Emiliano Sala: ‘A tragic plane crash; a stain on football’s reputation’

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Emiliano Sala mural in Nantes
Argentine artist Gabriel Griffa painted this mural in Carquefou, close to Nantes

The morning of Tuesday, 22 January 2019 is etched on my reminiscence as though it had been the previous day.

Waking to the scoop that a mild plane had disappeared over the Channel en course from Nantes to Cardiff, my spouse – a Cardiff City fan – grew to become to me and mentioned: “Our new striker was coming from Nantes last night.”

I pushed aside the hyperlink. Surely there should be a variety of planes making that adventure at all times?

But throughout the hour, BBC Wales soccer correspondent Rob Phillips reported Cardiff had been “seeking clarification” concerning the lacking plane and there used to be “genuine concern” on the membership.

Argentine Emiliano Sala had signed for Cardiff simply 3 days previous in a membership document £15m switch from FC Nantes. As that Tuesday opened up, as a substitute of welcoming their much-anticipated new striker to a coaching consultation, they had been as a substitute going through a barrage of enquiries from the sector’s media about an unfolding tragedy.

It used to be quickly showed Sala used to be on the Piper Malibu plane – piloted, it might emerge over the following 48 hours, by way of David Ibbotson – when it disappeared from radar north of the Channel Islands, simply over an hour after take-off from Nantes Atlantique Airport. At that point, there have been no indicators of wreckage.

Few tales I’ve coated as a journalist captured the general public’s consideration the way in which this one perceived to.

Sala used to be a prolific striker respected by way of Nantes supporters. For Cardiff enthusiasts he used to be the longed-for talismanic determine who may lend a hand save their suffering crew. He used to be a gifted, adored younger footballer tragically misplaced simply as his Premier League profession used to be about to start out.

The stage of hobby within the tale used to be such that my investigations crew colleague Kayley Thomas and I had been requested to begin having a look into the instances across the flight. The result’s the BBC Sounds and BBC Radio Wales podcast collection: Transfer: The Emiliano Sala Story. You can concentrate to episodes right here.

As we started researching, it was transparent this used to be a tale that would not be leaving the headlines any time quickly.

And because the fourth anniversary of the crash approaches, so it has proved.

Short presentational grey line

When Emiliano Sala used to be born, a month in advance, on 31 October 1990, his folks had been warned he may by no means be capable of run on account of the impact on his breathing device. But he exceeded all expectancies, rising into a wholesome and lively kid, on the subject of his more youthful siblings Romina and Dario.

At the age of 4, Sala’s mom Mercedes Taffarel took him to a native soccer membership, San Martin de Progreso, to begin with dressed in a pair of running shoes because the circle of relatives could not manage to pay for soccer boots.

His pastime for the game flourished and when soccer scouts noticed his doable elderly 15 he determined to transport 200km away to coach with an Argentine soccer faculty in San Francisco, in Cordoba province.

“He told me that I should let him go; that all he wanted in his life was to kick a ball and if I didn’t let him, I would be killing him inside,” Mercedes mentioned in a poignant observation to his inquest previous this yr.

San Francisco’s connections with European golf equipment helped Sala pursue his dream of taking part in the sport at a upper stage. Stints with groups in Spain, Portugal and France adopted ahead of he used to be signed by way of FC Nantes in 2015. There he scored 48 targets in 133 appearances over 3 seasons, making him a fan favorite – and likewise a goal for control to promote on.

When Cardiff’s supervisor on the time, Neil Warnock, noticed him play towards Marseille firstly of December 2018 – scoring one function and putting in place every other in a 3-2 Nantes victory – he knew he’d discovered his new striker.

Negotiations started – led by way of agent Mark McKay, whose corporate Mercato Sports had the mandate from Nantes to promote Sala. A sequence of occasions that might result in disaster used to be set in movement.

When Kayley and I visited Nantes for the primary time in December 2019, as the primary anniversary of Sala’s demise approached, it used to be transparent from conversations together with his pals that he used to be to begin with undecided concerning the transfer to Cardiff.

Marie-Jeanne Munos Castelleanos welcomed us into her comfortable bungalow, plying us with espresso and candies and chatting away warmly.

Describing herself variously as a surrogate mom or psychological trainer to Sala, she confirmed us the various pictures and different mementoes in their friendship. She generously shared voice messages he’d despatched her during which he alluded to reservations concerning the switch.

“From the start of it all, he hadn’t properly decided whether he was even going to Cardiff,” Marie-Jeanne informed us.

“His mum wanted him to go, but he was worried because he was used to life in Nantes, he had his routine and all that.

“He’d be going to every other nation, the place he did not know the language. He used to be a bit frightened about it.”

Mercedes’ statement to the inquest into her son’s death also referred to him feeling under pressure about the move, which she said was pursued by the owner of Nantes, Waldemar Kita, for financial reasons “towards the desires of training personnel and enthusiasts”.

The transfer fee of £15m was a record for both Nantes and Cardiff.

Sala lived in the small town of Carquefou – a drive of 40 minutes or so outside Nantes. Locals were well used to seeing him as he went about his business; shopping in the supermarket, having a drink or meal in his favourite bar, getting a haircut or worshipping in the local church.

The picture that emerged during our visit was far removed from the typical image of a star footballer. Here was someone who spent much of his free time walking his rescue dog, Nala, or hanging out with hairdresser Jean-Philippe Roussel and his wife Lydie, who had become close friends.

Roussel says: “He knew that leaving Nantes might be a excellent profession transfer, however used to be he in favour going to Cardiff? No… he used to be being driven out, to be truthful.”

Nantes told the Transfer podcast series that Sala chose to leave of his own free will “after many nice years” there.

Nantes supporter Louis Chene, who lives in the centre of Carquefou, would sometimes bump into Sala and chat to him about the club’s fortunes. He recalls Sala going around the town saying goodbye to everyone when he knew he was leaving.

“He went down the road and at each little store he knew, he went in,” Chene says. “He sought after to mention a non-public good-bye to other people.”

Frederic Happe, a journalist with Agence France Presse who had followed Sala’s career in France, says: “He in point of fact used to be probably the most likeable particular person you need to consider. He used to be probably the most few gamers who requested you the way you had been while you got here into the convention room: ‘Hi chaps, how are you doing?’ Small main points, issues gamers at a positive stage have a tendency to overlook.”

These small but telling details gave us a rare and invaluable insight into a life some would be quick to dismiss as privileged but which we came to realise was at the mercy of the whims of others; be it agents seeking new transfer targets, or football club owners seizing a chance to make money from their star striker.

The very last photograph Sala posted on his Instagram page – taken just hours before the crash – is captioned: ‘La Ultima Ciao’ (The Last Goodbye).

Sala is smiling with an arm around one team-mate as the rest of the Nantes side cluster around. Among them is his best friend at the club, Nicolas Pallois, who with his wife would drive him to the airport that evening and, some weeks later, travel to Argentina for his funeral.

A pervading sense of reluctance hangs over Sala’s story – from those last images of him bidding farewell to the club and community he’s happy in, bound for a new job he never applied for, to the poignant voice message he sent to his closest friends back in Argentina from the tiny Piper Malibu as it taxied on runway 3 of Nantes Atlantique Airport before take-off.

“I’m on the plane that appears find it irresistible’s falling aside,” he says as the engine can be heard in the background. “I’m heading to Cardiff as a result of I get started coaching with the brand new crew the next day afternoon.

“If you don’t hear from me in the next hour and a half, I don’t know if somebody will look for me, because they won’t find me.

“Man, I’m scared.”

This wasn’t Sala’s first time on the Piper Malibu.

In an earlier message, after landing in Nantes on the journey out from Cardiff two days earlier, he’d described it as a “coucou” – French slang for a rickety old plane.

We now know, from a recording we obtained of a phone call Ibbotson made to a friend following that flight, that he, too, had concerns about the “dodgy” plane.

The 59-year-old gas fitter with a passion for flying had been asked to take Sala to France and back by David Henderson, who operated the Piper Malibu plane on behalf of its owner but couldn’t take on the job himself as he was away in Paris with his wife.

The private flight was arranged by Willie McKay, the former football agent helping his son Mark broker the transfer deal.

Willie McKay later informed the BBC: “I used to be simply excited about getting the boy again house. We simply attempted to lend a hand.”

For their part, Cardiff City said they had offered Sala a commercial flight back to Nantes, via Paris.

McKay mentioned he depended on Henderson and “had no explanation why to not”.

But private pilot Ibbotson had no licence to carry paying passengers and was not qualified to fly legally at night. In addition, his rating to pilot the single-engine Piper Malibu aircraft had expired two months earlier.

In a conversation with a pilot friend the day before the fatal flight, he’s heard saying he normally stowed his lifejacket between the plane seats but “the next day I’ll be dressed in my lifejacket, that is needless to say”.

Winding up the decision he says: “You know if the rest did occur… it could be your final probability to have a excellent previous chat with me and a excellent previous moan with me.”

His comments – made in a jovial tone but revealing underlying unease – eerily echoed Sala’s reservations.

Among the issues on their flight from Cardiff to Nantes were a loud bang – the source of which was never identified – a “low mist” in the cockpit and the stall warning device randomly going off.

On landing, Ibbotson found the left brake pedal wasn’t working when he tried to turn off the runway.

“Why did not Sala simply refuse to get again on it?” is a query many have requested since.

The language barrier – Ibbotson speaking no Spanish or French, and Sala no English – can’t have helped.

But get back on it he did, and at 19:15 in the evening of 21 January, flight N264DB soared into the night sky out of Nantes, heading north towards the Channel.

Just over an hour later, the plane lost radar contact north-west of Guernsey, about four minutes after Ibbotson’s final contact with Jersey air traffic control.

Air accident investigators concluded the pilot lost control as he descended to avoid cloud. The plane crashed into the sea at an estimated 270mph (434km/h), starting to break up as it descended with a G-force exceeding anything experienced by fighter pilots.

The drive and determination of shipwreck hunter David Mearns turned out to be pivotal to determining the cause of the crash.

Without his involvement it’s likely the wreckage of the plane – and Sala’s body – would never have been found. Ibbotson’s body has not been found.

We first met Mearns back in summer 2019. His passion was evident as he told us of his desire to spare families of those lost in such accidents the “double tragedy” of no longer having a physique to bury.

“You’re doing this on behalf of them. You volunteered and gave your time to do that, and you need to seek out him for them,” he mentioned.

He recalled telling Sala’s mom: “I’ll in finding him… I’ll in finding the plane and confidently he is there.”

Mearns drove the search for the wreckage on behalf of the Sala family after hundreds of thousands of pounds were raised through a fundraising campaign.

His survey vessel found the plane’s resting place on the seabed in a joint mission with the Air Accidents Investigation Branch in early February 2019.

A few days later, a painstaking operation by a specialist ROV (remotely operated vehicle) team working in shifts managed to recover Sala’s body, which had become trapped in the wreckage, and it was brought ashore at Portland in Dorset.

Mearns later returned to the crash site on behalf of the Ibbotson family, but found no trace of the pilot.

It was a late hunch on the part of the home office pathologist in the case, Dr Basil Purdue, that led to toxicological testing being done on Sala’s body and the surprise discovery of dangerously high carbon monoxide levels in his blood.

They found that Sala would have been deeply unconscious from carbon monoxide poisoning – probably leaking from the plane’s exhaust system – and that Ibbotson would likely have been affected too, though to a lesser degree.

Ibbotson’s final communication with air traffic control was lucid and he was actively flying the plane in its final moments, leading investigators to believe a dramatic leak of carbon monoxide into the cabin must have occurred in those ensuing four minutes before the crash.

This shifted the focus of the investigation from pilot error towards the condition of the plane – and those responsible for its maintenance.

Investigations by Dorset Police and the Civil Aviation Authority followed, and in June 2019 plane operator Henderson was arrested at his home in York.

At Cardiff Crown Court in October 2021, Henderson pleaded guilty to trying to arrange a flight for a passenger without permission or authorisation, and was convicted after a trial of recklessly endangering the safety of an aircraft in the way he’d organised the flight for Willie McKay.

Sentencing him to 18 months’ imprisonment, the judge in the case said Henderson had a “cavalier perspective” to safety regulations, that he was motivated by profit and that messaging between him and Ibbotson in the run-up to the flight revealed his “lurking doubt” that the amateur pilot wasn’t up to the job.

In February 2022, the inquest into Sala’s death finally began in Bournemouth.

His younger brother Dario attended in person for the first week and then remotely via video link, an interpreter always at his side.

Speaking to the BBC’s Transfer podcast series, he recalled the happy childhood spent with his brother and spoke of the impact of his death.

“It’s affected us such a lot,” he said. “He had a crucial function throughout the circle of relatives. We had been all the time very shut, now it is exhausting having a look to the longer term figuring out he isn’t there if I need to ask him one thing or get his recommendation… it isn’t simple.”

In a statement read out after the inquest, Sala family lawyer Daniel Machover said: “This inquest has uncovered the advanced info resulting in Emiliano’s premature demise. It has shone a vibrant mild on most of the overlooked alternatives within the worlds of soccer and aviation to forestall his tragic demise.”

The family welcomed the coroner’s decision to issue a Prevention of Future Deaths report highlighting her concerns about the safety issues arising from the case, adding: “No circle of relatives will have to have to move thru grief from a equivalent avoidable coincidence.”

Radar contact was lost when the aircraft was 22 nautical miles (40 km) north-north-west of Guernsey
Radar touch used to be misplaced when the plane used to be 22 nautical miles (40 km) north-north-west of Guernsey

‘Money with a Capital M’ was the title we gave one episode of the podcast series. It references a quote from the Sala family barrister about an email Willie McKay sent to Sala, persuading him to consider Cardiff City’s offer, in which the ‘m’ of ‘money’ was capitalised at every mention.

But it might have applied to almost any aspect of this story, where money was seemingly being made from him at every turn: as a footballing asset, as a passenger, as a much-needed goalscorer to keep a struggling club in the Premier League with all the financial benefits that brings.

In September 2019, football’s governing body Fifa ruled Cardiff should pay Nantes the first £5m instalment of the transfer fee or face a three-window transfer ban.

Cardiff appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) in Switzerland, which in August 2022 upheld Fifa’s ruling, confirming Sala was a Cardiff player at the time of his death.

Cardiff had argued the transfer wasn’t complete – partly because Sala wasn’t yet registered as a Premier League player. But Cas agreed with Fifa; because Sala had been registered with the Welsh Football Association as a Cardiff player, the transfer was complete.

The full judgement from Cas also revealed the Premier League initially rejected Sala’s registration because of mistakes Cardiff had made in his employment contract.

As a result, while Sala was in the Piper Malibu flying to Cardiff, his agent Meissa N’Diaye was involved in amending his contract with the club. The new paperwork was finalised just eight minutes before the plane disappeared from radar.

Cardiff have subsequently challenged the Cas judgement by lodging a further appeal to the Swiss Federal Court. If this fails, the club has said it will take civil action against those involved in organising the flight “for damages to get better its losses. This will come with FC Nantes, and its brokers.”

A statement released following the Cas judgment added: “All our ideas should proceed to be with Emiliano’s circle of relatives, who are actually supported financially by way of the believe the membership installed position for them.”

Appearing on the Transfer podcast series, the Guardian’s investigations reporter David Conn said: “Whatever the technical rights are, regardless of the criminal niceties are, it is fairly a stain on football’s symbol, popularity and honour that this unseemly row has been going on for see you later after a glorious younger guy suffered this horrendous demise.”

Short presentational grey line

Almost four years on, the impact of Sala’s death continues to ripple out.

His father Horacio died from a heart attack three months after the crash, aged 58. He was separated from Sala’s mother and living with a new partner. Friends said he was heartbroken and struggling to come to terms with the loss of his son.

At the inquest into Sala’s death, his mother Mercedes said the family miss him “every day like the primary day”.

She added: “No-one can carry Emi again to us, however we ask for justice, so Emi can relaxation in peace and provides us a little peace of thoughts figuring out that we did the whole lot shall we in order that equivalent deaths are avoided in long term.”

Sala’s sister Romina, a new mother herself when she travelled to the UK to urge the authorities to keep searching for her brother, has struggled emotionally since the tragedy.

Meanwhile, civil actions are ongoing on behalf of the Sala family against a number of parties.

The streets of Progreso were packed when ‘El Emi’ – as the local boy made good was known there – came home to be laid to rest.

Now he watches over them from the mural painted by Argentine artist Gabriel Griffa at his old club St Martin de Progreso, whose home ground has since been renamed the Emiliano Sala Stadium.

In spring 2022 the artist travelled to Carquefou to paint another mural of Emiliano there, organised by Marie-Jeanne, the Roussels and other friends and fans.

Two towns, many hundreds of miles apart but forever connected by this talented, popular and well-loved young man who will never be forgotten.

The team behind Transfer: The Emiliano Sala Story can be contacted at: salapodcast@bbc.co.united kingdom

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