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How soccer granted Santi Cazorla’s career a second life

Cazorla refused to give up when a bizarre injury threatened his ability to walk. And because of soccer’s global reach, he found his place in the game.

Photo of Villarreal’s Santi Cazorla pointing with both hands to the sky in celebration

Last week, Santi Cazorla scored a beautiful goal against Barcelona. He received the ball about 30 yards out from goal, drove 10 yards in, and sent a powerful shot with his left foot that had the pace and placement to beat Marc-André ter Stegen.

The goal itself is special, but it was even more delightful because it came from Cazorla. Everything positive Cazorla does feels especially sweet. It’s one thing to watch players do the spectacular, it’s another to watch Cazorla do those same things when, just a short time ago, his career appeared to be over because of a bizarre injury that threatened his ability to walk.

Football’s global reach — its countless teams in countless leagues in countries across the world — gives players endless opportunities to re-invent themselves. No matter the failure or, in the case of Cazorla, the unforeseen setback, a player can find a club somewhere that is willing to believe in them. Even if a player can’t reach the heights they did early in their career, or become what they had been projected to be, they can still find a place in football.

I thought about these second chances while watching Cazorla play for Villarreal against Barcelona. How wonderful was it to see him on the field, not just coming on as a substitute, but running circles around his opponents as he used to before his injury?

I remembered the game against Ludogorets in 2016 when Cazorla suffered the Achilles tendon injury that would set him off on a long, fraught recovery. At the time, I did not know he had been suffering from ankle and knee problems for almost an entire year. I remembered the weirdness surrounding his diagnosis. Arsene Wenger stating it wasn’t a big injury, that there was just an infection.

Then weeks, months, and years went by, and Cazorla didn’t return. He faded into the background. He had been one of Arsenal’s best players, a delightful little man who could dominate midfield with both feet, make any pass, shoot from anywhere and was so intelligent that he seemed to see the field from a drone overhead as he played. Suddenly, he was gone because of complications stemming from a small ankle injury he suffered in 2013.

Not until two years later, after Cazorla had left Arsenal, did the devastating nature of his injury became apparent:

“Every time they sewed me up, it split again; more liquid. They did a skin graft but they didn’t see what was inside – the bacteria eating away, eating away. They never found out which bacteria it was.”

“[They told me,] ‘don’t worry about playing football, concentrate on regaining a normal life, being able to play with your son or go for a stroll.’”

Cazorla’s career was saved by the determination of his doctors in Spain, and because of his desire to play football again. I remember reading he had signed a one-year deal with Villarreal. His time at Arsenal was gone and he was in his 30s, the time when most players start to think of retirement. Yet Villarreal, where Cazorla had played 54 games as a young man, were willing to let him fight for his career and end it on his own terms.

I remember watching Villarreal give him a player presentation that was more fitting for a burgeoning young star than an old man who had part of his ankle shaved off. I was happy to see him playing again, though I feared he might succumb to another injury.

That fear, though it comes from a place of affection, is also borne out of selfishness. Sometimes in caring for someone, we reduce the possibilities of their life. In thinking we want the best for them, what we really want is for them to make us comfortable, to be in a space that doesn’t disturb the idea we have of them. Along with the fear of Cazorla injuring himself again was the anxiety that he would be a shadow of the player he used to be. That the presentation would be the highlight of his time at Villarreal and his ending would be sadder, because he would have fought hard to come back for nothing.

The idea of “nothing” is highly subjective, too. In football, and sports in general, there is a clean narrative arc for what a “good” career looks like. Players are supposed to go from promising youngsters to established stars, and then make their way to the big clubs where they can win trophies and claim a place in football canon. Players who fail to trace this arc can still be valuable, but so many are forgotten in the game’s lore. They become cases of what-could-have-been.

Nothing interrupts that arc more than a major injury. Cazorla was a star for Arsenal, then he almost didn’t exist anymore. When Cazorla scored his rocket against Barcelona, I joked to a friend that he looks like a promising player, and a team like Arsenal could surely use him in midfield.

Outside of narrative arcs is still a life. And beyond our hopes for what a player could be is still football for its own sake. There will be teams like Villarreal that are willing to give players like Cazorla opportunities to be serviceable, if not better. More importantly, those players can play the game they enjoy. It doesn’t matter whether someone like Cazorla plays for one year or two, whether he scores against Barcelona or only comes on as a substitute. The important thing is he’s out there again, and that he alone can determine the outcome of his career.