Playing for Al Sadd in Qatar might not be the most glamorous end to a career, but former Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla is having a blast.
You can pick and choose from the ‘downsides’ of a deadly pandemic, but the turmoil heaped upon Euro 2020 is surely up there with the worst of them.
As things stand, UEFA still wants to hold a pan-European tournament in the summer of 2021, retaining the name ‘Euro 2020’ since all the promotional key-rings and stickers are sitting in a warehouse somewhere in Switzerland.
But whatever happens in June will differ greatly from the ‘Euro 2020’ initially promised to us.
One largely indisputable fact is that each player at the tournament will be exactly a year older than they were in the summer of 2020.
That’s great news for rising European talents like Kai Havertz, Kylian Mbappe, Joao Felix and Jadon Sancho, all of whom could theoretically be closer to fulfilling their potential by next year.
Unfortunately, it’s rather worse for older players for whom the originally scheduled Euro 2020 represented one last shot at glory.
Vincent Kompany might have gone to the original tournament with Belgium but ultimately retired in August 2020. Croatia’s Ivan Rakitic, capped 106 times, recently announced he will no longer play for his national team, as did German defender Jonas Hector.
Perhaps most tragic of all is the fate of Spanish midfield maestro Santi Cazorla.
After spending nearly two years out injured at Arsenal and undergoing some disgusting-sounding operations to try and save his career, Cazorla enjoyed an incredible renaissance at his beloved Villarreal over the 2018–19 season.
Despite being 34, he somehow improved further in 2019–20 and forced his way back into the Spanish national team after a hiatus of nearly four years.
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“I know my age and I know the players that are there,” he said in February 2020. “But yes, it’s true that I’ve got excited about being [at Euro 2020].
“It was something that I’d written off when I returned to football; even the day that they called me up again I knew it was a reward and without too many expectations of staying in the squad.
“But I’ve kept playing at Villarreal and the national coaches have confidence in me and this has excited me.”
Then COVID happened.
Xavi over Arteta
Once La Liga resumed after the initial shutdown, Cazorla maintained his form, bagging three goals and four assists in the last 11 matches of the season as Villarreal secured Europa League qualification.
But those were to be his last games for the club. On 19 July, eight days after the original date for the Euro 2020 Final, players gave the 35-year-old Cazorla a guard of honour in his final match, a 4-0 win over Eibar.
Many thought the midfielder would retire, and Mikel Arteta reportedly offered his former team-mate a coaching job at Arsenal. Gunners fans were getting rather excited about the prospect of Granit Xhaka getting some midfield lessons.
However, Cazorla had other plans. A day after his final match in Spain, the midfielder agreed to link up with a much more illustrious former midfield team-mate.
He signed for Al Sadd in Qatar, who are managed by Spain and Barcelona legend Xavi. “Xavi was very important in my decision to come to Qatar,” Cazorla said.
Between 2008 and 2014, the pair played together 39 times for Spain, including the last half hour of the Euro 2008 Final, where they almost combined to set up a goal for Xabi Alonso.
For fans and presumably Cazorla himself, the move was bittersweet.
On the plus side, the midfielder could play regularly and collect a fat paycheque. (Given the looming threat of future medical expenses, nobody could begrudge him that.)
On the other hand, moving to the Middle East sounded the death knell for his fading chances of making the Euro 2020 squad.
He will be 36 next June, older than Aritz Aduriz was at Euro 2016. If he had a slim chance as a 36-year-old playing in La Liga, he surely has no chance while playing in the Qatari Stars League.
Still, Cazorla seems to be consoling himself about Euro 2020’s postponement in the best way possible: by scoring and assisting a ridiculous number of goals.
On his league debut for Al Sadd in early September, the midfielder scored a brace in a 5-1 win, the second of which was a screamer from just outside the box.
And neither Cazorla nor Al Sadd have looked back since.
Xavi’s team keep on routing their opponents, and Cazorla has scored seven goals and provided seven assists in just nine games.
For context, Xavi himself scored 21 goals in 82 games while playing for Al Sadd between 2015 and 2019 – and also won the Qatari lottery…– while Real Madrid legend Raul, more renowned for his goalscoring than playmaker Cazorla, managed 11 in 39 between 2012 and 2014.
Cazorla’s best goal to date came in a big victory over Al-Ahli, whose star striker Nabil El Zhar, formerly of Liverpool, couldn’t prevent a 7-1 defeat to Xavi’s boys.
Speaking to Qatari broadcaster Al Kass in October, Cazorla appeared content with his new life.
“At the moment I don’t want to think about the future; I’m just thinking about doing my best for Al Sadd,” he said. “We’ll have to see what sort of shape I’m in in the future. I just want to enjoy myself every day; that’s my goal at the moment.”
If he can achieve that goal as easily as he’s scoring actual goals, we should all be happy for him.