"It's a secret," Santi Cazorla said, and then he started laughing. "But what I can tell you is that I was almost more nervous than for my debut. I was thinking, 'If I mess this up, I'm going to be left in there ...'" And with that, he fell about, giggling all over again.
He'd been put back together over 10 operations in two years; now it was all he could do to hold himself together as he told the story of the day he came back, cracking up as he went.
Two years since he last graced a professional game, seven years since he departed the Estadio de la Cerámica (known as the Madrigal back then), Cazorla was at Villarreal, returning to the club where he made his senior debut, and they decided to do things differently. Forget the usual presentation routine: a few kick-ups, wave a bit and then lie on the physio's bed with your top off, thumbs up. Instead, he was going to suddenly appear, conjured up by a magician named Yunke and emerging from a smoke-filled capsule. "The magic returns," the slogan ran.
Cazorla had rehearsed it all the day before and there was a walkie talkie, too, preparing his every move, but still there were nerves as he waited for the command: "OK, Santi, let's go!" The practice runs hadn't entirely gone to plan and it wasn't exactly comfortable, either, stuck and hidden away, but there was no turning back.
"Yunke told me what to do," Cazorla said, falling about again. "I had to get inside that mini-shower thing, and once inside I wasn't allowed to touch the glass because I'd be seen. I had to duck my head down and I was sweating like ..."
Like, pfff ... He wagged his hand and blew out his cheeks. "Every time we practiced, something went wrong. He'd say, 'That's good, but you can see your left leg,' or, 'I see your head,' and I thought, 'Bloody hell.' He said, 'Let's just practice it one more time,' and in the end, it was perfect. It ended up looking good, pretty cool."
What Santi Cazorla didn't know was what things looked like on the outside, what was going on out there.
"My back was killing me," he joked, drawing a tiny square with his fingers and acting out being squashed, scrunched up tight. "I came out and said, 'Hey, the presentation was very good and all, but I don't know if I can play now, my back's in a right state.' I tried to make myself as comfortable as possible, but it was a long time. I had my mobile and was texting people, 'I'm still in here, you know,' thinking maybe everyone in the stadium's gone and they've left me here."
"I didn't know how many people there would be [for the unveiling] -- I had to be there before the people turned up. There was a little gap, but I spent 45 minutes hidden in a small space, listening to the magician do his tricks. He was on the other side and I was in there crouched down, so I didn't know. When the smoke started to clear, I couldn't believe how many people had turned up."
"I stepped out and was like, 'Oh, wow, look at all the people!'"
Of course; how could there not be? In Villarreal, they love Santi Cazorla. And in London, they love him too. And in Malaga and Oviedo. Everywhere, really. That day proved it, and so, too, did the first game of 2019.
Thursday night, Villarreal faced Real Madrid, and it was Santi Cazorla's night. "The best since I came back," he said.
The best, not the only. Cazorla has played 21 times since he stepped out from the smoke, yet this felt a bit like a watershed, too -- a start of something different, a new day. The Return. Maybe because it was the first game of 2019 and that there could be no better way to begin; maybe because it was Madrid, and that always makes a difference; maybe because he scored twice and because the opener was the first goal of the new year and the first he had scored in the Spanish league for seven years, since one at Osasuna for Malaga.
There are a lot of reasons it felt different: Maybe it was the way his first goal bent beautifully into the net; maybe it was the way he leapt to head, for only the second time in his career, the equaliser with seven minutes left, taking two points off Madrid; maybe it was because it mattered so much, the 2-2 draw carrying Villarreal out of the relegation zone.
Or maybe it was because Cazorla was brilliant, the best player on the pitch. A footballer, which is all he wanted to be. What he fought for. There is an admiration for the way Cazorla came back, a lesson in life. There's a warmth, too, for the person he is and the player he always was. That warm coming from outside the game and from the inside, too. You could see it in the way they embraced him last night, the size of the smiles, Cazorla on tiptoes to reach Sergio Ramos. The worry, though, that "was" might be the word and that when it came to Cazorla, everything that has happened would always condition everything that does happen.
When Cazorla signed for Villarreal, he immediately became a regular player and one of their best performers. Yet there was still that little something lingering, as inevitable perhaps as it was unfair. The sense, perhaps, that he was being protected: Of his 10 league starts, he completed only four and he was rarely given back-to-back games in the league and in Europe. There was also a sense that he was destined to be looked upon differently when all he wanted was to compete, to be a normal player, measured on merit.
Then Villarreal sacked Javi Calleja and Luis García took over as manager. Cazorla turned 34 just 12 days before Christmas, and in the first two games under Garcia, he didn't start.
Thursday night, he did. One paper insisted that he produced a performance worthy of a Spain call-up. Another said he had played as if he was "playing in his garden at home." Intentional or not, it's a line layered with meaning: A doctor once told Cazorla he should count himself lucky if he managed to stroll around his garden at home with his son. This was a match, on the Villarreal pitch where he'd been cramped into the capsule, and against Real Madrid, the world champions. And against them, he had been the finest footballer out there, "spectacular from the first minute to the last," as one match report ran.
"Santi's a phenomenon," Garcia said. "And he's going to get even better."
It was the first game of 2019, signalling the end of La Liga's Christmas break. On the morning of the game, one excited front page put it simply: "Football's back." Turns out it was right.