom Dib, (2) Unknown.)

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