NANTES, France, Jan 22 – “Everyone is happy, except me,” said the Nantes coach Vahid Halilhodzic last week as he accepted that his leading scorer, Emiliano Sala, was leaving the club in a record transfer to Premier League side Cardiff City.
The Welsh club had agreed to pay a reported £15 million (17 million euros; $19.3 million) for the 1.87m-tall Argentine forward, hoping that his eye for goal would fire them to Premier League safety.
Now Sala, 28, is feared dead after French authorities confirmed that he was on board a light aircraft that disappeared over the English Channel on Monday night, just north of the island of Guernsey.
He was on his way from Nantes back to Wales, having signed a lucrative three-and-a-half-year contract in Cardiff on Saturday. “For me it feels special,” he said of being Cardiff’s record signing.
It was a move that looked in doubt at one point, with Sala having previously expressed a desire to join a club involved in European competition in the event of a transfer away from Nantes, the eight-time French champions.
An imposing physical presence but also adept with his feet, Sala left Ligue 1 having scored 12 goals this season, a tally currently bettered only by Paris Saint-Germain’s superstar trio of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani, as well as Nicolas Pepe of Lille.
– Little known back home –
That tally also matched his statistics for each of the last two campaigns, and only a certain Lionel Messi has scored more goals this season among Argentine players in the big five European leagues.
Despite that, Sala has never played for his country and remains little known back in his homeland — an article on the website of popular sports daily Ole on Tuesday carried the headline: “Who is Emiliano Sala?”
That is because, like many talented young footballers in Argentina, Sala left for Europe at such a young age.
Born in the province of Santa Fe, Sala developed as a player at Proyecto Crecer (Growth Project), an academy based in the town of San Francisco, four hours north of the capital Buenos Aires.
The academy has a partnership with Bordeaux, and Sala is one of a handful of players to have gone from there to the French side. Another, midfielder Valentin Vada, is currently in their first-team squad.
Having joined Bordeaux aged 20 in 2010, Sala never really broke into their first team, but he had prolific spells on loan in the French lower leagues, including at Niort in Ligue 2.
After another loan stint at Ligue 1 side Caen, Sala was sold to Nantes in 2015 and quickly became a fan favourite for his performances in the famous yellow shirt of the Canaries.
“People see the way he fights for every ball. That encourages his teammates to do the same. He is a good example for everyone,” said Claudio Ranieri, his coach at Nantes last season.
Despite Sala’s importance to Nantes, he was keen to move on, and club president Waldemar Kita was keen to cash in on a player whose contract was due to expire in 2020.
Having finally put pen to paper on his move to Cardiff, Sala was back at Nantes’ Joneliere training base on Monday to collect his belongings and wave goodbye to his former teammates before departing for Wales again.
He would have been hoping to make his Premier League bow away at Arsenal next Tuesday.
“@EmilianoSala1, forever in yellow and green,” tweeted Nantes on Monday evening, along with the hashtag #MerciEmi.