DIEGO TRISTAN’S goals are firing Deportivo La Coruna in pursuit of both the Champions League and the Spanish championship. Not bad for a player who was twice snubbed as a no-hoper by Real Madrid.

Tristan, born January 5, 1976, always names Argentina’s Diego Maradona and Spain’s 1986 World Cup hero Emilio Butragueno when asked to reveal his boyhood idols. However, there was not much chance that he could emulate their particular style since he grew up strong and lanky – about six inches taller than either of his heroes.

Unlike Maradona and Butragueno, both teenage revelations, Tristan has been a late developer. He turned professional as a 19-year-old with Betis of Seville, and 11 goals in the Second Division for their nursery team in the 1997-98 season drew covetousglances from Real Madrid. However, he also developed a reputation for enjoying life off the pitch as much as on it. Thus Madrid’s then sports director Jose Pirri – a European Cup winner in 1966 – went to spy on Tristan and was not impressed.

‘A player with his sort of lifestyle isn’t for us,’ said Pirri, so Tristan was sold to Mallorca, instead.

The goals kept flowing, however. In the next two seasons Tristan rattled home 34 for Mallorca and their reserves, and Madrid changed their mind in the spring of 2000. Lorenzo Sanz, president of Madrid, duly agreed terms with Betis for Tristan, whose attacking talent he hoped to add to that of Raul Gonzalez and Fernando Morientes.

But completion of the transfer was delayed because Sanz faced a presidential election within the Madrid club. Amazingly, even though Madrid had just won the Champions League, Sanz was ousted by property developer Florentino Perez.

The accession to power of Perez has proved sensational. Twice he has broken the world transfer record, first splashing œ37million on Luis Figo, then œ47m on Zinedine Zidane. Perez has also masterminded the property deal that has turned Madrid finances upside down – they are heading for solvency after being œ265m in debt less than a year ago.

The Perez phenomenon proved wonderful for everyone – except Tristan. Perez lured presidential votes by promising to buy Figo from Barcelona and proved as good as his word. As for Tristan, however, the label of being a ‘Sanz man’ was enough to prompt Perez to pull the plug on the proposed deal. That infuriated not only Tristan but also Mallorca, who had already spent the œ11m they expected to receive for him. Tristan had to be sold, if not to Madrid then to someone else. On the eve of the 2000-01 season, champions Deportivo La Coruna snapped him up for a cut-price œ8m.

Depor coach Javier Irureta appeared spoiled for choice in attack between Tristan, Holland’s Roy Makaay and Uruguayan Walter Pandiani. Tristan was expected to be the stand-in, but it did not work out that way. He cracked 19 goals in 22 starts and ended the season as Depor’s top scorer. Oddly, 16 of his goals were scored in Depor’s Riazor stadium, with the other three coming in one away match, in Oviedo.

That was one of three hat-tricks that helped earn Tristan promotion into Spain’s national squad. Coincidentally, it was also in Oviedo that Tristan marked his Spain debut with a goal, in a 4-1 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina in a World Cup qualifier. In the Champions League, Tristan added to his tally as Depor reached the quarter-finals before bowing out to Leeds. They lost 3-0 at Elland Road then won 2-0 at home; Tristan scored their second goal but it was not quite enough.

Tristan has continued rattling home the goals this season and is Depor’s leading scorer. Each goal has carried a message to Madrid.

He says: ‘I have had to cope with ups and downs all through my career, at Betis and then at Mallorca. I don’tworry about it now but it made me more determined to make the best of myself. If that determination takes me to the World Cup finals so much the better.’