Santi Cazorla – The gift that keeps on giving

As a long-time football fan, I’m well-versed with turbulent emotions. As a long-time Arsenal fan, however, I have special expertise in dealing with a very particular heartbreak and betrayal associated with the untimely departure of players who commanded a piece of my heart before casually, carelessly stomping on every bit of available tissue as they walked out into the sunset.

So, when Robin van Persie, captain of Arsenal Football Club, posted his open letter to fans about the little boy inside him, I swore that I wouldn’t get fervently attached anymore, letting yet another player disturb my mental and emotional equilibrium. The universe giggled and presented me with the newest Arsenal arrival that summer. 

From his debut, a man-of-the-match winning performance against Sunderland, it was obvious that Santiago “Santi” Cazorla González was special, the quintessential diminutive Spanish midfielder in a generation defined by them. 

This isn’t a piece about that. 

It’s a piece about why, beyond his undoubted quality, he’s special to me. Forget nostalgia or sentimentality; this is an appreciation of a genius and the impact he continues to have in the life of this football fan. It’s a tribute while we’re still able to enjoy his magic on the pitch, his defiance in the face of seemingly insurmountable conditions, than once he inevitably hangs up his boots.

***

By the time Santi arrived at Arsenal, I had been an Arsenal fan for a decade and, in all honesty, the emotional fatigue was real. I loved this often-times exasperating club more with each passing season, I loved and respected the man managing it. But there was also a certain distance between me and the players, and the game of football at large. And then came this little wizard, aptly named El Mago (the Magician), with his beatific smile and infectious happiness who seemed to instinctively get Arsenal, get, even share, Arsene Wenger’s philosophy of the way the game should be played, and elevated it.

Santi Cazorla
Art by Onkar Shirsekar

With Santi Cazorla, I relearned what it meant to enjoy football for its own sake. Whether it was the effortless movement with or without the ball, his ability to see a pass, a space that wasn’t there before he made it, or his way of quietly controlling play from deep, wide, or higher up in the midfield, Cazorla sucked me back into a sport that was maybe losing its allure. I went back willingly–who wouldn’t in the presence of such joyful, creative football?

My favourite Santi performance is one that I didn’t even watch live. Stuck on an unavoidable flight back from Lyon on January 18, 2015, I landed at Barcelona-El Prat to a surprising match update. Arsenal had not only won an away game against Manchester City, but also kept a clean sheet. It was the performance that catapulted Francis Coquelin, recently recalled from loan, into the regular starting line-up. 

But the catalyst for all of it, the fulcrum of the victory, was a 30-year-old Santi. I watched and rewatched the extended highlights until I could get a hold of the full match (with dramatic Spanish commentary, of course). Wenger had set us up to counter-attack and Santi was the deep-lying playmaker who made everything tick. He finished the game with 96 touches, more than any other player from both teams, and a pass completion rate of 92%. That he scored a penalty and assisted Giroud for the second with a pinpoint free-kick was almost secondary, to the extent two match-winning contributions can be. 

Some of my most-rewatched moments from the game are inconsequential to the final score; instead they showcase just how fast Santi could be, just how good his ball control. At one point, Per heads the ball away from just outside the Arsenal area. Santi, with his back to City’s half, chests it to his right foot before dinking it over an onrushing City player and pivoting to run with it towards City’s goal. All of this in about a second. Then, in what was the most incredible run the entire game, Santi takes the ball off a City player barrelling towards Arsenal’s box, swivels to the right to avoid an onrushing defender, dodges his tackle, trips, recovers–still with the ball—runs towards the halfway line, rides over four tackles while still keeping the ball before a fifth player deflects his pass out for a throw.

At this point, I would be remiss in not talking about what was arguably the most important goal Santi, or Arsenal, scored in the past decade. Much has been said (including by me) about Aaron Ramsey, Wembley hero, and rightly so. But who scored a stunning free-kick deep into the first half to reduce Hull City’s lead and give Arsenal crucial hope for a comeback in a game they just could not lose? And this is after he had stepped up and scored the winning penalty to send us through to that FA Cup final, our first in almost a decade.

Santi Cazorla is that rare, heady mix of physicality and poetic technique – keeping the ball under immense pressure, in tight areas, many times switching the ball between his feet; going shoulder to shoulder and nicking the ball off opposition players before swiftly pivoting, changing direction more than once sometimes, dodging more opposition players, to pick out a forward pass or make the run up the pitch; the shape of his body on and off the ball fluid and pitch perfect, whether he is playing a long ball, a defence-splitting pass, or flicking and dribbling effortlessly through a host of defenders. 

He was always happy doing it, too, radiating that joy to his teammates, infecting me, who was in much danger of succumbing to the jaded attitude of a long-suffering sports fan (remember his “can you believe I scored with my head” reaction when he scored a low, diving header during the Reading hattrick in his first season?). And Santi was, is, such a good person. A genuinely, refreshingly, nice guy universally loved, who stays to interact with fans after the game and has to rush to the waiting team bus; who, when asked by Arsenal.com why he always smiles so much, said, “because I’m always happy.”

My only personal regret is not breaking my own ban to get a player’s name at the back of my jersey (can you blame me after my very first was Fabregas?). If I could divine the future, I believe I would have risked the wrath of the footballing gods and got myself a little piece of the Spaniard. In light of his comments of now being a “jigsaw puzzle”, this sentiment is maybe in poor taste. But, in the same interview with Sid Lowe of the Guardian, he also talked about his nostalgia-laced request to Wenger to “train” on the Emirates pitch before the Europa League semi-final with Atletico Madrid.

“I asked if I could because I didn’t know if I would play again. It was nothing much really: four laps, dribble a bit, but just being there again on the grass, just to feel the warmth of the crowd was lovely. To think: ‘I’m going to take something with me, even if I don’t play again.’” 

Maybe, then, it’s not so far off the mark to think that he’d understand. 

***

October 19, 2016. 

Santi had completed 90 minutes only seven times after November 2015, a total of just 32 appearances in what were his last three seasons for the club. I watched the Arsenal-Ludogorets match in the quiet and darkness of a post-midnight Mumbai. The Mesut Ozil hattrick, that goal, Santi’s assist. When he went down following the tackle, there were no tell-tale tremors in the fabric of reality. The next day, Arsene Wenger reassured us that it wasn’t a bad injury. Much later, he would call what ensued the worst injury he had ever seen.

The first real damage had been done more than three years before. Cazorla played for Spain against Chile in a friendly match in Geneva on September 10, 2013 and had to come off following an ankle injury–one that caused a fissure in the bone, leaving his ankle susceptible to further hurt and danger. The Spaniard played through pain and discomfort in the succeeding years until that night in Bulgaria which was to be his last for the club.

By some strange working of the universe, I was in Malaga when Arsenal announced his departure, but, without wifi, I didn’t know it until later that day, by which time I was in Granada. I wrote in my travel journal, “I currently lack the time to process anything.” At this point I have to confess something that I didn’t even realise until I started writing the piece – I never did process it. 

Maybe it was an instinctive survival tactic honed through years of footballing heartbreak or just a fallout of the Wenger departure cornering so much of my energy. It was only when I sat down and thought about what Santi means to me for this piece, about my favourite Arsenal moments with him, that I accidentally flung open doors I didn’t even know were there, forget closed – and I’m having to contend with feelings that significantly complicate the pure, simple joy I’ve had at every goal he has scored since his return to top-flight football (in case I forget, a friend of mine texts me ¡Santi! on every occasion). 

I’m having to contend with just how much I miss him, just how much I’ve missed him in the last three years, and just how much I let hope obscure the reality every single time they announced he was on the cusp of returning to first-team action, to a team, and fans, that needed him. I’m having to contend with how unfair it was that he was injured during a crucial stretch of the 2015-16 title race, how unfair that the Coqzorla combo was interrupted so often by injuries, how unfair that we didn’t have him when we fought (and lost) the Europa League semi-final. And, if I’m completely honest with myself, I’m angry at myself for not savouring every single precious moment he was on that pitch in Arsenal colours, now that I know how it ends. It’s a fierce, helpless anger because he was the one who made me re-appreciate the little things and it still wasn’t enough.

Arsene Wenger offered Santi a one-year contract renewal just before the first operation so he could focus on healing without fear. It kills me to think of what might have been if Wenger hadn’t left just as the Spaniard was standing back up. I realise now that a large part of my desolation and detachment with football and everything else around that time was linked to something I didn’t even know I was shutting out. With that is another sobering realisation about the inevitability of goodbyes, of always feeling like we could have used more time with that thing, that place, that person. Santi was the last true Wenger player and his departure is sad no matter how his Arsenal story ought to have ended.

***

Santi Cazorla wasn’t sure he would even walk again. Doctors told him that it would be a success if he could play with his son in their garden. After everything he has been through, after 636 days on the sidelines, after the 10 surgeries and countless other procedures (nearly 10 cms of his Achilles tendon eaten away by bacteria), the severe infection, the constantly reopening wound and very serious possibility of amputation, and later the rehabilitation to simply get him on his feet, Santi shouldn’t be playing football, forget in the top flight. At any rate, he shouldn’t be playing it well; yet, he is. 

In a sport that is as harsh as it is magical, he is enjoying a completely unexpected but no less delightful renaissance–a resurgence I had desperately hoped for with Tomas Rosicky, another silky favourite who deserved much more. I don’t think there is a single person out there that begrudges him any of it though – the goals and assists, the stunner against Barcelona at Camp Nou, the astonishing call-up to the Spain national squad at the age of 35, his first goal for his country in four years, and just this January, reaching a half-century of goals for Villareal.

And here I am, sucked right back in again, leaving myself vulnerable to everything it entails. Because how can I not?

Now, Santi is also a reminder that terrible things happen to good people, but that it’s possible to fight with everything in you for a chance to continue doing what you love–and more importantly, that it doesn’t have to fundamentally alter you or your inherently positive outlook in life. Sometimes all you can do is take the next step, irrespective of how small it seems, and then take another, and some more; tiny acts of faith.

Players like him are my sustenance in modern sport. The ones who remind me about why I love this game, about the unbridled happiness to be had. It’s strange sometimes how these things work, because Santi talked about his own perspective shift in a recent interview with Sports Illustrated, “I pay more attention around me and try to enjoy the little things even more now…I take it all in.”

The player recently told the Independent’s Tom Kershaw that he doesn’t know what his legacy is there [at the Emirates]–you’d have to ask the fans–but that he wanted to thank us all and would like to play at the Emirates one last time before he retires since he never got to say a proper goodbye.

It is hard not to give in to hope, especially when so much of his story is defined by it, but that isn’t the point of this piece either.

Santi, you gave me back the beautiful game at a time I could so easily have lost it, you who have never betrayed my faith and love, as a player, as a person. The guy who continues to give me perspective on it all when everything threatens to overwhelm me, crush me under its darkness and sadness, its despair and anger. You are the guy who made me believe again, keeps making me believe every single time he laces up, and this is me saying thanks the only way I know how, hoping it’s enough, though how could it be?

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Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.