Santi Cazorla is smiling in the Qatar sunshine. Behind his grin, however, hides the one regret that remains as his career plays out: the way it ended at Arsenal.
The Achilles injury sustained at the end of 2016 led to a cascade of medical interventions to save not only his career but, at one stage, his right leg. After eight operations — including a skin graft to repair a tendon that had been “eaten” by an infection — he was able to think about playing again, but his time had run out with his contract expiring at the end of the 2017-18 season.
“I feel a little bit frustrated now because, in my mind, I was always trying to come back to try to play again for Arsenal, though I know it was difficult,” he tells The Athletic. “When I recovered and started to feel well again, I asked the club if I can make pre-season but they told me it’s so difficult for them, (they said) ‘We can’t wait for you if you are well or not’.”
After 180 games, 29 goals and 45 assists, there would be no chance to say goodbye. “I understand. But I was trying to play again at the Emirates. It was something I couldn’t do but, OK, it’s part of life. We can do nothing,” he says.
Not that the end tarnished the memories of his time in north London. His first season in 2012-13 saw a ball of creative energy enter the Arsenal midfield and the hearts of fans. He was crowned Arsenal’s player of the season after an ever-present opening campaign that included 12 goals and 11 assists in the Premier League. It’s now a decade since Arsene Wenger signed the Spaniard for £10 million.
“I miss everything of this club every day – every day,” he says. “When I was there I enjoyed my best time in football, but also my worst because after the injury it was really difficult for me.”
“But I love all of this club. I loved playing in Premier League and winning trophies (he won two FA Cups, including scoring in the 2014 final against Hull and was named man of the match the following year when Aston Villa were beaten). They were good memories with the players. I follow them, I support them; I’m always a Gunner.”
And he’s a Gunner that is happy at the moment, watching from afar. Not only with the form but the fact that his good friend Mikel Arteta is pulling the strings.
“I know him very well after playing with him for many years at Arsenal,” says Cazorla. “He helped me a lot when I arrived as my captain. (He was) a really good captain.”
A captain, that is, who was quite open about making the step into the dugout even then.
“I started to feel that he would be a very good coach. He always spoke with me about tactics and said, ‘You have to change this and that kind of thing’, and I started to think, ‘What are you doing? You are a player, but you’re coaching?’ But you could see that he was already thinking like a coach. He needed time (to develop), and it was very good for him to work with Pep Guardiola for two years at Manchester City, where he learnt a lot.”
“After Arsene Wenger, it’s not easy for him and for the club – after 20 years with the same coach — to do different things, but now they are doing well, with very good young players for the future. It’s difficult to compete with Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, but I hope they can do it and I wish Mikel all the best.”
It’s something he does quite regularly. “Yes, I text him to say congratulations for another win – like after the derby against Tottenham (the 3-1 win at the Emirates in October). But I know he’s so busy with much work so I don’t want to disturb him, but sometimes I just want to say, ‘Congratulations, keep going. You are doing well and you deserve it’.”
With his former team-mate and captain in the manager’s seat, another ex-Arsenal midfielder, Edu, being hugely influential as the club’s sporting director and even Arsene Wenger making an emotional return recently during the Boxing Day game against West Ham, getting back to the Emirates in never far from Cazorla’s thoughts. But the aim isn’t simply to come and say hello. Perhaps it could be more than that.
“We’ll see. If I have the possibility to come back, I will be back. I don’t know which position in the club, as a coach or sports director. But of course, I would like to come back in the future,” he says while admitting there haven’t been any active discussions on the topic.
“Not yet because I’m focused on playing football. I feel well; I want to try to enjoy my career now as a player and, in the future, I have to organise (myself) and see what I want and afterwards. If they (Arsenal) want (to), then we will speak. I’ve started to think about what I want to do, and that’s staying in football because it’s my life. But as a coach or sports director or academy director, I have to choose. We will see in the future.”
There were 668 days between his last game for Arsenal – the 6-0 win over Ludogorets in the Champions League on October 19, 2016 — and his first match for Villarreal on August 18, 2018. He spent two years there before he joined his fellow countryman in a footballing migration to even warmer climes.
“I came here (to Al Sadd in 2020) because Xavi called me when he was the coach, and I’m still here now because Juanma Lillo (who, like Arteta, was another former assistant to Guardiola at City) has come,” he explains. “I’m very happy. We are playing well and have won many trophies in the past, so I’m trying to enjoy every day and I’m feeling good. For me, it’s easy when they (fellow Spaniards) are here. After Xavi, there was Javi Gracia, who was at Watford, and now Lillo. The owners love this Spanish style of football and that’s good for me because it’s easier for me to play in this way.”
Cazorla has already hit 38, the age Cristiano Ronaldo will reach at the start of February while at his new Middle-Eastern haunt of Al Nassr, just across the border in Saudi Arabia. Cazorla doesn’t profess to be on the same level of world stardom as the Portuguese but knows all about being a big name in a developing league.
“Here, they follow the Premier League a lot. Also the Spanish League, but only Real Madrid and Barcelona. But the Premier League (as a whole) here, they love it a lot. They support Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City and United. So they know all the players who play in that league. I’m very happy to be here with all of these guys because they know me from when I was in Arsenal and they love what I did in that club.”
“The standard is completely different. The level is not the same but it’s improving every year and the foreign players are very important for each club. But it’s different for sure. The rhythm (of the game) and the atmosphere in the stands is not the same as in Europe, but they’re spending a lot of money every year to improve, step by step, to be a little bit better. I try to help as well with the league and the young players, as they are improving and that’s one of the most important things.”
His son Enzo is now in the academy at Al Sadd, and when The Athletic visits he watches his father play in a practice game. During the World Cup, beaten finalists France used Al Sadd’s stadium to train. This meant a welcome reunion with an old friend: when Cazorla joined Arsenal in the summer of 2012, so did Olivier Giroud.
“My son wanted to meet Kylian Mbappe and lots of the players in the (French) national team but, for me, it was great to speak with Olivier,” he says with a smile. “We remember a lot of good memories during our time at Arsenal. I also wanted to congratulate him for becoming France’s top scorer, so it’s a very good moment. I was very happy to see him.”
While Cazorla was disappointed to see Spain exit at the last-16 stage to Morocco, there was also disappointment for a current Arsenal striker wearing the yellow of Brazil: Gabriel Jesus. His knee-ligament injury, which required surgery, has ruled him out for around three months. It was a blow keenly felt by Cazorla, who suffered the same ailment and absence while at the Emirates.
“It’s bad news for the club because he’s a very important player,” he says. “I think he’s (been) the best signing of the summer. He’s got a lot of goals and assists (five each in 14 Premier League games). He was doing well, it worked for the club and the players. So we’ll see (how much it affects them) We have a lot of very good players, but Gabriel is very important. I hope he recovers well and comes back strong.”
As for Arsenal’s title challenge, Cazorla is hopeful. “I’m very happy now for them because they are doing well,” he adds. “We are top of the league and I hope they can keep going like this and try to win this competition.”
If it all goes to plan, he will certainly be back to celebrate: “Hopefully, I’ll see you there,” he says with that beaming smile.
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