Every now and again soccer players talk like soccer fans. It doesn't happen very often -- years in the game see to that, familiarity too -- but sometimes their eyes widen and enthusiasm flows; sometimes, they too look at another player and can't help smiling. There are moments in which even those inside the game offer the simplest of descriptions: "wow, what a player he is."
It doesn't happen very often, so when it does it leaves a mark; there is something a little special about it. There is joy but there is also a kind of authority to the judgment when it is offered so unreservedly, so wholeheartedly -- and when it is not offered as an interviewee's answer but in conversation. Ruud Van Nistelrooy has seen plenty of good players over his career and has played with some of the best so when, before the season has even started, he smiles "what a player Santi [Cazorla] is" it means something. Something good.
Van Nistelrooy is not alone. Other players at Málaga agree. There is excitement when Málaga's sporting director Antonio Fernandez talks about him. Even the coach Manuel Pellegrini, quiet, reserved, not exactly prone to fits of laughter, is enthusiastic. And it is no coincidence that Pellegrini, who worked with Cazorla at Villarreal, did all he could to bring him in. Spain teammates privately talk highly of him; early this summer two different players at two different clubs expressed their desire -- their desperation -- for their teams to sign him. Both players even had a word to try to make it happen.
And yet, it didn't. And yet, it sometimes feels like people have not always rated him as highly as those who come into contact with him do. Cazorla, like Juan Mata, was on Arsenal's shortlist this summer but ultimately Arsene Wenger decided against bidding. Nor did any other Premier League club. Real Madrid were close to signing him in 2008, but not since. Barcelona were not interested.
The 26-year-old Cazorla, who may just be the best player not playing for Madrid or Barcelona, did what the outstanding players outside Spain's big two don't do: he stayed in Spain. In the end, he signed for Málaga for €19 million ($25.4M). Even after his arrival, with Málaga's total spending creeping up toward €60 million ($80M), there were some inside the club that could not believe what they were hearing. Some fans were asking when Málaga's marquee signing would be turning up -- when would it buy a real superstar?
It just had.
Like Juan Mata, a product of the Real Oviedo youth system, Cazorla joined Villarreal B in 2003-04. During his year at Recreativo de Huelva -- he signed for them for €600,000 ($801,000) as a 21 year old with Villarreal immediately exercising its €1.2 million ($1.6M) buyback clause the following summer -- he had La Liga's highest average rating according to the magazine Don Balón (the only non-Madrid/Barcelona publication in the country). Back at Villarreal, he was a virtual ever present and if anyone doubted just how important his creativity was to the side, they need only look at the team's struggles without him this season.
Quick, fleet- footed, ambidextrous, Cazorla has vision and great technique, playing as a narrow attacker coming in from right or left or as the creative fulcrum behind the striker. He can shoot from the edge of the area and had scored 28 goals in five seasons before moving on this summer. He had already become a key player from the bench as Spain won Euro2008, playing in every group game, in the quarterfinal against Italy and in the final against Germany.
Injury meant that he did not go to the World Cup in 2010 because Vicente del Bosque was prepared to take a gamble on a couple of recovering players (Fernando Torres, Andres Iniesta), but thought a third was a risk too far.
It is a measure of how much the Spain coach and the squad considered Cazorla part of the setup that he was immediately included in the squad after the World Cup, as Spain went on tour. Meanwhile, his teammates invited him to join them in the commemorative events to celebrate 2010. There was a feeling that it was somehow wrong that he should not have a medal from South Africa.
The first game back in Spain post-World Cup was in Salamanca. Spain was without central midfielders. Cazorla played there, deeper than normal, more central too, in a role that demanded even better decision making, a little more pause. "I've never been asked to do that before," he admitted. He played superbly.
Watching him closely in Spain training at Las Rozas this autumn was revealing. Small, swift passing exercises -- the rondos or piggy-in-the-middle routine so central to Barcelona's approach in which it is all about touch, and technique at speed -- help to differentiate, even at the highest level. There are players who, bluntly, are not very good at it.
In that environment, some of the best players in the world are made to look uncomfortable, out of their depth, as the ball pings about the circle.
Cazorla emphatically is not one of them.
Cazorla would not have been out of his depth at the very best clubs in the world. Malaga's ambition is to be among those teams but it is not yet there. The biggest clubs did not come for Cazorla. Perhaps it is because he is not flash; perhaps he just does not stand out. He just does not seem like a star, even if Villarreal teammates did call him "our Ronaldinho" because, they said, he was just as ugly, just as funny, and just as good at soccer.
Always smiling, everyone loves him. Joan Capdevila, his teammate at Villarreal, describes him as the nicest guy in soccer. "He never bloody shuts up", Capedevila jokes. For Málaga, that was an advantage: Pellegrini has talked about the need to build a good group of people as well as players, Van Nistelrooy of the lack of prima donnas. When Cazorla scored a free kick against Granada earlier in the season, it followed a wonderful free kick against Sevilla. Afterward, he grinned and said it was a fluke and he couldn't see the run continuing.
Maybe that fondness, that personality, makes it easier for those who know Cazorla to eulogize him. At Málaga it already knew him: its sporting director had been with the Spanish football federation, its coach at Villarreal. If other clubs were not sure about Cazorla, it was to Málaga's advantage. He has started every game and scored four times already this season. Málaga are in a Champions League position. And it's not entirely surprised.
Well before this season started those who knew Cazorla knew.