Spanish football rejoices as Santi Cazorla returns to action with Villarreal
It's the little things in life. On Friday night, Santi Cazorla played football, a simple thing that is extraordinary. To be exact: He played 75 good minutes in a 1-0 defeat vs. Girona. For 668 days, he couldn't. Between October 2016, when Arsenal faced Ludogorets, and August 2018, when Villarreal played Real Sociedad, Cazorla limped, cycled and sometimes ran, usually not for long before he was forced to stop. So, he started up again.
He lay on a physio's bench and a surgeon's table, for hours that felt endless. He left home and lived alone from London to Salamanca, Vitoria to Oviedo. But he didn't play a competitive game of football.
For 636 days, he didn't play any game at all. Not a single minute. He was told that he probably wouldn't, either. Told to be grateful if he could stroll around the garden with Enzo, the son he saw too little of. Or India, the daughter whose name was tattooed on his left arm until it was taken from there and used to patch him up, grafted onto his heel. There had been a hole there, a window into the horror inside.
Some days, they threw Cazorla a ball and his heart leapt a little. His eyes lit up, too. All he was doing, really, was jogging round a field, but it felt different. It offered hope, fleetingly, but there were no games and there might never be. All the work might have been worthless. Might? Probably would be. They told him that -- privately, they were even more pessimistic -- so he knew. There were moments, alone, where he was ready to give up.
But as his former roommate Joan Capdevila put it, Cazorla is stubborn and extremely determined: He's funny, one of the nicest guys in the game, but also a tough little bugger. The talent hid the temperament; his smile hid the tears.
Ten times, he went under the knife. It all goes back to a seemingly innocuous kick against Chile five years ago. Cazorla being Cazorla, he played on. And so it began; at times it seemed it would never end. Arsene Wenger described Cazorla's injury as the worst he had ever seen. Not so much because of the injury itself but due to the consequences of it. His stitches split open, and infection consumed 10 centimeters (nearly 4 inches) of Achilles tendon, which had to be reconstructed. There was a risk of losing his leg.
Wenger didn't think Cazorla would be back. His contract at Arsenal expired this summer and he wasn't offered another. At 33, he was unemployed. He had worked alone in Salamanca and trained with Alaves' youth team, but admitted that playing properly was still unthinkable. Villarreal offered him the chance to work with them -- no pressure, no hurry -- with the possibility of signing him if all went well. And so he returned to the club he had first joined at 17. They told him to stop any time he wanted, to ease off when needed, but he wasn't about to stop.
In August, he played his first minutes in a friendly against Hercules. Three days later, he played another and, three days after that, another. The promise was fulfilled: One August evening, he was formally presented as a Villarreal player again. "The magic returns," said the slogan.
"Magic" was the right word, too. Cazorla emerged from a smoke-filled cabinet on the pitch at the Ceramic Stadium, suddenly revealed. And then there's his football.
The man who signed him for Malaga, former sporting director Antonio Fernandez, called him "supremely gifted, an artist." There is joy and enchantment in his game. Everyone who plays with him says he is different; everyone who faces him does, too.
Cazorla kept expressing his gratitude to Villarreal, but this was a real signing, too, not just a gesture, and he wouldn't have wanted it any other way. He still experiences pain and tightness; most of his weight goes through one side, with the difficulties that creates, loading strain on his hips and back. There are still some mental hurdles to overcome, but Villarreal signed him: a first-division team, a European one. On the opening day of the season, he played 73 minutes; in Week 2, he played 79 away at Sevilla.
That night, he was handed a standing ovation ... from the Sevilla supporters. The Pizjuan crowd rose to applaud him. He didn't expect it, but don't rule out it being repeated elsewhere. Spain was delighted with his return. There is a huge amount of respect and affection for what he has overcome -- Cazorla as an example -- and the warmth was overwhelming.
Not least precisely because it was him.
"There are very, very few people in the world like Santi," Capdevila said almost a decade ago. And nothing has changed; not even the injury has changed him. "He's such a good bloke, he's always willing to help you out, he never, ever lets anyone down," Capdevila said back then, in 2009.
"He's had huge success recently but he's exactly the same as ever. He's always smiling, he's nice to everyone. People don't realise just what a lovely bloke he is. He's a 10 out of 10."
They might not realise exactly but they can see some of it. Everyone loves Santi. There is something about him that brings the smile out in people. His own smile, for a start. Many feel that he, especially, didn't deserve this. The kind of player he is contributes to that feeling, too: the style, the fun, the lack of nastiness, the feeling that above all else, he's enjoying this and making everyone else enjoy it, too. Isn't that supposed to be the point?
So does the sense that football has not always given him what he has given football; that, actually, he has not had the "huge success" his roommate talked about and most foresaw -- the success his talent deserved. And through no fault of his own. He never let anyone down, never thought of himself; perhaps he should have done more often.
A back injury saw him miss the 2010 World Cup. Xavi Hernandez once said he couldn't understand why Barcelona didn't buy Cazorla, and Valencia manager Marcelino expressed much the same sentiment: "I could never understand why Madrid or Barcelona never signed him." When Cazorla headed for England instead, Marcelino admitted, "It is hard to explain and it also makes me a bit sad. I think it's a real pity for the Spanish league."
Now, at 33, Cazorla is back in Spain. The fact that he's back at all is quite something, let alone here, and all over the country they're delighted. The happiness at his return is genuine; so too is the hope that they can get another glimpse of a special player, another chance. Not just for themselves but for him too.
On Friday night, Santi Cazorla played football, and that's no little thing.