The story of Diego Tristán is an all-too-common tale, one that has beset numerous players across the eras of football. Aptly nicknamed ‘The Lizard’ for his slippery style of play, most notably when dribbling, the Spanish striker was once amongst the hottest properties in world football, enjoying his best years with Deportivo de La Coruña during the early-2000s.
Tristán achieved cult status during his time with the Galician outfit and became a talisman throughout the club’s golden era. However, the career of the talented forward took a sharp downturn after he left Los Blanquiazules as he struggled for fitness and form at several clubs across Europe during the remainder of his time in the professional game.
Despite Tristán’s troubled later career, he was an integral part of an impressive and dynamic side at Depor. He proved himself as one of the most talented strikers in the world as his goals helped the club to win the Copa del Rey in 2002, the Supercopa de España in 2002, and less so in the memorable journey to the 2004 Champions League semi-final.
Tristán began his career with Real Betis’ B side before moving to RCD Mallorca, where he made his name in Spain’s top flight. Eighteen goals in 35 appearances for Mallorca during the 1999-00 La Liga season captured the attention of Spain’s top clubs.
Real Madrid’s president at the time, Lorenzo Sanz, moved quickly to secure the services of Tristán after his breakthrough season with Mallorca. However, after a regime change in the upper echelons at the Bernabéu, Florentino Pérez took the presidential throne and the Tristán deal was never finalised. A dream move to one of Spain’s top two subsequently fell through.
After the failed transfer to Madrid, Deportivo entered the market and secured the Spaniard at the cut price of £8 million. It would turn out to be a fantastic piece of business for president Augusto César Lendoiro. Tristán had developed into the complete number 9; possessing strength, skill and flair, he had the ability to score all types of goals and his talent became recognised at the highest domestic level.
Tristán became an instant hit with the Galician club and, despite limited opportunities during his first season, mainly due to star forward Roy Makaay leading the line, he still managed to net 19 goals in 29 appearances.
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After a solid start to his career at the Riazor, the striker found greater opportunities during his second season, in 2001-02, finishing the campaign with 21 goals in 35 league appearances as well as six goals in Europe in what would be his most prolific campaign.
Accompanied by Juan Carlos Valerón, Djalminha, Fran and Depor’s myriad of other attacking options, Tristán was instrumental in victories over Manchester United and Arsenal in the first and second group stages of the Champions League that season. His brace at Old Trafford took Depor to the top of their group, displaying all the flair and skill which had attracted the likes of Madrid as he put United to the sword in a 3-2 victory in October 2001.
The Spaniard capped his most successful season as he was awarded the Pichichi trophy for finishing La Liga’s top scorer in 2002. Lauded as the long-awaited strike partner for Raúl, a call-up to the Spanish national side for that summer’s World Cup in South Korea and Japan soon followed.
Replicating the success of 2002 would be a tough task for Tristán and in the following two seasons, the Spaniard’s form would begin to diminish. A combination of injuries hit the striker hard and his form dipped after the World Cup; an ankle injury picked up at the tournament and a torn thigh muscle mid-season would seriously affect Tristán’s form that year.
However, rumours still circulated of a possible transfer to Manchester United even after a reckless tackle on Red Devils star David Beckham saw the Spaniard hit the headlines in the British press for the wrong reasons. The forward himself dismissed any talk of transfer away from Depor, saying: “The only thing I am thinking about is playing for my club. Any other reports do not concern me. United are a team who I like … for me they are one of the favourites to be in contention [for the Champions League].”
Tristán’s heroics in Europe and 19 La Liga goals during 2002-03 kept him near the head of the European watch-list.
The 2003-04 season was the pinnacle of Depor’s golden era as they toppled several of Europe’s heavyweights to reach the Champions league semi-final in a season that epitomised the club’s attacking football philosophy. The departure of Roy Makaay to Bayern Munich for €19 million in 2003 should have opened the door for Tristán to make the role of star forward his own and take his career to the next level. Once again, however, injuries, a lack of form and a subsequent crisis of confidence would have a devastating effect on his season.
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The Spaniard would not exert the same influence in 2004 as he had done against the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal in 2001. He made nine appearances in Depor’s most famous European campaign, scoring three goals, but it seemed his powers were beginning to wane.
All three of his goals that season came against AS Monaco in the group phase; the first was a late winner against the French side in their maiden clash in Group C at the Riazor, Tristán’s drilled effort clattered into the legs of Flavio Roma and trickled over the line to secure three points for Depor. Not the typical finish that had come to define the Spaniard, but equally important.
Depor then suffered a spectacular 8-3 defeat in the return fixture at the Stade Louis II in one of the games of the tournament. Tristán netted a brace as Los Blanquiazules suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the competition’s eventual runners-up, the second of which epitomised the striker at the height of his powers as showed great poise on the ball dribbling between two Monaco defenders before seamlessly executing a sublime chip over Roma.
It was actually that delightful second strike from Tristán that won the goal of the tournament award. However, these moments of genius from the Spaniard were becoming a rarity and in the context of a record-breaking defeat, his efforts were in vain.
The hero of 2004 was not Diego Tristán as it could well have been, but a mix of Albert Luque and Walter Pandiani who shared the goal-scoring burden. Both scored crucial goals against Juventus in the last-16 and then in that famous quarter-final comeback over AC Milan to overshadow a beleaguered Tristán.
Los Blanquiazules created Champions League history as they became the first side to overturn a three-goal first-leg deficit, dumping the defending champions AC Milan out of the competition 5-4 on aggregate in what is now widely regarded as a classic European match.
However, Tristán was absent from the miracle team that beat Milan 4-0 at Riazor as he began his fall from grace. It was an opportunity missed by the Spaniard in Depor’s last, great European adventure. Had Tristán exhibited the promising form of 2002, there may have been a different outcome to the Champions League that year.
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Undoubtedly, Tristán’s six seasons at Depor were the most successful of his career; he scored an excellent 78 goals in 177 league appearances for the club. He was the definition of a ‘confidence player’ – when on form and at full fitness he was one of the best forwards in the world, scoring a variety of goals as an out-and-out striker or as a deeper, creative forward.
Tristán’soff-fieldd problems were also well documented and his champagne lifestyle led to a bust-up with Javier Irureta as he slowly fell out of favour. The Depor manager became increasingly frustrated with his striker’s attitude, referring to Diego’s flippant lifestyle with a quote that turned out to be bang on the money.
The striker was seen out on the town the night before an important match against Real Madrid, to which Irureta swiftly dropped him: “Tristán is lucky that he is an intelligent boy and he has natural qualities as a footballer, but I’m worried that all the advice I’m giving him may only sink in when he’s 40. I’m not going to turn into a policeman and guard his every move. No player should be out at night 24 hours before a match against Madrid. This can never be in a team of mine.”
The big-money move to Manchester United or Real Madrid never materialised and, after leaving the Riazor in 2006, Tristán’s downfall began to snowball. A return to Mallorca failed to reignite the striker’s fading career, closely followed by a move to Serie A and Livorno in 2007 and then West Ham United in 2008.
The Spaniard threatened to show some of his former flair with the Hammers under Gianfranco Zola but his only meaningful contribution was a powerful and precise free-kick against Stoke City in December 2008. Released in 2009, Tristán found himself in the last chance saloon at Cádiz CF in the Spanish Segunda División where he ended his career in 2010 at the age of 37.
Perhaps the tale of Diego Tristán is just another all-too-familiar story of a naturally gifted footballer plagued by injuries, fragile confidence and a taste for the high life. All of the above held him back from becoming a truly world-class player for club and country in a career bereft of greatness.
Despite the Spaniard’s problems, there are legendary goals that stand out from Tristán’s peak. The first was the award-winning goal against Monaco in the Champions League. The second was a sublime goal against Alavés in La Liga. He dribbled past several defenders, weaving in and out of tackles before curling a left-footed shot into the top corner.
The divine show of individual skill and composure in that moment of pure genius would come to define his time with Deportivo during the club’s golden era and reminds us just how good he was.
By Jamie Allen. Follow @plymkrprss