Cazorla, the mini marvel! Arsenal lost their crown jewel when RVP left, but they unearthed another gem
22:45 GMT, 1 November 2012
At the small school on the outskirts of the village of Lugo de Llanera in northern Spain, there was recently some news which shocked pupils and teachers alike: football had been banned.
The official reason was that the health-and-safety brigade thought too many children were getting hurt during their kick-abouts in the concrete playground that surrounds the Colegio Publico Lugo de Llanera. The real reason, no doubt, is that they have given up trying to produce another Santiago Cazorla.
Cazorla was a football-loving short kid who always had a football tucked under his arm. Now he is Arsenal’s ball carrier too, a brilliant midfielder with enough talent to have dampened the despair at Robin van Persie’s departure and to give Arsene Wenger’s side hope ahead of their trip to Old Trafford on Saturday.
Mini marvel: Santi Cozorla fell in love with football from an early age in Lugo De Llanera, northern Spain
Progression: Cazorla (bottom right) was snapped up by Oviedo before Villarreal, Recreativo and Malaga
Top Gunner: Now Cazorla is at the heart of all the good things Arsenal are trying to achieve
Arsenal have lost their crown jewel, but they think they have found another gem who can give them an unlikely win against the team who beat them 8-2 last season.
That short kid is now the 5ft 6in footballer who has quickly built a reputation for sublime control, the ability to pass and shoot with both feet and an eye for goal. He’s the quintessential skilful midfielder that reminds England of what they don’t have.
Most of the village will watch the game against United in the bar which carries Cazorla's name. They adore him, still marvel at his ambidexterity and raise a glass of their beloved local cider with each goal he scores.
Cider is at the heart of everything in Lugo de Llanera. It is the drink of the Asturias region in north-western Spain and is generally accompanied by no shortage of ham, chorizo, black pudding and white beans. They pour the cider from above their heads so it lands in the glass below at a pace and with fizz. Once poured, the glass doesn’t touch the table and the cider is downed in one big gulp.
This is a routine Cazorla knows only too well and one he still enjoys when he comes back to the bar, which is run by his best friend Fran Ribero.
‘We have been best friends since we were nine,’ says Ribero, buzzing text messages to his London-based friend in between answers. ‘We preferred football to schoolwork. Our school used to win every tournament in the area because of him. He always had a ball under his arm — and I mean always.
Favourite son: His best friend, Fran Ribero, runs a bar in Cazorla's hometown, adorned with the Arsenal star's memorabilia and still frequented by his brother and mother (below)
‘It’s a quiet life here — although we’re Spanish so we like to party too. After Euro 2012, we had a huge surprise party for him with thousands of people. We shut off all the roads and the police had to come along.
‘I’d been with him in Madrid celebrating and then we came straight here. We didn’t sleep for 48 hours. He still comes to the bar when he’s back. He was here during the last international break.’
Cazorla’s family also go to the bar, which is a five-minute walk from the sports centre named after the Arsenal midfielder.
His mother Loli and older brother Nando pass by while we are there, both immensely proud of Santi and both painting a picture of a determined, happy boy whose inner strength helped him overcome the death of his father from a heart attack almost six years ago.
‘He and Nando were just football, football, football,’ says Loli, a warm woman with a smile that gets bigger every time she mentions her son’s name.
‘We had a small house and my husband worked in the mines, then when they closed down he was a builder. Santi was a shy boy, they both were and they played football all day long, even in the house.
‘They broke windows so I took away the balls but then they’d just roll up some socks and play with those instead.’
She laughs and puts her head in her hands when the topic of school arises.
International pedigree: The Spaniard has more than 50 caps for his country, despite the wealth of talent
‘He didn’t like anything. Maybe PE. All
the teachers used to say to me that he was a lovely boy but he just
wasn’t interested in working. So they told me, “Take away what he enjoys
— don’t let him watch TV”.
'But I told them he wasn’t interested in the TV, it was football he was crazy about. So they said there was no way I could deny him that.’
Nando, himself once a very talented player, remembers the same boy.
‘At home, all we did was play football. There were no books. We broke a lot of windows and ornaments. We shared a bedroom and the main man for us was Michael Laudrup. I liked Hristo Stoichkov too. We had lots of posters and of course we had lots of trophies too.’
Nando was a striker who some argued had more talent than his brother but who all agree did not have the same drive to succeed.
‘As a boy, I scored the same number of goals — 32 — as David Villa in one season,’ says Nando, with not a hint of regret. ‘But it never quite happened.’
‘Nando was amazing,’ recalls Juanjo Beltran, who worked with both boys at their first club, Covadonga. ‘He could do everything. But he didn’t want to be a footballer deep down. David Villa went off to Sporting and Nando didn’t move on. One game his attitude was so bad that I took him off and played with 10 because it was better than having him on the pitch.’
Young Santi had no such problems, first taking part in training with his brother’s group because there was no team for seven-year-olds and then moving to the indoor five-a-side teams that children up to 10 years old compete in.
It’s only when they are 13 that they play on a full-sized pitch for the first time, so the ability to keep control of the ball in tight situations comes as no surprise.
With his incredible ability to use both feet equally well, Cazorla excelled, scoring 170 goals in one season and soon catching the eye of Real Oviedo, one of Spain’s big clubs.
Always going to happen: Cazorla's talent was spotted by Juanjo Beltran, as well as at his school (below)
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Friends in high places: In Mikel Arteta, Cazorla has a buddy from his childhood at Arsenal
‘It’s so sad that Jose died before he could see Santi play for his country,’ adds Beltran. ‘His family had tough times before that too. When they shut the mines, his dad had no job for a while. I took them a whole load of our clothes to help them through.’
They are happier times now, with Cazorla thriving in the Premier League with two goals and three assists so far for his new club.
Fifty caps for Spain and successful spells at Villarreal, Recreativo and Malaga show you he is valued highly back home during a vintage period for Spanish midfielders.
‘He’s so happy in England,’ says Loli with another smile. ‘The people at the club are nice and he’s only worried about learning English.
'He was worried he wouldn’t be able to chat to people so he’s busy learning. But he has Mikel Arteta to help him for now. I spoke to him after the Norwich defeat and he was so upset. I told him not to worry, that even Barcelona have bad games, but he was inconsolable. He has always been like that.
‘But I know Santi will definitely come back here to live one day. He loves it here. He’s very patriotic. He can live normally here.
'And he hasn’t changed a bit. He’s the same boy who left here. It’s odd for me too now. He has played for some big clubs but no-one was ever interested in him before. Now he’s at Arsenal, we’ve had people making a documentary about him.’
Get it right at Old Trafford and there will be many more.