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Mikel Arteta: 'I looked down at my leg and thought, oh God...'

Mikel Arteta tells Tim Rich about the rare infection that kept him out of football for 11 months, and why it was 'embarrassing' to watch Everton lose without him

Mikel Arteta speaks seven languages but the sense of fear that your body is beyond your control feels the same in any of them.

It was November in Barcelona, nine months since he last kicked a football competitively. He had made repeated trips to Ramon Cugat, Spain's most famous sports injury surgeon, who has treated Fernando Torres and who has the same standing in Europe as Richard Steadman does in the United States. This was to be a routine consultation.

"It was around seven or eight at night," Arteta recalled. "I went downstairs for dinner in the hotel and I started to feel a bit sick and began running a temperature. My missus [he uses the Liverpudlian vernacular to describe his wife, Lorena, a one-time beauty queen] said: "What's wrong with your knee? I rolled up my trousers and my knee was like that." And he uses his hands to make the shape of a watermelon. "I didn't know what was happening. We went straight to the hospital and they found it had become infected by bacteria. They drained the knee that night but it was the same the next day.

"It was the third setback. After the first surgery I was back training in five months with the lads when the stitches on the meniscus split. But this was awful; I had to have a brace fitted for three or four weeks and, mentally, that was the lowest point.

"I was in a place where everything had gone – your pace, your mobility and your strength. I looked at my leg and I thought: 'Oh, God'. I was told the bacteria could have affected the cruciate ligaments and by the end of it all I felt like I had a masters degree in medicine. But I was lucky I was in Barcelona when the bacteria attacked because I could not have flown to see Dr Cugat. My knee was so bad I would not have been allowed on a plane.

"Throughout it all, I never felt my career was over; I just didn't know when I was coming back, whether it would take another three months or 10. I never thought: 'I will never be able to play again'. But perhaps you can't think those thoughts."

For any footballer, long-term injuries, particularly those that do not heal well, are the trapdoor to despair.

It was predictable that Paul Gascoigne should have reacted to the wrecking of his cruciate ligaments in the 1991 FA Cup final with a river of alcohol, but seven years later a man as driven as Roy Keane was phoned by the United correspondent of the Manchester Evening News to ask how his recovery from a similar injury was coming along. Keane replied that it was going well; he was putting in the work in the gym, but it was Friday afternoon and Manchester United captain was putting in a substantial shift in the pub.

Arteta laughed when asked if his manager at Goodison, David Moyes, trusted him to go back to Spain. "He knew I wouldn't be lying on the beach or be doing anything else," he smiled. Footballers from Spain do not, as a rule, drink. On the flight back from Istanbul in 2005, with the European Cup strapped into a seat because there was nowhere else on the small plane for it to go, champagne was handed round in liberal quantities to the Liverpool squad. Luis Garcia and Xabi Alonso accepted a thimbleful, studied the glass as if it contained acid, and spent the remainder of the journey toying with it.

Alonso, who grew up with Arteta on the sands of Playa de la Concha in San Sebastian, the beautiful Basque resort that John Toshack fell in love with while coaching Real Sociedad, was his closest friend on Merseyside. His departure for Madrid was a blow at a time when the Everton midfielder was making his first recovery from injury. But there is a strong Spanish football community around the Albert Dock complex on the Liverpool waterfront, with Pepe Reina and Torres living nearby.

"You know who your mates are when you are injured," he said. "Who phones you and sends you texts and who doesn't. They [the Everton team] helped in every way. There was the manager and the chairman phoning me to ask if they can make things any better. They told me to stay with my family and not to worry about being away. They know the way I do things and they were willing to trust me."

As the hours ached away at his hotel, Arteta watched football; a lot of football. He sat through videos of every game Everton played last season, although you imagine he fast-forwarded through the goalless draw at Newcastle in February, when his knee gave way. The FA Cup final that might have been won had he and Phil Jagielka not been horribly injured would have carried a pang or two of regret.

He did not enjoy watching Everton this season. As they so often do, Moyes' side began badly and by November, the month when bacteria came swarming through Arteta's knee, they had not won a league game at Goodison in two months. Perhaps worst of all was the 5-0 disembowelling by Benfica in the Stadium of Light, where a defence largely made up of youth-team players was mocked by the electric feet of Angel di Maria.

"When I was out, I watched and watched and watched football," Arteta said. "But I hated watching Everton because you knew exactly what was going to happen. These people have been my mates for four or five years and when you see them get hit – pow, pow, pow – in game after game, it is hard to take.

"I was in the hotel recovering after my second surgery when Everton played Benfica and I was embarrassed watching them. We were so bad and I hate it when we give an image of ourselves like that in Europe. You have to explain to people and say: 'That is not us'."

They return to Lisbon on Thursday to face Benfica's great rivals, Sporting, and it says something for the advances the club has made since the turn of the year that the 2-1 victory in the first leg on Tuesday left Goodison deflated. Everton have won five of their last seven matches in the Premier League, were seconds away from recording their first victory at Arsenal since 1996 and have overcome Chelsea. Sir Alex Ferguson remarked yesterday that if Manchester United could win at Goodison this afternoon it might be one of the defining results of the season.

"When the final whistle went against Chelsea, it was an unbelievable feeling," Arteta said of a game that marked his first start for Everton since he was carried off at St James' Park. "If we play like we did three to five months ago, then we have no chance against Manchester United. Then, anybody could come here and win. We have the confidence to push on now but we cannot allow ourselves to forget what Everton were like earlier in the season."

Arteta had made his return as a substitute against Birmingham in the FA Cup, but it was his first training session when his nerves were rawest. "The first few days I was back training I felt really strange," he said. "You think you might have lost all this. When I was in the changing room on the training ground I was going through all the feelings that you usually get before a match. The tough part is knowing a tackle is coming. When you have a weakness in any part of your body, your body tries to protect that area instinctively.

"It changes you. Sometimes, you have to sit down and watch a video for half an hour, sometimes of the opposition, sometimes of us. And sometimes you might have thought: 'I am not watching that'. But you are so pleased to be back and part of the squad that it feels great. You know you have problems but when you go to hospital you see people in a far worse state. And when this all happened I had just had a baby. And when you have a baby everything changes. Football is very important; it is part of your life but it cannot be your whole life."

My other life

It is his love of languages that marks out the 27-year-old. He grew up in San Sebastian speaking Basque and Spanish – "Basque is so unlike any other language and if you don't know the word you can't guess it. If you haven't learnt it in primary school you never will. I spent a lot of time with Nuno Valente when he came to Everton so I learnt Portuguese very quickly and then there was French and Italian." He also speaks Catalan and, according to his Twitter account, has started taking an interest in Welsh, announcing his delight on learning that "board smoothio" meant "ironing board".