Footballer Sala felt pressured into making record transfer, mother tells inquest

Argentinian striker Emiliano Sala was killed in a plane crash as he flew to Wales from Nantes to complete a transfer to Cardiff City in January 2019,

Rod Minchin
Tuesday 15 February 2022 15:14
Argentinian footballer Emiliano Sala died in a plane crash as he flew from France to join his new club, Cardiff City, in January 2019 (Jacob King/PA)
Argentinian footballer Emiliano Sala died in a plane crash as he flew from France to join his new club, Cardiff City, in January 2019 (Jacob King/PA)

Top footballer Emiliano Sala felt pressurised into completing a multimillion-pound transfer to the Premier League shortly before he died in a plane crash as headed to his new club, an inquest has heard.

The Argentina-born striker was joining then Premier League club Cardiff City in a £15 million transfer from French Ligue 1 side Nantes.

Dorset Coroner’s Court heard that the 28-year-old was on board a private plane flying from Nantes to Cardiff on the evening of January 21 2019 when in crashed in the English Channel, close to Guernsey.

Pilot David Ibbotson, 59, was also killed but his body has never been found.

The wreckage of the plane in the English Channel (Air Accidents Investigation Branch/PA)

On the first day of the inquest into the footballer’s death, his mother, Mercedes Taffarel, told the court her son’s dream since childhood in Argentina had been to be a professional footballer.

In a written statement, Mrs Taffarel, who referred to her son as Emi, said his goal-scoring exploits in France had led to calls for him to be called up to Argentina’s national team.

“He appreciated the Nantes club and the fans very much,” she said.

“An offer came in from Cardiff City in December 2018.

“It is true to say that Emi was very happy when he eventually accepted the idea of the move as he had the chance to play in the Premier League.

“He felt it was the right time to move clubs and to another league.

“It seemed to him that the Nantes management was also pushing his exit from the club because they were going through some financial problems.

“Emi’s transfer was the most expensive in history of the club and that also helped to push forward his transfer, even though the team coach didn’t want him to leave the club.

“Those weeks December 2018 to January 2019 seemed very intense.

“Cardiff put on a lot of pressure on him to complete the sale quickly, but Nantes asked for more money and Emi felt in the middle of the dispute.

“Emi was in some doubt to go ahead with the move. Finally, the sale was agreed, not because of his performances as a player at Nantes, which were very good, but because Nantes needed the money.

“Against the wishes of the coaching staff and the fans, Emi was sold to Cardiff, and he felt he was achieving his dream.

“After many years of effort, he had finally reached one of the most important leagues in the world, which he has always desired to play.”

Mrs Taffarel said she spoke to her son regularly and, when she did not hear from him on the day of the flight, she assumed he had gone to bed early after arriving in Wales.

The following day she learned that the plane carrying her son was missing.

T Piper Malibu aircraft, N264DB, on the ground at Nantes airport in France, prior to the flight (Air Accidents Investigation Branch/PA)

Eventually her family organised their own sea search and the plane was located with Sala’s body inside.

“We had hope and it all ended in pain and the pain continues to this day,” she said.

“Emi was very young, with his whole life ahead of him with plans for the future, and he wanted to continue learning about football in a league as important as the Premier League.”

She added: “Our lives changed forever on January 21 2019 and now none of us is the same.

“No-one can bring Emi back to us, but we ask for justice so that Emi can rest in peace and give us a little bit of peace of mind knowing that we did everything we could so similar deaths are prevented in the future.

“Our pain will never go away and we carry it with us all the time. All we ask for is justice and we want no stone unturned to find out what happened.”

The inquest heard that Sala had been spotted by a scout while playing in Argentina and was signed by an academy linked to top French club FC Girondins de Bordeaux.

After moving to France he signed his first professional contract with Bordeaux, before having several spells on loan with other clubs.

In July 2015 he joined Ligue 1 club Nantes and in December 2018 his goal-scoring exploits caught the attention of Cardiff City, who at the time were struggling in the Premier League.

Tributes for Emiliano Sala at at Cardiff City Stadium (Aaron Chown/PA)

Senior Dorset Coroner Rachael Griffin told the inquest jury the Piper Malibu aircraft had left Nantes airport at 7.15pm on January 21 for the flight to Cardiff but radar contact was lost near Guernsey at 8.15pm.

She said the plane was located on the seabed on February 3 and Sala’s body was found in the wreckage three days later.

Ms Griffin said the inquest will hear a range of evidence from witnesses but the key questions for consideration will be the arrangements of the flight, the condition of the aircraft and the cause of the crash.

Pathologist Dr Basil Purdue said forensic tests showed Sala had prior to the crash been overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning and would have been “deeply unconscious” at the time of the impact with the sea.

He said tests showed a carbon monoxide blood saturation level of 58%, which he described as “severe poisoning”.

“The presence of carbon monoxide in significant amounts in an aircraft cabin implies a severe defect in the engine exhaust system,” he said.

“Since the aircraft involved only had a single cabin it follows the pilot would have been exposed to amounts of carbon monoxide similar to those found in Emiliano.”

Dr Purdue said Sala was still alive at the point of impact and died from severe head and chest injuries.

He added: “He died as a result of injuries entirely in keeping with those to be expected from a high altitude plane crash into the sea.

“The nature of those injuries, particularly to the head, were overwhelming and would have brought about instantaneous death.”

The inquest, which is taking place at the Town Hall in Bournemouth, is due to last about five weeks.

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