The tragic circumstances of Emiliano Sala’s disappearance and death has ensured his name will always resonate with countless millions who never saw the hard-working, goal-hungry Argentinian kick a football in earnest.
When he joined Cardiff City from French club Nantes for £15m last month, footage of the 28-year-old Sala being shown around his new team’s stadium revealed an open-faced character with bright eyes and a modest, warm demeanour. His willingness to sign for an unfashionable side struggling near the foot of the Premier League – a move other players declined – instantly endeared him to the Welsh fans.
The striker in whom they were investing hopes of avoiding relegation was a late bloomer. Sala was born in Cululu in the Argentine province of Santa Fe – his father was a lorry driver – before moving to nearby Progreso. At 15 he was accepted by the Proyceto Crecer football academy at San Francisco, Cordoba. His ambitions were to represent his favourite team, Independiente of Buenos Aires, and emulate his hero Gabriel Batistuta, a prolific marksman with Argentina and a clutch of top Italian teams.
While at the school Sala was spotted by Bordeaux and joined them in 2010, aged 20, after a brief stint in Portuguese regional football. He made his senior debut in 2012, as a substitute in a French cup tie, but was deemed unready for first-team combat and sent out to the lower leagues on loan to gain experience.
Two such spells – with Orleans (19 goals in 37 games in 2012-13) and Niort (a club-record 18 goals in 37 starts in 2013-14) – allowed Sala to show his striking prowess. In 2015 Bordeaux loaned him to top-flight rivals Caen, where he played alongside future double Premier League winner N’Golo Kante. Despite his respectable tally of five goals in 13 appearances his parent club happily accepted a £900,000 offer from Nantes. He left Bordeaux with a solitary penalty to show for just 11 games.
Sala blossomed at Nantes. In three and a half seasons at the Stade de la Beaujoire he amassed 42 goals in France’s Ligue 1. An impressive scoring rate could not convince some doubters, however; manager Miguel Cardoso consigned him to the bench as 2018-19 kicked off and tried to offload him to Galatasaray in Turkey.
Cardoso was replaced in October by Vahid Halilhodzic, once a free-scoring Nantes forward himself, who described Sala as having “very low morale”. The Bosnian’s arrival sparked a fresh scoring spree, Sala scoring a hat-trick against Toulouse in his first match in charge.
His movement could be described as ungainly, and he lacked genuine pace, but the new incumbent recognised him as a team player, adept at link-up play, who made selfless runs to help colleagues such as Gabriel Boschilia into scoring positions. At 6ft 2in, he was also strong in the air.
By November, Sala had 12 goals and was the leading Argentinian scorer in Europe, ahead of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain. In France he was outscored only by Paris St-Germain’s stellar trio of Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani and Neymar and Lille’s Nicolas Pepe. Interviewed by the sports newspaper L’Equipe he was amused to hear his rate of goals per minutes on the pitch (one every 75 minutes) was better than that Messi’s for Barcelona.
“That’s good -- something special for me,” Sala replied, laughing. “I saw that Mbappe was scoring every 55 minutes, but I hadn’t noticed I was in front of Messi. I’m going to have to really work now. What interests me is being able to progress. I’m someone who’s very honest and (criticism) doesn’t bother me at all. It’s my nature. I’ve got my style and I’m not going to change at my age.”
With 13 goals to his name in 17 starts he was, inevitably, linked with clubs in England and Italy. Cardiff’s Neil Warnock, a manager known for liking powerful, direct players, met Nantes’ valuation. Sala was on his way to start a new life when the private plane carrying him across the Channel was lost north of Guernsey.
Emiliano Raul Sala Taffarel, footballer, born 31 October 1990, died 21 January 2019
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