'I was told I might never walk again' - Arsenal midfielder refusing to give up battle to play again
He was Arsenal's talisman when they last won at Manchester City but, ahead of the Gunners' return to the Etihad Stadium tomorrow, Santi Cazorla has revealed the astonishing injury nightmare that left him with gangrene and prompted fears that his right leg could be amputated.
After an ordeal that included eight operations, an ankle skin graft from where his daughter's name was tattooed on his arm and a blood infection that caused him to lose eight centimetres of his achilles tendon, Cazorla is now targeting an improbable comeback early next year.
In an extraordinary interview with the Spanish newspaper 'Marca', Cazorla admitted that doctors had said that he would be lucky to walk again, let alone perform on the elite Premier League stage.
"If you get to walk again with your son in the garden, be satisfied, they told me," said Cazorla.
Despite ongoing pain and shocking photographic evidence, Cazorla retains his trademark smile and his determination to play again is constantly evident in his WhatsApp profile message.
"I will not give pleasure to those who do not want me to play again - I will return," it says.
Cazorla's amazing optimism and lack of rancour had so far also extended to there being no public sense of him seeking to apportion blame for the potential curtailment of his career, despite some of football's previous legal precedents.
Tomorrow's match is likely to re-inforce just how deeply his absence has been felt as the Spaniard was the catalyst behind what was their best away performance in recent memory.
That was in 2014 when he scored, assisted and generally dictated the rhythm of the match in a 2-0 win against Manchester City.
Arsenal's Premier League title challenges also lost their impetus in each of the past two seasons after Cazorla suffered serious injuries but what was striking about yesterday's revelations was just how long he had been playing in acute pain.
It was back on September 10, 2013 when Spain were playing Chile in Geneva that Cazorla suffered the first major damage to his right ankle.
It caused a bone fissure but he played on, scoring in the 2014 FA Cup final before moving into a more central midfield position where he became arguably Arsenal's most influential player.
"If I got warm I could play, but at half-time, as soon as I cooled down a bit, I would cry," he said.
Cazorla was still managing that pain for both club and country when he suffered a separate knee ligament injury against Norwich City in November 2015 that also required surgery.
Arsenal were never quite the same team as the Leicester City fairytale of 2015-16 then gathered momentum.
Cazorla did return in 2016 and was again outstanding early last season before coming off during the 6-0 home win against Ludogorets last October.
A tendon injury in the plantar area of his right foot required surgery but the wound kept re-opening to the extent that eight operations were needed.
"The medical professionals told me it was okay, the problem was that it did not heal and the wounds would reopen, become infected," he said. "Look, in this picture I can see the tendon."
'Marca' published a photograph in which the full gaping wound, and what appears to be gangrene, is evident.
Cazorla was then seen in Spain by Dr Mikel Sanchez. "He saw that I had a tremendous infection, that I had damaged part of the calcaneus bone and it had eaten the achilles tendon," said Cazorla. "There was eight centimetres of it missing."
Dr Sanchez, says Marca, put his hands to his head as he absorbed the full severity of Cazorla's injury. He had never seen anything like it. The aggressive nature of three bacteria required antibiotic treatments and it was at this stage that fears arose of a blood infection that could mean amputation.
Despite obvious concerns for Cazorla's career, Arsenal agreed a one-year contract extension.
His current deal expires next June and, at the age of 32, his ambition remains fierce. "I do not have clearance until January, but I will come back by then," said Cazorla.
Although Cazorla's family are still living in London where his children are at school, he has been based at a hotel in Salamanca since July, where he is working daily with Juan Carlos Herraez, the Spain team's physiotherapist. His routine involves swimming, massage, cycling and pilates.
The "hardest thing", says Cazorla, is being alone without his family and there is no timescale on his return to Arsenal's London Colney training base.
Regular messages from team-mates and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger have boosted Cazorla's spirits and he says it is "a relief" to now explain the full extent of his injury.
"Everything I have gone through has not been as simple an injury as people have believed," he said.
"Nobody trusted me but I do. I still do, although the pain keeps me cautious."
Wenger hopes to reintegrate Cazorla gradually after Christmas but Arsenal remain unwilling to place any expectation on his rehabilitation by commenting on the timetable.
"It has been extremely tough and testing for him," said Wenger. "He suffers a lot not to be out there with the ball.
Behind his smile is a strength you would not guess."
© Daily Telegraph, London
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