EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Santi Cazorla is keen to return to Arsenal despite not being back since he left
The little magician who always slipped one step ahead begins to fall behind in his work. Santi Cazorla’s to-do list grows by the day.
For years, the midfielder has put off a return trip to London and a few old haunts: Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium and Novikov restaurant in Mayfair.
More recently, friends have given rave reviews of All Or Nothing, the documentary about life at his former club. Still, he doesn’t have to look for even a minute.
Former Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla (left) has in an exclusive interview with Sports mailfrom Daniel Matthews
The gifted playmaker is still playing for Al Sadd of Qatar, just shy of his 38th birthday
Even now, Cazorla is delaying his decision on what’s to come. “I have to think about that,” he says. Now the light is fading on a brilliant career. With his 38th birthday approaching, the sun has yet to set.
But this season, with Al Sadd in the Qatar heat, could be Cazorla’s last. Beyond that, football remains his future. “I don’t know whether as a coach, second coach (assistant manager) or sporting director,” he says.
Cazorla hasn’t been back to England since leaving Arsenal in 2018, after six spellbinding years that ended with a horrific Achilles tendon injury, gangrene, skin grafts and ultimately 10 surgeries. Ten years after Cazorla first arrived, the pain of regret remains.
“My dream was to play for (Arsenal) more and more years,” he says. He still watches their matches and enjoys their beautiful season from a distance. He also longs for his own return.
“Of course I would like to come back,” he says. “I have to wait and see if the club thinks of me, if I can help with anything – as a coach or sporting director.”
To fulfill that ambition, he may need the help of manager Mikel Arteta. Not for the first time. ‘When I arrived at Arsenal I didn’t speak English – nothing!’ says Cazorla.
“I remember the first day he was there to welcome me and every day after that he was very important.” Without Arteta, Cazorla initially had only two standard answers to English conversations: ‘Yes’. Or smile.
During those six years they forged a close bond. “One of the best friends I have in football.”
Spaniard Cazorla opened up about his close friendship with former teammate Mikel Arteta (left)
Their wives grew close; their children would play together. “They’ve been so helpful to my family that I want to say, Mikel, thank you.” One night, these brothers became twins: at a team costume party, Cazorla dressed up as Super Mario. “He was Luigi.”
“A very funny day,” the Spaniard recalled. “When (Mikel) was captain, he always tried to control things like this.” Extracurricular activities which, Cazorla emphasizes, are ‘very important in trying to achieve the desired results’.
“We also had a great relationship off the field,” the 37-year-old adds. “He was more than a teammate.” They became regulars at Novikov’s. More often?
“We stayed at home together, even when Nacho Monreal came to Arsenal, we watched LaLiga,” Cazorla explains. “I’ve seen a lot of games with (Arteta) when we were injured.” The rehabilitation was enlightening.
“I started to see that he wanted to be a coach.” How? He analyzed everything. He stopped the game and asked me, ‘What did you see? Have you seen this game? What can we change, what can we improve?”
Arteta’s leadership was also clear then. “A great captain,” says Cazorla. “A great personality… an example to all.” Or, as Jack Wilshere recently put it, the “teacher’s sweetheart.” “Absolutely,” Cazorla agrees.
The pair remain close. Arteta still receives messages of happiness or congratulations: “Well done, well done, we have to go on.”
“They are doing very well, they have very good young players: (Bukayo) Saka, (Gabriel) Martinelli, (Martin) Odegaard. We have a great future,” he says.
He stated that it was difficult for the club to adjust to the loss of legendary boss Arsene Wenger (right)
Cazorla added that his pick of the current Gunners pick is Gabriel Jesus summer signing (above)
“It’s normal that they needed time because after (Arsene) Wenger it’s a bit difficult to try and hold on to the success. But I think Mikel is the best option for Arsenal: he knows the club, he loves this club and he knows the mentality.”
At his peak, Cazorla was a glamorous influence in North London: two dazzling feet, five-foot-tall ingenuity and ingenuity. However, his selection of the current squad is a somewhat more chaotic force.
“I love Gabriel Jesus,” says the 37-year-old. “I liked this player when he was at Manchester City, but I think he’s taken a step forward now because he now feels he’s very important to the team.”
At 25 years old, Jesus is one of the senior heads in a team that has been ruthlessly gutted under Arteta’s watch. Big players with high salaries, such as Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, have been kicked out.
Cazorla played with both Ozil and Arteta. Their clash came as a shock. But not Arteta’s willingness to choose such battles.
‘No, not surprised,’ says Cazorla. “He doesn’t care about the player’s name or personality.”
Cazorla’s last years in London were also plagued by turbulence. Fond memories remain – nothing is more ‘special’ than the 2014 FA Cup Final when Cazorla’s free-kick helped Arsenal beat Hull and end nine years of agony.
“It was the best time of my career,” he says. “I love everything about the club. I miss everything.’ In the end, however, the shadow of Wenger’s long farewell loomed. Both left in 2018.
“It was very sad to see him leave,” says Cazorla. “But it’s part of life, sometimes all things have to change. And maybe it was time for him to stop too.’ Wenger’s 22-year tenure has changed Arsenal and English football forever. Still?
The 37-year-old also discussed Arteta’s willingness to exile German Mesut Özil (above left)
“A very special moment for me – it wasn’t about football,” says Cazorla. Instead, it came during those dark days, when Cazorla’s Achilles tendon started to rot and his contract also expired.
“Just a week before the first surgery, he called me and said, ‘You need to sign the contract, another year… to focus on your recovery,'” he recalls. “It was a great detail to me…I’ll never forget that.”
Cazorla rebuilt his career at Villarreal before moving to Doha, where he occasionally bumps into Wenger. The Frenchman is helping FIFA prepare for the World Cup in Qatar.
“When I see this guy I always feel happy because he’s a great person,” says Cazorla.
Wenger would not let Cazorla down during that 636-day battle with an injury.
It could have cost him his career and his leg. It instead ended up with part of his left forearm grafted onto his right ankle — replaced with a piece of thigh — and a new Achilles tendon forged from repurposed hamstring.
“It’s the worst when you start to feel alone… (as if) no one remembers you,” Cazorla recalled. But regular messages from Wenger and Arteta told him otherwise. “Those little details helped me a lot.”
Wilshere was another midfielder crippled by injury. He retired earlier this year at the age of 30. “I am very sad because he is a great player and a very good friend of mine,” said Cazorla.
Wilshere rates Cazorla as the best he has ever played with at Arsenal. They spoke not so long ago.
The former Villarreal star discussed his long return to football after a horrific Achilles tendon injury
And the two-time FA Cup winner insisted you can’t judge Qatar before you go to the country
“At that time he didn’t have a club yet,” reveals Cazorla. “He asked me: how is the league going, how is life here, because he was looking to play in Qatar.”
Instead, he became Arsenal Under-18 head coach. Could Cazorla eventually join him?
“When I have the idea of retiring, I speak to Mikel or someone at the club,” he says. But not as long as his family settles in Qatar. Cazorla’s son Enzo, now 12, plays in the Al Sadd academy.
The club has already housed a few half-decent Spanish midfielders. It was Xavi, who now coaches Barcelona, who bombarded Cazorla senior with phone calls and persuaded him to go east. It’s a competition and lifestyle to match his patchwork.
“I try to feel younger, but sometimes it’s hard,” Cazorla laughs.
Starting this week, fans will flood this footballing backwater for the most controversial World Cup of all.
‘What I can say is: people should come here and then they can see whether they like it or not. It’s too easy to say something if you’re not there, if you don’t know the country or the culture,’ says Cazorla.
Unfortunately, even his dizzying feet can’t help Qatar dance around the oncoming storm.