Santi Cazorla was facing the prospect of never walking again.
Now, he’s back where he belongs.
Cazorla made his incredible return to soccer 636 days after his last match, coming off the bench in Villarreal’s first preseason match of the season, a 1-1 draw with Hercules. Between his last game and now, Cazorla had to endure eight (8!) operations on his Achillies tendon, an infection to the tendon and his leg, and nearly two years on the sidelines as he contemplated and worried if he would ever play again.
After years as a top player and 77 caps for the Spanish National Team, Cazorla is thankful to just put on his shirt and boots for a game.
“To feel like a football player is very special,” Cazorla told Villarreal’s website. “Without a doubt, I stay with the affection of the people throughout this period. The fans have given me strength and accompanied me during difficult times. “
Cazorla’s last official game was on October 19, 2016 for Arsenal in a 6-0 UEFA Champions League drubbing of Bulgarian side Ludogorets. Cazorla played the first 57 minutes of the match but just before then, he picked up a knock to his right Achilles tendon and then-Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger quickly pulled him from the match.
What was thought to be just a three-week spell on the sidelines turned into a nightmare. The 33-year-old midfielder detailed to Marca in 2017 that multiple surgeries to his Achilles tendon failed to heal, and by December 2016 doctors learned his leg was infected, which is understandable considering he had an open wound for two months.
Doctors in England said that if he could walk again, “he should be satisfied,” leading Cazorla to look for a second opinion in his native Spain. Although bacteria had reportedly eaten eight centimeters of his tendon, Dr. Mikel Sanchez of Vitoria led tendon reconstruction surgery and helped Cazorla on his rehabilitation process as he learned how to walk again, slowly making his way back to the field.
It seems fitting, then, that after being removed in the 57th minute of his last game, Cazorla would enter the field once more in the 57th minute, finishing the match and building match fitness as he starts a new campaign with Villarreal.
“Sometimes I am too demanding,” Cazorla said. “I do not enjoy what I am living as I should. I have returned to training with my teammates and played a good football match. For me, that was unthinkable a little over 20 months ago. I just think about finding myself 100 percent again and being able to do what I like, which is to play football.
“My gratitude is maximum to all football fans. I have received endless signs of affection. Especially, of the fans of Villarreal CF. They have always remembered me during my stay at other clubs. I was always clear that my farewell to the Submarine was not a goodbye, but a see you later. I have never given up the possibility of returning and, now, I have that possibility. Hopefully we can enjoy and relive great moments like we did in the past.”