At least the recovery of his body can bring some form of closure to the infinite tragedy of Emiliano Sala, the Argentinian footballer whose plane crashed into the English Channel nearly three weeks ago. The family of David Ibbotson, the pilot who also lost his life that night but whose body has not yet been found, has had no such relief from the agony, their continued suffering adding one more layer of sorrow to a saga that has stilled even world football’s raucous Tower of Babel.
Football is no stranger to tragedy. The Munich air crash ripped the heart out of Manchester United’s gifted team in 1958; 31 lives, including nearly all of the Torino FC squad, then the dominant team in Italian football, were lost in an air crash in 1949 and 18 Zambian players were killed when a plane travelling to Senegal for a world cup qualifier in 1993 crashed into the Atlantic; more recently, the Chapecoense football team in Brazil were wiped out in a crash in 2016. Just last week, six youth players and four members of staff lost their lives in a fire at the Flamengo FC training ground in Rio while at Preston Crown Court, in the north of England, David Duckenfield, head of the police operation on the day, is standing trial charged with the manslaughter nearly 30 years after the Hillsborough football stadium disaster which cost the lives of 95 Liverpool fans.
There can be happy endings too. In the summer of 2018, when the members of the Wild Boars junior football team – 12 players and their coach – were successfully rescued by US Navy Seals after being trapped for 18 days in a flooded cave in northern Thailand, the whole world rejoiced. Football touches too many lives for it to be immune to the whims of chance and misfortune. But the death of Emiliano Sala has burrowed deep into football’s soul.
Here was a young man who had already travelled further than most, fuelled by a dream and a fragile sense of self-belief. He had completed most of his journey, from a small town in Argentina’s Santa Fe province to Nantes FC in the French League. Only one more step remained and it was that step to Cardiff City and the promised land of the Premier League that cost him his life. Sala was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but for all the right reasons.
Instead of staying in Cardiff where he had completed his signing earlier in the week, he wanted to travel back to his former club, Nantes, to say a proper farewell to his teammates. Cardiff offered to pay for his return from Nantes via a scheduled air flight out of Paris. Instead, Sala opted to take a private plane from the local airport to Cardiff so that he could join his new teammates for training on the following day.
By all accounts, Sala was a boy who wanted to please everyone all the time. The photos of his urchin’s face hinted at a sense of mischief and a real bravado. It was no surprise to learn that he was a popular figure on the terraces and in the dressing-room at Nantes or that his imminent move to Cardiff for a club record fee of £18m had already lifted spirits at one of the Premier League’s underdogs. “He was my sort of player,” said Neil Warnock, the Cardiff manager, last week. “He was a scruffy sort of player, if you know what I mean. He’d work hard for the team. He was a bit fearful of the challenge of the Premier League but he was ready.”
Warnock, an old style English manager whose combative character and style of football has divided opinions, has been one of the quiet heroes of this slow-motion tragedy. He has had to motivate his players at the same time as coping with his own emotions and he has done both with real dignity. For all its ills, its cheating, corruption and greed, football has an uncanny knack of doing the right thing when it really matters. Apart from a spectacularly ill-timed demand from Nantes for the first instalment of Sala’s transfer fee – even before the body of the 28-year-old had been recovered from the waters of the English channel – the ‘football family’ as Warnock termed it has reacted with a robust sensitivity. Silences before Premier League games have been beautifully kept, rituals simply and effectively observed and tributes have poured in to Cardiff from all over the world. Nantes have retired the number nine jersey worn by Sala for the past three seasons.
Sala was not a towering figure in the game, no Ronaldo, Neymar or Messi and he never kicked a ball in the Premier League. But his disappearance and his death became a universal tragedy, a nightmare that could hit any family anywhere at any time. And because football is the people’s game, the people no matter their race, creed or country have joined together first in praying for a miracle and then in mourning for a young life so unnecessarily lost. “He was a boy who was adored,” said Vahid Halilhodzic, the manager of Nantes. “He was an extraordinary number nine and he was a symbol of humanity.” That is an epitaph worthy of any sporting hero.
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