Cazorla admits Arsenal door is open and eyes fairytale ending at Oviedo


Santi Cazorla is taking part in a virtual press conference to preview the Spanish second division play-offs. Real Oviedo, his boyhood club, the club to which he returned last year, aged 38, asking not to be paid a salary, are preparing to face Eibar in the semi-finals.

It will be a momentous occasion. Oviedo have not played in the top flight for 23 years, a painful hiatus during which they have sunk as low as the fourth tier and survived financial turmoil. This play-off appearance is already the closest they have come to a return.

It shows Cazorla’s good nature, then, that, even in this context, the much-loved midfielder is happy to shift his attention away from all that to answer a question from the one British journalist on the call about the possibility of returning to Arsenal when it is over.

It is, after all, something he has mooted himself. “I really want to go back,” he said to The Guardian in April. Mikel Arteta, meanwhile, his friend and former team-mate, has told Sky Sports there is room for his “unbelievable” energy and knowledge on his coaching staff.

So, with Cazorla’s retirement expected this summer, could the stars align for him to go back to a club where he played 180 games, scoring 29 goals, winning two FA Cups, and becoming almost as popular as he is as a two-time European Championship winner in Spain?

“I have a very special affection for Arsenal,” Cazorla tells Sky Sports. “I spent six wonderful years there and I know how much all the people love me there.

“Of course, I was fortunate to share a dressing room with Mikel Arteta and now he is the manager. We had conversations about that but right now I am not focused on anything other than contributing to this club, Oviedo, and continuing to enjoy football as a player.

“After that, we will see what the future holds for me. It is clear that Arsenal is a club that has always left the door open to me to return. But right now, I have enough on my mind with the play-offs and trying to enjoy the last days of my playing career.”

And what a career it has been.

Those European Championship triumphs with Spain, in 2008 and 2012, remain the highlights. Helping to end Arsenal’s trophy drought under Arsene Wenger was special too. But the prospect of promotion with Oviedo is something else.

Santi Cazorla of Arsenal celebrates scoring a goal with Olivier Giroud during the Premier League match v Southampton
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Santi Cazorla spent six seasons with Arsenal

“It would be a great achievement and a different achievement. When you play in your home, the feeling is different. I have been lucky to win trophies, with Spain and in England as well. But it’s different when you’re playing in front of your friends and family.

“You feel responsible because you are contributing to the club of your heart. The level of responsibility is different with that added pressure.”

Cazorla loved his formative years at Oviedo and only left, initially for Villarreal at the age of 18 in 2003, because of the club’s precarious financial situation following their relegation two years earlier.

“This is a very special moment for me, being back after 20 years. It is one of the goals I set myself, to finish my career here. What better way to do it than by helping the team win promotion to the first division? I will try to achieve it personally and collectively.”

Injuries have limited him to 24 league appearances this season, only 10 of which have been starts. But there have been glimpses of the old magic, most tangibly in the form of four assists, and it is telling that Oviedo have only lost two of those 10 games he has started.

Sadly, both for him and for Oviedo, a muscle problem means he will not be available for Saturday’s home leg against Eibar. But, even in a non-playing capacity, his influence has been – and will be – huge.

Santi Cazorla is presented as a Real Oviedo player in August 2023
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Santi Cazorla returned to Real Oviedo in August on the minimum permitted salary

“What I say to the rest of the team is that we are in a privileged situation, a situation many would like to be in,” he explains.

“Part of the responsibility we have is to manage the nerves, but above all we have to enjoy the occasion. We have always wanted to have an opportunity like this.

“I think this pressure was a problem for us in some games before the play-offs.” Oviedo only snuck in on goal difference after losing four of their last seven games. “But it shouldn’t be a burden. On the contrary. I am just telling my team-mates to enjoy it.”

Cazorla, a sublime talent who has always played with a smile on his face, is a master of that. And while his frustration at his latest injury is clear, his sense of humour still shines through as the questions fly in from journalists in various locations – and on various topics.

The best Brazilian he has played with? “What about Marcos Senna?” he says with a grin of his former Villarreal and Spain team-mate. “He played for Spain, but he is Brazilian. I would have to choose Marcitos because I have a great relationship with him.”

There is praise for Juan Roman Riquelme, another old Villarreal team-mate. “I always say he is the best player I have played with.” And Cazorla cracks another of those huge smiles when Sporting Gijon defender Cote, another speaker at the press conference, uses the opportunity to call him a crack, which roughly translates as champion, adding that he hopes to see him in the final, should his own side overcome Espanyol in the other tie.

Santi Cazorla Villarreal
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Santi Cazorla counts Villarreal among his former clubs

The prospect of a possible meeting between Oviedo and Sporting Gijon, rivals in the principality of Asturias, only 30 kilometres apart, adds another layer of intrigue to what is to come. “To have an Asturias derby in the final would be an amazing experience and make it even more difficult for the team that loses,” smiles Cazorla.

“Those of us who are from Asturias know how football is lived here and how desperate people are to see their teams in the first division. In our case, it has been 23 years, without even playing a play-off, so you can imagine how the people are feeling right now, being a step closer to achieving that dream.

“The most difficult part is still to come but there is excitement in the city. You can see it in the streets. You can see it in people’s eyes.

“I hope we can bring joy to their hearts.”

That, of course, is something Cazorla has done throughout his career. Now, the challenge is to repeat the feat one last time. And beyond that? “I’ll figure it out afterwards,” he says with a smile.

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