He was born in Argentina, made his name in France but lost his life over the English Channel on his way to play for a Welsh club.
On Thursday, it was confirmed that a body recovered by British investigators from the submerged wreckage of a plane that went down in the Channel was that of footballer Emiliano Sala.
The 28-year-old had agreed to leave Nantes in France for Cardiff in the Premier League for a reported £15 million (17 million euros; $19.3 million) last month.
“For me it feels special,” the 1.87m-tall Argentine forward had said of his new career.
An imposing physical presence but also adept with his feet, Sala was leaving Ligue 1 having scored 12 goals this season.
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 never played for his country and remained little known back in his homeland – an article on the website of popular sports daily Ole last month carried a 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 was 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.
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 to collect his belongings and wave goodbye to his former teammates before departing for Wales again on what proved to be his doomed flight.
Emiliano Sala’s hometown in rural Argentina is remembering him as a modest local hero who shied away from the flashy wealth of many South American footballers who make it big in Europe.
The player’s father, Horacio Sala, is so distraught that he did not leave home Thursday and is avoiding the news media, people in the town said.
“Since we found out, it’s all anyone can talk about,” said restaurant owner Oscar Heymo, a friend of the father. “He was very much loved and admired by all.”
Heymo said that in Progreso, a town of 3,000 in the fertile eastern Argentine Pampas region, everybody knows everybody.
He said he could not bring himself to go see the father, who had become something of a legend in his own right around town because of the success of his son.
“You cannot imagine the pain this has caused,” said Heymo.
Sala the player was a hero in town. When he came back on vacation from stints with his former team FC Nantes in France, he would play football with local kids.
“He was good, but honestly no one expected him to reach the elite level,” said Diego Solis, who coached Sala when he was young.
“He was a great person. He never talked about himself. He just asked about everybody else,” said Solis.
Mayor Julio Muller said people in town tried to follow FC Nantes games to see Sala play but it was not easy.
They were proud of him and talked about each goal he scored.
“His passion was football. That is why he got so far,” the mayor said.
The mayor said that the day Sala was reported missing, it was like an earthquake had struck in Progreso.
“There is a before and an after,” Muller said. He called Sala “our ambassador.”
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