The battle for dominance in La Liga continues to take more twists and turns with only five points separating the top seven teams entering Wednesday's midweek action. In a season which most thought Eden Hazard, Antoine Griezmann or Joao Felix would dominate the headlines by helping their teams distance themselves from everyone else, the reality is that the biggest storylines have come from more peculiar places. Resilience has been the theme of the Spanish league so far, where smaller teams have fought hard against the Goliaths of the league.
One of them is Villarreal. A team with great history, the Yellow Submarine has experienced almost everything in the last decade including relegation in 2012 and a quarterfinal spot in last year’s Europe League. But, after ending 14th in La Liga last season and narrowly escaping relegation, the club is on a different mission this time around.
Sitting in seventh, the club is in the mix among the congestion at the top, and it is doing it with its attack. Only Barcelona has scored more than Villarreal's 24 goals through 10 games, and a main reason for the breakout is popular, widely beloved veteran Santi Cazorla.
“We are obviously happy with the season so far, but the first thing is to not suffer. That’s the first thing, to reach 42 points, which is often the target to stay in the league,” Cazorla told SI.com. “Then after that, we take it day by day and aim to keep getting better. And hopefully, by the end of the season, we end with a Europa spot or even close enough to think Champions League. But we are not getting carried away by any means. The key is to take it slow. Step by step.”
Taking it slow, being patient and taking it step by step are things Cazorla knows all too well. Most in the soccer world are familiar with the story: It was 2016, when Cazorla, entering his fourth year with Arsenal, suffered a career-threatening injury to his Achilles tendon during a Champions League fixture against Ludogorets Razgrad. The ankle was already vulnerable due to a bone fissure he suffered while playing for Spain three years prior, so it required surgery. Actually, 10 surgeries to be exact. And as a result, the wound failed to heal and it became infected, so he searched for a specialist back in Spain.
“He saw that I had a tremendous infection, that I had damaged part of the calcaneus bone and it had eaten the Achilles tendon,” Cazorla told Marca. “There was eight centimeters of it missing.”
Forget about playing–Cazorla wasn’t sure if he would walk again.
Thanks to additional reconstructive surgery and strenuous therapy, Cazorla embarked on his road to recovery. Arsenal, a club for which he will never stop caring, stuck with him and extended his contract until June 2018, with hopes of him returning to action for then-manager Arsene Wenger.
“Arsenal is the team who supported me so much and gave me so much love. The warmth they have for me is often incomparable,” Cazorla said. “It meant so much to me. Football moves us in so many ways, so when you’re not playing well, you feel bad, but the fans were amazing. It was sad to not be able to properly say goodbye to them, but I truly cherish my time there.”
Cazorla recalls an anecdote from 2014, when the Gunners had just been embarrassed by Chelsea, 6-0–a match that just happened to be Wenger’s 1,000th game in charge. Arsenal was humiliated by Jose Mourinho’s side, and Cazorla went home depressed, angry and bitter, refusing to go outside. But that weekend was the same one when his family was coming to visit.
“I hate losing, especially in that manner, so I didn’t want to leave the house. But I had to because my family was there and I had to show them around London,” he said. “But as we were sightseeing, fans would come up to me and were so comforting, telling me it was just one game and it's only football. It made me feel so welcome. And that to me is football in England and something I think other places should aim to be.”
After 180 appearances for Arsenal, Cazorla left and Villarreal came knocking in 2018, offering him a one-year contract after he impressed in preseason. This past summer, his contract was extended, and now both the team and player are reaping the rewards. This season, Cazorla has four goals (the club’s third-leading scorer) and four assists. Last month, in a rout against Real Betis, Cazorla scored a penalty, which made him the highest-scoring midfielder in the history of the club (he had two previous stints with Villarreal), passing the great Juan Roman Riquelme. In an entertaining 2-1 loss to Barcelona at Camp Nou, he scored a goal-of-the-season contender.
But after his arduous journey, El Mago (The Magician) thinks less about records, highlights or statistics and more about the simple joys of playing.
“After everything I have been through, I think the biggest takeaway is that I pay more attention around me and try to enjoy the little things even more now,” Cazorla said. “Entering the pitch, for example, means that much more. When you’re young and healthy, you take it for granted, so every time I enter the pitch, I take it all in. The stadium atmosphere, the fans, I take it all in.”
It’s this type of perspective that inspires younger players, and it’s no surprise that, in addition to his leadership qualities, his performances with Villarreal have once again attracted the attention of the national team. He was rewarded with a return call-up to Spain earlier this year.
“It was another dream to return to the national team, and again it’s very hard to describe and put it into words. Honestly, I never pictured a return so it means more than just call-up,” says an emotional Cazorla, who also thinks his age and experience can help many of the younger members of the squad. “These young guys are incredibly talented, but the biggest error to do is to compare this squad to past teams, especially the World Cup- and Euro-winning team. This is a squad with a new style and identity, with players who bring something different, unique. So that’s the key. To create a new personality with this core of talented young guys.”
Spain recently qualified for next summer’s European Championship, and under Robert Moreno, it will look to reclaim its title as the best team in Europe. Moreno replaced Luis Enrique after tragedy struck his family when his 9-year-old daughter, Xana, died from osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. Cazorla never played under Luis Enrique, but he sees how the national team has become more united, and every time the players come together, they form a symbol of support for their former manager.
“I never had the chance to play under him, but it’s a collective thought around every player who has worked with Luis Enrique. He’s a great person and manager,” Cazorla said. “There are bigger things in life than football, and it’s just devastating what happened. So, every time we’re together as a national team setup the least we can do is show our unity to support him.”
For Cazorla, life is about taking it step by step and appreciating the things you can control. For him, it’s about balancing the rigors of training but also having enough time to spend with his family: his wife Ursula, his children and their Labrador Zlatan, who is named after Zlatan Ibrahimovic. (“He’s a player I truly admire and I’ve always respected so I wanted to name my dog the same!” Cazorla said.)
Cazorla turns 35 in December, and he doesn’t know how long he will last in Spain, but for now he feels good and like he belongs in the top flight. For how long? Only he knows. Perhaps MLS is a possibility in the future.
“I do think about MLS and I love the U.S. Of course, there’s much to always think about with my career, but America is a place I definitely think about.”
But Cazorla doesn’t think too far ahead. In fact, for him, the future is a mirage, a distant illusion for others to worry about. All he cares about is the present, and after everything he has been through, Santi Cazorla just wants to play and enjoy the little things.