Emiliano Ral Sala Taffarel (Spanish pronunciation: ; born 31 October 1990, disappeared 21 January 2019, confirmed dead 7 February 2019) was an Argentine professional footballer who played as a forward.
After playing youth football in Argentina and following a short spell in Portugal’s regional leagues, Sala began his professional career in France with Bordeaux, making his professional debut in February 2012. After struggling to break into the first team, he was loaned out to Championnat National side Orlans and Ligue 2 side Niort in consecutive seasons. He enjoyed prolific spells with both clubs, scoring 39 goals between them, before returning to Bordeaux. After initially being promised an increased role after his successful loans, Sala fell out of favour again, and instead, joined fellow Ligue 1 side Caen on loan.
In 2015, he signed for Nantes on a permanent basis. With Nantes, he made more than 100 appearances in Ligue 1, and achieved a successful goalscoring record, finishing as the club’s top goalscorer for three consecutive seasons. His form prompted a move to Cardiff City in January 2019, for a club record fee of 15 million (18 million).
Sala was involved in a plane crash off Alderney on 21 January 2019. He was a passenger aboard a Piper Malibu light aircraft flying from Nantes to Cardiff. An initial three-day search covered 1,700 square miles (4,400 km2) across the English Channel. Two subsequent private searches were launched, resulting in the discovery of the wreckage on 3 February; Sala’s body was recovered four days later.
Early life and personal life
Sala was born in the town of Culul, Santa Fe Province, Argentina, to Horacio Sala and Mercedes Taffarel. His father worked as a truck driver; the family later moved to Progreso. He held an Italian passport. He had a brother, Dario, and a sister, Romina. He was a fan of Independiente and, while growing up, he studied footage of his favourite footballer, Gabriel Batistuta. Salas father, Horacio, died of a heart attack on 26 April 2019, three months after his son’s death.
Sala began playing football for San Martn de Progreso, where he remained until he was 15 years old. He then moved to San Francisco, Crdoba to play at football school Proyecto Crecer after being spotted by a scout. The club was directly affiliated with Spanish club RCD Mallorca and French side FC Girondins de Bordeaux, scouting local players in the area. After joining the club, he moved into a boarding house with other players from the club’s youth system. He played six Preferente matches for Spanish club CD Soledad B between October 2007 and February 2008.
In 2009, while living in Granada, Spain, he was recommended to Portuguese District side FC Crato by a fellow Argentinian footballer who played there and joined the Portuguese team. Sala played one official match for Crato, scoring twice, but suddenly decided to leave the club and return to Argentina, saying that his girlfriend was “in trouble” in his homeland.
Girondins de Bordeaux
At the age of 20, during the 2010-11 season, Sala moved to Europe to sign for Bordeaux, the French partner club from Proyecto Crecer. After arriving in France, Sala briefly lived with the club’s youth coach Marcelo Vada and his son, Sala’s teammate, Valentn Vada, who were from the same region of Argentina.
Having progressed through the club’s reserve team, Sala grew frustrated with his lack of first-team playing time, and his agent offered him to several Italian clubs, including Sorrento, but this was rejected in each case. On 8 February 2012, Sala made his Bordeaux senior competitive debut in the 2011-12 Coupe de France round of 16 3-1 away defeat against Olympique Lyonnais, coming on as a substitute in the 105th minute for Jussi.
Unable to establish himself in the first team, Bordeaux hoped to loan Sala out in order to gain experience and he was expected to sign for a team in Spain before his agent rejected the move, wanting Sala to remain in France. He instead joined Championnat National side US Orlans on loan after being spotted by manager Oliver Frapolli a year previously. Frapolli described Sala as “the best player on the team, without question”, as he went on to score nineteen goals for the club in 37 appearances. He helped the club to an eighth-place finish in the Championnat National.
On 2 July 2013, Sala agreed a deal to join Ligue 2 club Chamois Niortais on loan for the entire 2013-14 season. He enjoyed a steady return through the first half of the season before finding form in March, scoring eleven goals in his final twelve appearances including scoring his first career hat-trick in a 4-2 victory over Stade Lavallois. He finished the season with 20 goals in all competitions, with his total of 18 league goals setting a new club record for goals in a single season.
At the start of the 2014-15 season, Sala was brought into the first team squad with Bordeaux by manager Willy Sagnol and was rewarded with a two-year extension to his contract. He scored his first senior goal for the club after converting a penalty during a 4-1 defeat to Monaco. However, it proved to be his only goal in eleven appearances, and he was loaned to SM Caen, another Ligue 1 club, for the second half of the 2014-15 season as a replacement for Mathieu Duhamel. Caen had previously tried to sign Sala at the start of the season but had been rejected by Bordeaux. He made his debut for Caen on 1 February 2015 in a 1-0 victory over Saint-tienne. He scored his first goal for the club in his third appearance, during a 2-2 draw with Paris Saint-Germain two weeks later, and scored a brace against RC Lens in his following match. He scored five goals for Caen during his loan spell before returning to Bordeaux.
Sala (right) playing for Nantes in 2015
On 20 July 2015, Sala joined Ligue 1 club Nantes on a five-year contract with Nantes paying a reported transfer fee of 1 million to Bordeaux. He made his debut for Nantes on the opening day of the 2015-16 season, during a 1-0 victory over Guingamp, and scored his first goal for the club on 5 December 2015 in a 1-1 draw with Ajaccio. In January 2016, Nantes rejected a bid of 3 million from Wolverhampton Wanderers for Sala. In his first season, despite scoring only six times, he finished the year as the club’s top goalscorer.
During his second season, Sala scored twelve league goals for Nantes, the highest scoring player in a single season for the club since Olivier Monterrubio in 2000-01. He equaled his tally again in the 2017-18 season, finishing as Nantes’ top scorer for the third consecutive season since his arrival at the club.
At the start of the 2018-19 season, Sala fell out of favour under new manager Miguel Cardoso who preferred Kalifa Coulibaly as the club’s first choice striker. Turkish side Galatasaray made a late bid to sign Sala on the last day of the summer transfer window but the move later collapsed. Sala twice made goalscoring appearances as a substitute and was restored to the starting line up under Cardoso before the manager was sacked in October 2018. Vahid Halilhodi was appointed as the club’s new manager and in his first match in charge, on 20 October 2018, Sala scored a hat-trick in a 4-0 Ligue 1 home win over Toulouse. He thus became the first FC Nantes player to score three goals in a Ligue 1 match since Mamadou Diallo did so against FC Sochaux-Montbliard in February 2006. At the end of October, he was voted Ligue 1 Player of the Month having scored four goals in three matches during the month.
Sala’s good form saw him as the joint-highest goalscorer in Ligue 1 at the start of December, his tally of twelve goals tied with Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbapp. On 5 December, Sala scored his last goal for the club in a 3-2 Ligue 1 home victory over Olympique de Marseille. On 16 January 2019, he played his final match for the club in a 1-0 Ligue 1 away defeat against Nmes Olympique.
On 19 January 2019, Sala joined Premier League side Cardiff City on a three and a half-year deal for a club record transfer fee, reported to be 15 million. The transfer beat the previous club record of 11 million paid for Gary Medel in 2013. As part of a sell-on clause, 50% of the transfer fee was due to his first professional club Bordeaux. Sala rejected a late bid from a club in the Chinese Super League to join Cardiff, despite being offered a higher transfer fee and salary, due to his desire to play in the Premier League. Following Sala’s death, Nantes demanded the transfer fee from Cardiff. In September 2019, FIFA ruled in Nantes’ favour and ordered Cardiff to pay a first instalment of 6 million (5.3 million), and the remainder the following January. In December 2019, Cardiff City launched an appeal against FIFA’s decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Disappearance and death
After completing his medical at Cardiff, Sala returned to Nantes on Saturday 19 January, on a plane arranged by football agent Mark McKay. His intention was to return to Cardiff on Monday 21 January, in order to attend his first training session with his new club the following morning. Sala had been invited to attend Cardiff’s match against Newcastle United by manager Neil Warnock, but he returned to France to say goodbye to his Nantes teammates and collect personal belongings.
On 21 January, the Piper Malibu aircraft, which was flying Sala from Nantes to Cardiff, disappeared off Alderney. The same aircraft and pilot had flown Sala to Nantes two days earlier. On 23 January, Channel Islands Air Search reported that there was “no hope” of finding any survivors in the water.
An audio message, allegedly sent from the plane by Sala to his friends via WhatsApp, was released by Argentine media outlet Ol. The audio message translates as follows:
Hello, my brothers, how are you? Boy, Im tired. I was here in Nantes taking care of things, things, things, things, things, things, and it never stops, it never stops, it never stops. Anyway guys, Im up in this plane that feels like it’s falling to pieces, and Im going to Cardiff. crazy, we start tomorrow. Training in the afternoon, guys, in my new team… Let’s see what happens. So, how’s it going with you guys, all good? If in an hour and a half you have no news from me, I don’t know if they are going to send someone to look for me because they cannot find me, but you will know… Man, I’m scared!
Guernsey Police initially searched for three days about 1,700 square miles (4,400 km2) across the English Channel. At 15:15 GMT on 24 January 2019, after a “very thorough and extensive search” including eighty hours of combined searching undertaken by three planes, five helicopters and two lifeboats, the police announced that they had called off the search for the aircraft or any survivors. The decision led to calls worldwide for the search to continue, including numerous other footballers, among them fellow Argentine players Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuan, Sergio Agero and former player Diego Maradona. The president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, stated his intention to request the British and French governments to resume the search. An online petition also attracted over 65,000 signatures and Sala’s family later announced their decision to fund a private search. Over 280,000 was raised for this search on GoFundMe started by Sports Cover, a sports agency that represented Sala. The funds enabled the private search to commence on 26 January, with the launch of two boats, led by marine scientist David Mearns.
On 28 January, plans were announced for an underwater search to begin “within a week”, dependent on weather conditions, using an unmanned remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) to search an area of seabed north of Hurd’s Deep. On 29 January, Cardiff City included Sala on the team sheet for their game against Arsenal, with a daffodil next to his name in place of a squad number. On 30 January, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) reported that they had found two seat cushions washed up on a French beach, which were believed to be from the missing aircraft.
On 3 February, another underwater search for the aircraft began, using the AAIB’s Geo Ocean III vessel and a privately funded vessel, which were conducting sonar surveys of the seabed. The planned search, lasting three days, would cover an area of 4 square nautical miles (14 km2; 5.3 sq mi), about 24 nautical miles (44 km; 28 mi) north of Guernsey. At approximately 21:11 GMT, six hours after the new search began, wreckage from the aircraft was found at a depth of 63 metres (207 ft). On 4 February, investigators stated that there was one body visible inside the wreckage.
On 7 February, the body was recovered from the wreckage and taken to the Isle of Portland to be passed to the Dorset coroner. Later that day, Dorset Police identified the body as Sala’s by means of fingerprint evidence. Nantes subsequently retired his former number 9 jersey.
On 11 February, the results of a post mortem reported that Sala had died of “head and trunk injuries”. Sala’s funeral was held in his hometown of Progreso on 16 February 2019.
On 25 February 2019, a Special Bulletin was issued by the AAIB, giving a radar track of final section of flight including photographs of the wreckage on the sea-bed. It examined, in some detail, the regulatory framework for the accident flight.
On 28 February, ex-football agent Willie McKay, who had arranged the flight, said that Sala had been “abandoned” by Cardiff City and was left to arrange his own travel. McKay’s son Mark was Nantes’ acting agent in the deal for Sala. The football club said they “strongly reject” the claim they neglected to provide Sala with travel arrangements.
On 29 April, two people were arrested after a photograph purporting to show the dead body of Emiliano Sala during a post-mortem was posted on Twitter.
On 19 June, Dorset Police announced that they had arrested a man on suspicion of manslaughter by an illegal act in respect of the death of Sala. His identity was not made public and he has been released while investigations continue.
On 14 August, it was reported that toxicology tests on Sala’s body showed high levels of exposure to carbon monoxide, and the AAIB considered it was likely that the pilot would also have been exposed to the gas, potentially leading to drowsiness or unconsciousness.
Style of play
Sala stated that he modelled his style on his idol, former Argentine international forward Gabriel Batistuta.BBC Sport compared Sala to Jamie Vardy, describing him as “a player who likes wide spaces and being part of a team that has a strong counter-attacking style.” A large and powerful striker, he was also recognised for his ability to hold the ball up and was described as possessing “reasonable” pace; he also drew praise in the media for his work-rate, tenacity, eye for goal, and finishing ability.
ClubSeasonLeagueCupContinentalTotalDivisionAppsGoalsAppsGoalsAppsGoalsAppsGoalsCrato2009-10Portalegre First Division12000012Total12000012Orlans (loan)2012-13Championnat National371900003719Niort (loan)2013-14Ligue 2371832004020Total743732007739Bordeaux2014-15Ligue 11111000121Total1111000121Caen2014-15Ligue 11350000135Total1350000135Nantes2015-16Ligue 131640003562016-173412530039152017-183612220038142018-19191221002113Total120421360013348Cardiff City2018-19Premier League00000000Career total219871780023695