Santi Cazorla almost had to have his foot amputated during nearly two years of injury hell. Now, the former Arsenal midfielder is starring for Villarreal in Spain. Nick Wright examines his remarkable resurgence. Six-hundred and thirty-six days. That was how long Santi Cazorla went without playing a game of football. His injury nightmare began with an innocuous substitution in Arsenal’s Champions League win over Ludogorets in October 2016, and it continued right up until July of last year, almost two years later, when he appeared in a Villarreal pre-season friendly against Hercules. Arsene Wenger called it the worst injury he had ever seen, but the true horror of what Cazorla went through was not widely known until last September, when the stomach-churning details – the Achilles tendon ravaged by infection, the gaping wound that refused to heal, the threat of amputation – were revealed in an interview with The Guardian.
Cazorla was told he would be lucky to walk again, let alone play football, but fast forward to today and that is exactly what he is doing. He came through Villarreal’s pre-season campaign unscathed, signing a one-year contract with his former club in August, just a few months after his release by Arsenal, and he has not looked back since. On an individual level, it has exceeded any imaginable expectations. Villarreal are in a perilous position in La Liga, two points adrift of safety in 18th place, but Cazorla has made 31 appearances in all competitions, scoring six goals, providing six assists and, crucially, remaining injury-free. If Villarreal are to survive, it will owe a lot to his enduring genius. Because it is all still there. Cazorla is 34 now, but the touch and vision are unchanged. The feet are still deceptively quick and the moments of magic keep coming. In challenging circumstances, a season in which Villarreal have sacked their manager, hired a new one and then replaced him with the old one a few weeks later, Cazorla has been a ray of light.
“He has been the only good thing about this season,” Javi Mata, a journalist for Radio Vila-real, tells Sky Sports. “If he was already loved a lot here, today he is loved more. He is an idol for the people. He makes them remember what this club was. He is a boy they have all seen grow up.” This is Cazorla’s third stint at Villarreal. In the first two, which came either side of a season at Recreativo Huelva in 2006/07, he scored 35 goals in 248 appearances, helping them qualify for Europe on a regular basis and earning his place in an historically good Spain squad. Cazorla was a key figure for Villarreal then, but he is even more important now. “The truth is that nobody expected what’s happened, which is that Santi has become the best player in the team,” says Mata. “I thought of him as someone who would be able to come on as a substitute and add a touch of quality. I didn’t expect that the team would end up revolving around him. “Right now, Santi is an example for the team. He is the player the ball always goes through. In a situation in which everyone else is scared to have the ball, he always asks for it. The rest are afraid, but he is always smiling and, most importantly, he always chooses the right pass. He’s vital. His team-mates are always looking for him.”