The kid is back. After spending the guts of two years without playing a match due to injury, Santi Cazorla is running the show at Villarreal in La Liga. Last Sunday, for example, the Yellow Submarine hosted Real Betis in the league. A moment of magic by the midfielder helped to decide the game.
With 54 minutes on the clock, Villarreal went sniffing for a goal. A deflected ball squirted across the box. Betis defender Junior collected it, but he was immediately dispossessed by Cazorla who dribbled the ball towards the end line.
Cazorla was headed down a blind alley. He faked to cross the ball, which unbalanced Junior enough for the former Arsenal man's next trick—an audacious back-heel into the path of team-mate Samuel Chukwueze, who took a touch before slotting the ball into the corner of the net.
It was Villarreal's second goal and Cazorla's second assist on the night. They won 2-1, and the three points dragged them out of the relegation zone.
Javier Perez is a journalist with El Pais. He first met a teenage Cazorla on a Villarreal trip to Bucharest, Romania, during the player's first stint with the club.
He says Cazorla is part of a group of Spain players—along with Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and David Silva—that revolutionised the game. They are "the crazy little ones" who have shown us that small, skilful midfielders can dominate a game with their close control and passing ability.
Cazorla is still weaving the same magic that brought him to prominence alongside that triumvirate during Spain's historic UEFA Euro 2008 win—the country's first major tournament triumph.
"It is like time hasn't passed or there hasn't been any injury—he's the same player," says Perez. "The match against Betis was only his [second] match in the league he played for 90 minutes, but he had a great level. He's practically the same player—playing midfield, drifting into the centre from the wing—but obviously now he has greater experience. He knows the runs he needs to make."
It's incredible to see Cazorla at the heart of a Villarreal victory, having rejoined the club that gave him his La Liga debut 15 years ago. In football terms, people had given up on him. A year ago, even he reckoned it was "unthinkable" that he would play top-flight football again. However, he has managed to defy medical science.
It's an extraordinary comeback.
Cazorla's troubles go back to an international friendly between Spain and Chile—one of 77 caps he picked up for his country—in October 2013. He suffered a knock on his ankle early in the game but played the full match with a cracked bone.
For the next few years, he continued to play through pain despite the niggling injury until it got unbearable one night in a UEFA Champions League tie with Arsenal against Ludogorets Razgrad at the Emirates Stadium. He was substituted just before the hour mark. He cried with pain that night.
In December 2016, he underwent surgery in Sweden on the damaged ankle, but an infection he picked up during the surgery complicated his recovery, according to Juan Carlos Herranz, who has worked as Cazorla's physiotherapist. Several more operations ensued. Several more times his body betrayed him. His wounds kept reopening. Yellow pus used to pour out of his ankle at night, seeping through his stitches.
Cazorla's medical team told him to banish thoughts about playing football again: The best he could strive for was a game in the garden some day with his two kids, Enzo and India. They hadn't figured on the Spaniard's resolve, though.
He retreated to Spain where he met with Dr. Mikel Sanchez, a renowned surgeon who has made star sportsmen such as Rafael Nadal and Iniesta better again from his surgery in the Basque city of Vitoria.
Sanchez had never seen a case like Cazorla's. He poked around his leg. The Achilles tendon at the back of his right foot was riddled with infection. Three bacterial bugs had eaten away eight-10 centimetres of the Achilles tendon (an average Achilles tendon is only 15 centimetres long). The infection had spread to the bone also. He was at risk of losing his leg.
Sanchez went to work. First, he cleaned up as much of the infection as possible. Then he blasted Cazorla with antibiotics over the next couple of months for the remaining spots of infection. He then went back to operate on the tendon again. This was when the surgeon had to get inventive. He had to reconstruct what was left of the Achilles tendon and make it whole again. He pulled semitendinosus tissue from one of the player's hamstrings to make do. He inserted a plate into his heel.
By the time Cazorla was finished with the operating theatre as a result of that original ankle injury in October 2013, he had endured 10 operations. His body was a patchwork. During one skin-graft procedure, when flesh from his left forearm was taken for use on his right ankle, a tattoo with his daughter's name, India, was cut in half—the letters "I" and "A" are now orphaned on his ankle.
"My great fear when I got to know him was that he wouldn't be able to play football again," says Sanchez. "Santi's big problem was we had to heal the infection and reconstruct the Achilles tendon so it worked with the same power as before. To return him to the level of football he was previously at was something I've never seen done before.
"It was a challenge to do this surgery and a very stressful one because the goal was not only to make him walk again like a normal person walking on the street but he was a player who wanted to return to the highest level in a sport as demanding as football. I always had the fear that all of the press, all of the newspapers were waiting to see what would happen to Santi Cazorla. If he failed in his recovery, it would have been very disappointing. This is what I always feared."
After the surgeon had finished with his knife, Cazorla's road to recovery was only starting, however. In July 2017, he left the Basque Country for Salamanca. He rocked up at Herranz's physiotherapy clinic in the picturesque medieval city.
Cazorla was walking with a limp, but he was comfortable with Herranz. They had known each other for a decade. Herranz has worked as a physio for the Spain national football team since 2000.
Cazorla's rehabilitation regime was brutal. He lived a monastic existence in Salamanca. His family stayed in London where his kids were at school, later moving to Asturias to be closer to their extended family. His daily schedule started at 10 a.m. and might not finish until after 11 p.m. at night. His days were a swirl of Pilates, swimming-pool sessions and physical workouts interspersed with physiotherapy. He often ate take-out at night on Herranz's treatment table.
Step by step, Cazorla made progress. In August 2017, he got to do his first bit of running. The strength in his legs started to come back. But then disaster struck. In November 2017, his leg broke down again. The makeshift tendon had to be unravelled from tangled tissue and reattached. More surgery was required. He was back to square one. A lesser man would have packed it in. But not Cazorla.
"That was a hard moment," says Herranz. "With us here in Salamanca, he was already running and going out on to the pitch, doing some exercises with the ball. He was making a lot of progress, but then he phoned me from Vitoria to say his leg had broken down again. It was the most complicated moment during Santi's recuperation."
Herranz credits Cazorla's indomitable will for giving him the strength to start again.
"Santi has a lot of personality," says Herranz. "He's a guy who is really tough. He makes sacrifices. He's a fighter. He's very positive. If he weren't so positive a lot of sportspeople in his situation would have abandoned the treatment cycle."
It's a trait that Sanchez picks up on, too. He says there were several factors that ultimately contributed to the success of Cazorla's recovery, which included the quality of his physiotherapy treatment; the modern biological therapies that Sanchez was able to profit from during Cazorla's operations and the fact the 33-year-old is blessed with fantastic genes.
Above all these factors, however, Sanchez singles out Cazorla's positive mindset: "It's the force of his willpower—his mentality. He never, ever lost the desire to return to play football. He always said—even if I was losing my faith—that he would play football again. The hours of work he did in the gym, working on his muscles, repeatedly, was incredible."
Cazorla climbed back up the mountain. He reached the peak in July 2018 when he played in a friendly match against Hercules. It had been more than 600 days since he had last played a game. A few weeks later, Villarreal gave him a one-year contract with an option for a second season.
He was back. On August 18, Cazorla made his La Liga return in a home game for Villarreal against Real Sociedad. He got a standing ovation when he was withdrawn in the 73rd minute. Perez notes he has been getting applause from rival Liga fans wherever Villarreal play this season. He can expect the same when he runs out against Barcelona at the Camp Nou on Sunday.
Sanchez also gets a kick whenever he sees him play. "He's like a son," he says. "I have great affection for him. For me to see him play football—or to score a goal again—is powerful. It's very moving. A case like Santi's, and the level to which he recovered, is exceptional. It's a miracle."
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz