For Emiliano Sala, the move to Cardiff and the Premier League was the kind of chance he’d been waiting for ever since leaving his native Argentina as a 20-year-old to pursue a soccer career in Europe.
Now at the age of 28, he was entering his peak years as a striker and enjoying the best season of his life at French club Nantes. After slowly moving up the ranks for French soccer, he would finally get an opportunity to prove himself in the biggest league in the world.
“On his last day before leaving he came here and we had a long discussion, he came to thank me,” Nantes coach Vahid Halilhodzic said. “It’s hard for me to express my sadness. … I will have an unforgettable memory of him.”
The search for Sala and the small passenger plane that was carrying the forward and his pilot from Nantes to Cardiff on Monday evening was called off on Thursday after a three-day air-and-sea operation near the Channel Islands failed to locate the aircraft.
While the player’s family and numerous Nantes fans were still holding out hope for a miracle, Halilhodzic were among those slowly coming to grips with the likelihood that Sala will never get to test himself in English soccer.
At an emotional Nantes training session on Thursday, where Sala’s portrait was displayed at the entrance to the training center, Halilhodzic spoke about the player in glowing terms.
“Even when I replaced him near the end of games he never said a word,” Halilhodzic said. “He trusted me. We had deep discussions and strong relations between us … He told me he had the best season of his life and that he learned a lot. Life can be cruel and unfair, he does not deserve this.”
Sala had scored 12 goals in 19 league games for Nantes this season, prompting Cardiff to pay a club-record fee, reportedly 15 million pounds ($19 million), to sign the imposing Argentine striker. Only Lille’s Nicolas Pepe and Paris Saint-Germain’s trio of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe have scored more in France this season.
Sala hasn’t always had a reputation as a marksman, but his modest scoring returns up until now were also related to the way he played: unselfish and always looking to see if someone was in a better position to shoot. In many ways, he was the ideal teammate who used his height and strength as a target man to bring others into the game. He forged a good understanding on the pitch with Gabriel Boschilia, a skillful attacking midfielder signed in the summer from Monaco.
Sala’s height and strength would have made him well suited to the demands of the Premier League, where Cardiff is scrapping against relegation in 18th place.
So would his attitude, because he showed strength of will to forge a career in the French league after a frustrating start.
Sala joined Bordeaux in 2010, after doing well at the Proyecto Crecer youth academy in San Francisco, Argentina. But breaking into the first team was tough — Bordeaux had won the French league in 2009, ending Lyon’s long reign, and reached the Champions League quarterfinals in 2010. So after finally making his first-team debut in 2011-12, he was sent on loan to Orleans in the third tier of French soccer, where he excelled with 19 goals in one season. Still unconvinced, Bordeaux tested him out with another loan move — this time up a level to Niort in the second division. Sala netted 21 goals, including 18 in Ligue 2, and so Bordeaux gave him his chance in the top flight.
However, Sala scored only once in 11 league games for Bordeaux during the 2014-15 campaign and the club sent him on loan again to Caen, where he made a decent impression with five goals in 13 games.
As a player, Sala was somewhat of a paradox. Even though he was tall and powerful, there was more to him than an all-action, direct style — although he could also play that way. For such a big player, Sala had a decent touch and was good at link-up play.
What he lacked in pace, outright skill and predatory finishing, he made up for with his combative attitude, good aerial ability and an accurate, powerful shot from outside the penalty area.
While other French clubs were undecided about him, Nantes saw enough talent to make him the focal point in its attack for 3 1/2 seasons. He rewarded the club’s backing with a healthy return of 48 goals in 133 games overall, and became a firm fan’s favorite along the way at the Stade de la Beaujoire.
Fans gathered in Nantes city center on Tuesday night to pay tribute to Sala in an emotional union, some held up the bright yellow Nantes jersey with his name and No. 9 on the back — the famed number for center-forwards — while others lit candles of hope.
At Paris Saint-Germain’s home game against Strasbourg on Wednesday night, the Parc des Princes crowd broke into applause for him.
He also left a deep and lasting impression on Yacine Bammou, his former Nantes teammate. They played together for three years and Bammou said he considered him “like a brother.” They would go on holidays together, with Bammou even inviting him to spend a weekend at his home in Morocco.
Bammou said they had spoken by phone last weekend about his move to Cardiff, with Sala talking excitedly about the new stage of his career. After hearing the plane went missing, Bammou tried calling Sala’s WhatsApp on Tuesday morning, hoping to hear his friend’s voice at the other end.
Then after scoring for Caen in a French Cup win on Wednesday, a distraught Bammou struggled to find the words, his face wracked with sadness as he gave an interview following the game.
“When I scored my goal I thought about him straight away,” Bammou said. “His name is engraved in Nantes football.”
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