EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Santi Cazorla hasn’t been back to Arsenal since leaving in 2018, but he’s desperate to return as he opens up on dressing up as Mario and Luigi with ‘one of his best friends in football’ Mikel Arteta – and why he ‘loves’ Gabriel Jesus
- Former Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla, 37, has opened up on his stellar career
- The talented Spanish playmaker is currently playing for the Qatari side Al Sadd
- Cazorla admitted he would love to return to the Gunners when he stops playing
- He also discussed former team-mate Mikel Arteta’s friendly and ruthless sides
- And Cazorla insisted you cannot judge World Cup hosts Qatar before visiting it
- Click here for the latest World Cup 2022 news, fixtures, live action and results
The little magician who always glided one step ahead has started to fall behind on his work. Santi Cazorla’s to-do list is growing by the day.
For years, the midfielder has put off a return trip to London and a couple of old haunts: Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium and Novikov restaurant in Mayfair.
More recently, friends have offered rave reviews of All Or Nothing, the documentary detailing life at his former club. Still, though, he has yet to watch a minute.
Former Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla (left) has opened up on wanting to return despite not being back since leaving in 2018 in an exclusive interview with Sportsmail‘s Daniel Matthews
The gifted playmaker is still playing for Qatari side Al Sadd just short of his 38th birthday
Even now, Cazorla is delaying his decision over what comes next. ‘I have to start thinking about that,’ he says. Now that the light is fading on a glittering career. As his 38th birthday approaches, the sun has still to set.
But this season, with Al Sadd in the heat of Qatar, could prove Cazorla’s last. Beyond that, football will remain his future. ‘I don’t know if as a coach, a second coach (assistant manager) or sporting director,’ he says.
Cazorla has not been back in England since he left Arsenal in 2018 after six spellbinding years ended with a gruesome Achilles injury, gangrene, skin grafts and, eventually, 10 operations. A decade after Cazorla first arrived, the pain of regret remains.
‘My dream was to play more and more years for (Arsenal),’ he says. He still watches their games and is enjoying their fine season from afar. He yearns for his own return, too.
‘Of course I would like to come back,’ he says. ‘I have to wait if the club thinks about me, if I can help in something – as a coach or a sporting director.’
To realise that ambition, he might need the help of manager Mikel Arteta. Not for the first time. ‘When I arrived at Arsenal, I didn’t speak English – nothing!’ Cazorla says.
‘I remember on the first day he was there to welcome me and after that, he was very important every day.’ Without Arteta, Cazorla initially had only two stock responses to English conversations: ‘Yes’. Or laugh.
Over those six years, they forged a tight bond. ‘One of the best friends I have in football.’
Spaniard Cazorla opened up on his close friendship with former team-mate Mikel Arteta (left)
Their wives grew close; their children would play together. ‘They helped my family so much so I want to say: Mikel, thank you.’ One night, these brothers became twins: at a team fancy dress party, Cazorla dressed up as Super Mario. ‘He was Luigi.’
‘A very funny day,’ the Spaniard recalls. ‘When (Mikel) was captain, he always tried to control these kind of things.’ Extra-curricular activities which, Cazorla insists, are ‘very important to try and get the results you want.’
‘Away from the pitch we had an amazing relationship as well,’ the 37-year-old adds. ‘He was more than a team-mate.’ They became regulars at Novikov. More often, though?
‘We stayed together at home, also when Nacho Monreal came to Arsenal, we watched LaLiga,’ Cazorla explains. ‘I saw a lot of games with (Arteta) when we were injured.’ Rehab was enlightening.
‘I started to see that he wanted to be a coach.’ How? ‘He analysed everything. He stopped the match and asked me: ‘What did you see? Did you see this game? What we can change, what we can improve?”
Arteta’s leadership was evident back then, too. ‘An amazing captain,’ Cazorla says. ‘An amazing personality… an example for everyone.’ Or, as Jack Wilshere put it recently, the ‘teacher’s pet’. ‘Definitely,’ Cazorla agrees.
The pair remain close. Arteta still receives messages of good luck or congratulations: ‘Well done, good job, we have to keep going.’
‘They are doing very well, they have very good young players: (Bukayo) Saka, (Gabriel) Martinelli, (Martin) Odegaard. We have an amazing future,’ he says.
He stated it was difficult for the club to adapt to losing legendary boss Arsene Wenger (right)
Cazorla added his pick of the current Gunners crop is summer signing Gabriel Jesus (above)
‘It’s normal they needed time, because after (Arsene) Wenger it’s a little bit difficult to try to keep the success. But I think Mikel is the best option for Arsenal: he knows the club, he loves this club and he knows the mentality’.
At his peak, Cazorla was a mesmerising influence in north London: two dazzling feet, 5ft 6ins of invention and ingenuity. His pick of the current squad, however, is a rather more chaotic force.
‘I love Gabriel Jesus,’ the 37-year-old says. ‘I liked this player when he was at Manchester City but I think now he’s made one step forward because he feels now that he’s very important for the team.’
At 25, Jesus is among the older heads in a squad that has been ruthlessly gutted on Arteta’s watch. Big players on big salaries, such as Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, have been cast out. Cazorla played with both Ozil and Arteta. Their clash came as a shock. But not Arteta’s willingness to pick such battles.
‘No, not surprised,’ Cazorla says. ‘He doesn’t care about the name or the personality of the player.’
Turbulence beset Cazorla’s final few years in London, too. Good memories remain – none more ‘special’ than the 2014 FA Cup final, when Cazorla’s free-kick helped Arsenal beat Hull and end nine years of hurt.
‘It was the best time in my career,’ he says. ‘I love everything about the club. I miss everything.’ Eventually, though, the shadow of Wenger’s long goodbye loomed large. Both left in 2018.
‘It was very sad to see him leave,’ Cazorla says. ‘But it’s part of life, sometimes all things needs change. And for him as well, maybe it was the time to stop.’ Wenger’s 22-year tenure changed Arsenal and English football forever. And yet?
The 37-year-old also discussed Arteta’s willingness to ostracise German Mesut Ozil (above left)
‘For me a very special moment – it was not about football,’ Cazorla says. Instead it came during those dark days, when Cazorla’s Achilles began to rot and his contract was running out, too.
‘Just one week before the first surgery, he called me and said: ‘You have to sign the contract, one year more… to be focused on your recovery,’ he recalls. ‘For me it was an amazing detail… I’ll never forget that.’
Cazorla went on to rebuild his career at Villarreal before heading to Doha, where he bumps into Wenger now and then. The Frenchman is helping FIFA prepare for the Qatar World Cup.
‘To see this guy, I always feel happy because he’s an amazing person,’ Cazorla says.
Wenger wouldn’t abandon Cazorla during that 636-day struggle with injury. It could have cost him his career and his leg. It ended instead with part of his left forearm grafted on to his right ankle – replaced by a piece of thigh – and a new achilles forged from repurposed hamstring.
‘It’s the worst thing when you start to feel alone… (like) nobody remembers you,’ Cazorla recalls. But regular messages from Wenger and Arteta told him otherwise. ‘Those small details helped me a lot.’
Wilshere was another midfielder crippled by injury. He retired earlier this year at the age of 30. ‘I feel very sad because he’s an amazing player and a very good friend of mine,’ Cazorla says.
Wilshere rates Cazorla as the best he ever played with at Arsenal. They spoke not long ago.
The former Villarreal star discussed his long return to football after a horrific Achilles injury
And the two-time FA Cup winner insisted you cannot judge Qatar before going to the country
‘In that moment he didn’t have a club,’ Cazorla reveals. ‘He asked me: how is the league, how is the life here because he was looking to see if he could play in Qatar.’
Instead, he became head coach of Arsenal’s Under-18s. Could Cazorla eventually join him?
‘When I have the idea to retire, I will speak with Mikel or with someone in the club,’ he says. But not while his family are settled in Qatar. Cazorla’s son Enzo, now 12, plays in the Al Sadd academy.
The club has already housed a couple of half-decent Spanish midfielders. It was Xavi, now coaching Barcelona, who peppered Cazorla Snr with calls, persuading him to head east. It’s a league and lifestyle that suits his patchwork body.
‘I try to feel younger but sometimes it’s difficult,’ Cazorla laughs.
From this week, fans will flood this footballing backwater for the most controversial World Cup of all.
‘What I can say is: people have to come here and after that they can see if they like it or not. It’s too easy to say something if you’re not here, if you don’t know the country or the culture,’ Cazorla says.
Alas, not even his dizzying feet can help Qatar dance around the brewing storm.
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