The death in a plane crash of Cardiff City striker Emiliano Sala was a cruel blow to family, friends and supporters in his home village in Argentina, and on Saturday they came, grieving, from miles around to pay their respects.
Through the morning, mourners gathered for a public vigil in a gymnasium in Progreso, the small farming town in Santa Fe province which Sala left as a teenager to play in Europe.
He was “loved and admired by all,” a restaurant owner told AFP. Sala would come home on breaks and would never fail to kick the ball around with village youngsters, they said. Unlike some soccer stars, he would keep a low profile, not flaunting his new wealth.
As his heartbroken father, mother and sister watched on Saturday, a giant poster of the 28-year-old hung behind his coffin, which was draped in the red and white colours of the San Martin de Progreso club where he began his career.
Sala’s father, Horacio, was devastated by his son’s death, family members said, and refused for days to leave his home.
Outside the club, which was at the centre of the day’s commemorations, was a banner reading: “Emi, you will never walk alone.”
“He represented a lot for us,” the club’s president, Daniel Ribero, told AFP. “We’re a small village and Emi was a celebrity, the only player to turn professional.
“He was one of us. He meant a lot to us.”
More than 3,000 mourners came to pay respects.
“We all carry Emi in our hearts,” said Mayor Julio Muller in an emotional tribute.
“I am a wreck. I didn’t come to pay my respects to a footballer; I came to pay my respects to an exceptional man, a real warrior,” said Marcelo Vada, his coach in Argentina and now leading the Bordeaux U17. Vada’s eyes were red and swollen as he wept.
CRASH IN THE CHANNEL
Sala had played for Nantes, becoming one of the top strikers in France, before being traded in January to Cardiff City in England’s Premier League in a £15 million ($19.3 million) deal.
Just two days after making the move, Sala had flown back to Nantes on 21 January to pay farewell to his former teammates.
On the return flight across the English Channel, the single-engine private plane carrying Sala and pilot David Ibbotson crashed near the British island of Guernsey.
Sala reportedly had messaged friends from the plane, flying in rough weather, that he was “so afraid” and that the craft “seems like it’s falling to pieces.”
The player’s body was recovered from the submerged wreckage on 7 February but 59-year-old Ibbotson remains missing.
Thousands of supporters – including French soccer star Kylian Mbappe and former England captain Gary Lineker – had donated a total of more than $400,000 to pay for a private sea-bottom search after authorities had given up hope of finding the plane.
An inquest in England later concluded that the footballer died of “head and trunk injuries.”
Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock and club executive Ken Choo travelled to Argentina to attend the ceremony Saturday.
“It was important for us to come and pay the respect to the family,” Warnock told AFP.
“People tell me: ‘He never played for you,’ but he was my player, I signed him, we had two or three conversations and he told me he would score the goals to keep Cardiff in the Premier League.”
Representing Nantes, for whom Sala scored 42 goals in 120 league appearances, were defender Nicolas Pallois and general secretary Loic Morin.
A ‘BEFORE AND AN AFTER’
Argentine President Mauricio Macri sent his condolences via Twitter.
Before joining the Nantes side in 2015, Sala had played with Bordeaux and Orleans, gaining a reputation as a prolific scorer.
Sala’s former team paid tribute to him in a French league match Sunday. Each player wore a special all-black kit for the occasion, with the Argentine’s name in large white letters on the back of each jersey.
In Progreso, Mayor Muller said that for the modest farming town there would now be a “before and an after” Sala.
One mourner, Miguel Angel Pereira, 68, made the 70-kilometre journey from Santa Fe to pay his respects on Saturday.
“I wanted to be here. I was a San Martin player myself in the 1960s,” he said.
Following the memorial ceremony, Sala’s body was to be cremated.
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