It was one of the quintessential Barcelona performances of the year, yet the conductor illuminating the Nou Camp was not Lionel Messi or Luis Suarez, but a greying 34-year-old clad in fluorescent yellow. Yet as the diminutive star of the show departed the stage, the entire crowd rose as one to offer him a standing ovation.
“Football goes so fast. You never have time to stop and think,” Cazorla tells The Independent. “I had to work so hard to get back to this level and it’s hard to choose highlights, but when I play away from home and the stadium is happy just to be able to watch me play football, that’s the best trophy for when I retire.”
It’s easy, at first, to believe that nothing changed. Cazorla still exudes the same boyish freedom, a sheer love of playing football that brightens everything around him. He moves in those short mazy strides, possesses that same vision and invention which always enabled him to see the Premier League in slow-motion. Yet since his return to Spain, he hasn’t just brought time to a standstill, he’s begun to rewind it.
The gory specifics of an injury - the gangrenous tissue, tenfold operation, and jigsaw skin graft - that tore apart and pieced back together one of Europe’s most beloved midfielders are by now well versed. Yet the myth of Cazorla’s recovery still trails him. And beneath his appreciation of simply being able to play again, he’s driven by a fierce determination not to let his injury or absence define him any longer.
“It’s gone now,” he insists. “I never think about the injury. I don’t have any pain. Of course, the way I look at football has changed [because of it]. It’s completely different, but football is better now. I enjoy it all more; the atmosphere in the stadium; training every day. It was difficult to imagine playing at the top-level and for Spain again, but you never know what’s going to happen. My family still sometimes get scared when they watch me, but I’m well now. That’s the most important thing. Now it’s about the present.”
That present continues to shapeshift remarkably. After leaving Arsenal, Cazorla trained with the youth team at Alaves before eventually returning to Villarreal on a tentative one-year appearance-based contract. Initially, it was treated as a gesture of sentiment; a romantic swansong for a lost idol. But Cazorla went on to miss only three games all season and soon the sensation of him moonlighting as one of Europe’s best playmakers was reality again. This year, he’s contributed nine goals in 13 matches, captained Spain and retained his spot as a senior figure in the national team - against Malta on Friday night, he’s set to make his 80th cap. Cazorla’s no longer just turning back time, he’s starting to toy with its very limits.
“I’m an old man in football,” he laughs. “The players are 19 and 20. I’m 34! I have so many more years, but I’m comfortable. I’ve had to become a different player [since the injury], the football feels a lot more physical now. I think even now I’m still having to learn every game.”
Cazorla treats learning like a luxury, something that rubs off on everyone. He’s Villarreal's moving heartbeat, strolling through the training ground, always surrounded by laughing teammates or inquisitive coaches. When he enters a press conference, the room falls into silent reverence. He may be the shortest man in sight, but his influence towers. The club offered him sanctuary and now he's the one doing the saving, taking them first out of the jaws of relegation and now to within the reaches of Europe.
“I feel the responsibility more, especially with the younger players,” he says, before pausing, reminiscing about the penalty he missed against Real Betis towards the end of last season that left him in tears. “…But the injury does help me keep going through difficult times.”
It’s no secret that the hardest chapter came in those final years at Arsenal. The seemingly innocuous injury against Ludogrets and 636 days of rehabilitation which followed. Even now in the midst of his own Indian summer, Cazorla admits he’s still burdened by a desire for closure. “When you are at a big club like Arsenal, sometimes you don’t realise what it means to be there until you are gone,” he says. “I never got to say a proper goodbye. It was the biggest team I played for in my career and I miss everything about Arsenal. I don’t know what my legacy is there, you would have to ask the fans, but I want to say thank you to them all. I would like to play at the Emirates one last time before I retire.
“I don’t know what I will do afterwards - maybe a coach, maybe a sporting director - but I would love to go back to Arsenal. I lived in London for six years. My son loved it there. In the future, we will see if I have the possibility.”
It may come naturally to someone framed by a permanent smile, but his affection is clearly genuine. He warms at individual memories - “the free-kick in the FA Cup final, the club’s first trophy in so long, a beautiful goal” - and expresses sympathy for Arsenal’s current spiral. When Unai Emery arrived in the summer of 2018, he asked Cazorla what pillars of Arsene Wenger’s regime needed crumbling. His advice remains a secret, but he admits “mentality” is the “hardest problem at the moment”.
“Unai Emery is a good coach and it’s a very good team, I watch them play often, but he needs time,” he says. “It’s a new generation and it’s very difficult to compete against teams like Man City and Liverpool. It’s difficult to know [why the club has stalled]. They have the players, they have the fans, the stadium, they have everything to do it but they have to believe it.”
Only at the mention of retirement does Cazorla’s centre of gravity show any faint sign of wobbling. He doesn’t know how long it can last, but when you’ve worked so tirelessly to outrun the end, how can you possibly prepare to accept it? “I don’t want to think about the future,” he reiterates. But quietly he also acknowledges that his twilight is inescapable. Although he won’t put any definition to it, the ‘maestro’ is orchestrating his final act. And, after already rewriting fate, it’s only fitting that Cazorla should get to compose his own finale.
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