The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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These days, Diego Tristán would be hard to find. It’s tough work to watch him on television: The games he played last year for Cádiz, in Spain’s second league, weren’t nationally or internationally televised, and this year, with Cádiz in the third division, it’s hard to prove that he’s on the team at all. It’s much harder to go in person, even if you are in Spain. Good luck looking through the papers. He can assume a caustic, detached air in interviews—if he’s even interviewed—and is already referred to as a has- (or could have-) been.

Then again, it was somewhat hard to find him in his prime. A few years ago he dribbled circles around the Manchester United defence in the Champions League and cut with fury and playfulness through all sides of Real Madrid. And then he disappeared after matches, seldom speaking with reporters. A permanent scowl flashed across his face. When I first saw Old map shiphim, while living in Spain, he had already begun to withdraw. A tweaky injury in European qualifying in the months before I arrived lingered in his legs and in his eyes. By the time I got to see him he had already played his greatest season (twenty-one goals in La Liga; eleven more in Champions League and Spanish tournament matches), although no one suspected at the time that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, repeat it. Maybe it was for the best that Real Madrid, who had opened their doors to him after his first breakout year with Mallorca, promptly shut them, citing his lifestyle rather than his skill with a ball. Their retreat compelled him to sign with Deportivo La Coruña and play in his prime in a place whose Latin name, Finisterrae, means literally “the end of the earth”.

Diego Tristan videoTristán’s work with the ball was in those Deportivo days, despite the injury, very melodic; one movement compelled the next in the same way that certain notes must follow others to make a scale. You could anticipate his runs like you could hum the melodic line of a song you were hearing for the first time. He would force himself right, so far right that he would have to cut back in order to create an angle for the shot. He knew it. The defender knew it. And you knew it as you watched it unfold. Unlike other great players, whose shifts and turns surprise and throw off their opponents, Tristán always kept his defender in step, in rhythm, showing him how he would beat him. He let them catch up before cutting back again, only to strike a shot as though he was all alone on the pitch.

Swann’s Way, “Swann in Love”

At first he had appreciated only the material quality of the sounds which those instruments secreted…. But then at a certain moment, without being able to distinguish any clear outline, or to give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to grasp the phrase or harmony—he did not know which—that had just been played and that had opened and expanded his soul, as the fragrance of certain roses, wafted upon the moist air of evening, has the power of dilating one’s nostrils. Perhaps it was owing to his ignorance of music that he had received so confused an impression, one of those that are nonetheless the only purely musical impressions, limited in their extent, entirely original, and irreducible to any other kind. An impression of this order, vanishing in an instant, is, so to speak, sine materia…. And this impression would continue to envelop in its liquidity, its ceaseless overlapping, the motifs which from time to time emerge, barely discernible, to plunge again and disappear and drown, recognized only by the particular kind of pleasure which they instil, impossible to describe, to recollect, to name, ineffable….

When I read that passage for the first time I thought of Diego Tristán. And I thought of my own cloudy, circumspect and swirly descriptions of his style of play. My experience of watching him was one of Old map monstersimilar befuddlement: of watching a motion I felt compelled to explain but could only hope to do so by allegory. The only way to get close was by retreating. After watching Tristán play I was left with impressions. I had seen a movement, or a series of movements that I would later try to feel out with my hands in the air; that I would later show to my friends with my hips over the noise of a bar. But now I find the words saying something else. They seem to speak more directly to Tristán’s experience on the pitch: He embodied a heady aloofness which made it seem as though every time he touched the ball, he wouldn’t trust it. His tendency to hold onto it for far too long, to dribble back and forth well into the box belied a sense that football was not actually at all about football, like music is not really at all about music.Old map mountains

To watch him then was like watching a great sculptor work with a dull chisel. He could still carve out a beautiful run, a wrenching pass or a lightning shot, but the labour showed and it often left him drifting searchingly about the pitch. He is drifting still: between middling clubs in England, Italy and Spain, meeting with doctors who cannot explain what ails him. Everything about him, in ecstasy and in torment, is troubled with mystery. But his play, even today in its scattered iterations, reveals a wholly unique position: with Tristán it is not the beautiful game but a game about beauty.

Maxwell Kuhl posts poetry, photography and reviews at



by Maxwell Kuhl · December 8, 2010

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