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Emiliano Sala, a previously unheralded footballer in an unheralded transfer, became the centre of world attention after a tragic plane crash that touched millions

A month ago, news broke on UK networks that a small plane flying over the English Channel had gone completely off-radar. A few hours later I was contacted by a media outlet to discuss the reaction in Argentina to Emiliano Sala’s disappearance.  That was the first I heard about it, and hadn’t really ever come across the name until a few days earlier when he had become Cardiff’s City’s record signing. 

I turned to Twitter to find out more and the first thing I saw was an appeal: “Emiliano Sala’s father is hearing about this through the media. No-one has contacted him. Please, if anyone has any information let the family know”.

Something about the desperate situation struck me. In 2014, a colleague had learnt of the death of her partner and father of her children via Twitter: both in Brazil covering the World Cup, she woke one morning to read a kind tweet from Diego Simeone expressing his condolences. 

“No!” She tweeted back, “Please, no!”.  There’s something counterintuitive about our modern times, where news outlets worldwide break information that is still to be shared locally with relatives. Instinctively, on January 21st, I tweeted a direct reply suggesting the father contact the Argentine embassies in Britain and France respectively.

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Sure enough, local police, sea patrol, and air rescue services contacted the Argentine Embassy in the UK just before noon officially informing that an Argentine national was on board the missing aircraft. Emiliano Sala had been a resident in France for years, he had yet to enter the UK, so the consulate went about trying to establish contact with the family via the ministry of Foreign Affairs and various Argentine authorities back home.

This nether-land or twilight zone in which the young footballer had met his fate was reflected in the news stories that begun to roll out almost immediately. He was en route from saying good-bye to his team-mates in Nantes, hoping to get to Cardiff in time to join his first training session with his new club. He was in between clubs, in between countries, in the nebulous terrain which would later become classified as “international waters”, in transit, quite literally, being transferred.

Cardiff City directors expressed sorrow with the addendum that they ‘didn’t know him yet” while the Argentine media corps declared that “we didn’t know him, but we are getting to know and love him” … in Nantes they knew him. They knew him well. 

He had become a local legend, a crucial goal-scorer, he had friends and a dog. He had lived in France since he was a teenager, a promising star who had joined a club with a working relationship to his local academy. As the days passed, we learnt that he had been hesitant to leave his current home, hesitant even to board the plane.

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The lonely move to Europe from Argentina

Hundreds of talented Argentinian young boys move to European clubs in their mid-teens.  Lionel Messi is a case in point. But he is an exception, in that his father had the foresight to insist on the club financing the entire family’s move. “What father wouldn’t?” Jorge Messi asked me the first time I ever spoke to him, in 2006. Millions, I thought to myself. 

Only last week I had a meeting with a 27-year-old whose start-up aims to serve footballers ‘in transit’ around the world, mostly guiding them with regard to agents and representatives. “I was a player myself” he told me. 

As a sixteen-year-old he had moved to Switzerland, where he boarded in a family home and wept at night missing his mother. “Like Emiliano Sala” I said, not knowing whether Sala wept missing his mother but imagining his move would be like that of any 16-year-old who finds himself having to make it in an extremely competitive environment. “Like so many” he nodded sagely, and then added “it’s worse for the Africans”.

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The top-flight elite of athletic professionalism is the dream they all aspire to, but only a handful out of a every couple of hundred make it. There are various different ways in which European clubs scout and tout around the playing fields of the rest of the world, and though certain controls are slowly being put in place, it remains largely unregulated. 

In Argentina, where kid’s football is very organised and the development of child and adolescent athletes is sophisticated, many professionals hold their heads in despair at the number of fathers and so called ‘representatives’ who put inordinate pressure on children to secure a move to the big European leagues. 

Emiliano Sala’s story in this respect was a happy one. He had trained with an academy in his small hometown of Progreso, in the province of Santa Fe, which had a close link to Bordeaux. He moved to France and settled well. He progressed though the ranks and, without becoming a household name or a superstar, worked consistently until this last season when he topped the goal-scoring charts and attracted the attention of a British-based agent who persuaded him to join the Premier League.

His humble family were loving and supportive, his close-knit community remained in touch. He would come home and visit regularly and kept in contact with his childhood friends to the point of sending a WhatsApp audio message to ‘the lads’ in the very last minutes of his life. “I’m scared, this plane feels like it’s about to break into pieces” is the extract of audio that would eventually go viral. But less quoted is his opening “Hey y’all! What’s going on?  I’ve been so busy! Hopefully will start training tomorrow…”

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It’s heart-wrenching to think of a young talent so full of joie de vivre, so committed to a new start, and when his mobile and the plane’s communications system both went dead-quiet shortly afterwards the world was on tenterhooks: this footballer had gone from anonymous to global celebrity in a matter of hours, and though everyone knew chances of survival were minimal, the prayers in his name came from all corners.

The search for the impossible

Romina Sala arrived in Cardiff with her partner and a friend a few days after the plane disappeared. Her slight figure wept unconsolably in front of an hoc press conference; she seemed so frail, so lost. Again, I instinctively reached out via Argentines in Cardiff, if there’s anything at all… words that seem so cliched yet something about this family’s plight felt urgent. 

Later that same day I got a call from Romina. She could hardly speak through her sobs.  Her only objective was to resume the search which authorities in both the UK and France had called off. Weather conditions were adverse, chances of survival nil.

Others close to the small group in Cardiff were privy to comings and goings which raised alarms. Details over what had been signed and not signed, agents milling about … Romina kept her focus on the one thing that mattered to her: “I’m going to the island to find my brother” she would say to me a few days later, after a GoFundMe campaign orchestrated by the Paris-based agent raised sufficient funds.

Yet the empathy and good-will generated among the ordinary people they first met in Cardiff started to erode. As Romina was joined by her mother and other friends of Emiliano, and amid fears the media interest might wane, the Paris-based agent started to stagger contact between the family and the outside world, plotting a drip feed of information to secure coverage over several days. 

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Journalists who had been translating non-stop out of kindness and solidarity suddenly found themselves stone-walled.  Officials who had been brokering meetings with British authorities were pushed to “talk to the agent”. One Saturday morning Romina asked me for press coverage of the fund-raising, and after arranging for a news crew to travel to Cardiff, she called it off because they had reached their target.

As the family flew to Guernsey and met face-to-face with the Paris-based agent Emiliano and Romina’s mother burst into tears in a tight embrace with the agent, while a camera captured him looking around the room. An enduring image, which highlighted the emotional turmoil of these people, so far from anything they were familiar with, so isolated quite literally.

Unwanted fame for the Sala family

The discovery of the aircraft first, the body next and its subsequent identification brought the story back to the top of the news agenda. Complete with viral pictures of a bagged corpse, there seemed to be no-one on earth who didn’t have a thought or an opinion on Emiliano Sala. 

“Was he much loved? Why is everyone so involved” one woman in Buenos Aires asked me, and we couldn’t put our finger on what it was that had touched so many so deeply. “If you ask me, the pilot jumped” another man commented without prompt, “that’s why Emiliano was found strapped to his seat and there’s no sign of the pilot”.

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The masses opine at a distance, the media feeding the frenzy. The pilot’s credentials were questioned by a British tabloid, resulting in a tirade of abusive responses from the pilot’s friends and community. Every detail of texts, e-mails, and exchanges between agents, agent’s sons, clubs, and other pilots subjected to public scrutiny. The legal wrangle over the contract is only just starting to draw out. Even now, one month later, news reports of an error in the documents submitted by Cardiff to the Premier League is said to put the death-in-service pay out to the family at risk, according to the EPL’s pension scheme.

As the clubs negotiate how much of the transfer fee is due to be paid, and the agents are summoned in various high courts, the men of football continue to go about their business. The insurance claims are likely to be many, and wrangled. In spite of this, much humanity has shone through, like Cardiff manager Neil Warnock who stated that in over 40 years working in football this was the hardest thing he’s had to cope with, and who supported the family’s search for Emiliano (“If it was my son I would keep looking forever”), or French super-player Kylian Mbappé, who donated generously first to Sala’s campaign and then again to the pilot’s family’s plea for the search to continue until this second missing body is found. 

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Still, it seems odd that private fund-raising had to take place amid a scenario in which so much money is at stake from the various institutions. Close to three hundred thousand euro was raised in the first few days, and that was enough to fund the initial private search. How come that seemingly small figure, compared to the millions that are being touted about, had to be sought privately by Romina and the family?

The final journey home for Emiliano Sala

Emiliano Sala returned to Progreso in a coffin four weeks after news of the plane going off-radar broke. The small town of 3500 inhabitants rose to the occasion which had become a world news event. Journalists from all over filed their reports from behind the fencing that had been raised, and celebrities and directors from both European clubs spoke to cameras as they passed through.Our main concern was to accommodate all those who have come to say good-bye to Emiliano” the communal chief of the town (a sort of mayor) told TV news crews from Buenos Aires “to ensure all of you can work properly”.

His coffin was carried through the crowds, who clapped respectfully for several minutes, amid wreaths of flowers, and the massive media interest reflected the solemnity of a burial which seemed more fitting of a statesman. Live cameras rolled from the moment Emiliano’s remains landed on Argentine soil right through to his final transfer to a Santa Fe cemetery the following day. 

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His Paris-based agent clutched the coffin along with men from Progreso who had known him well. The Argentine commentator repeated once again that “we didn’t know him” and kindly pointed out to the local politico that “you did”. The man said the main thing we needed to keep in mind was that no club in Argentina, in any division, had given Emiliano a chance. Other agents not directly involved with Sala were also interviewed: “this case shows that players must be accompanied by someone who can make decisions all the time” one said, as if the loneliness of Emiliano Sala boarding that rickety plane alone, reluctantly, might have been preventable.

Behind the coffin, Romina Sala stood firm, head held high. In a month she has become one very strong woman, held her own against obstacles posed by many mightier than her.I’m going to find my brother” she had told me. And she did.

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