To grasp the strength of affection felt by Nantes for Emiliano Sala, we need only return to the events of early January.
When a leading goalscorer leaves in the mid-season transfer window, it is usually with his hood up and via the back door amid the loud stomping of feet. Yet Sala was different.
His French team-mates had only respect and admiration for his achievements and before his £15million move to Cardiff was finalised, Nantes prepared a special showreel of Sala’s goals and best moments to celebrate his transfer.
He was back in the north west of France saying farewell to his team-mates, before making a fateful return to Cardiff along with pilot David Ibbotson on board the Piper Malibu which would never complete its journey.
Dorset Police have since confirmed the body found inside the located aircraft on the seabed of the English channel was indeed that of Sala.
Emiliano Sala was about to embark on the biggest step of his career after signing for Cardiff
Sala was much loved by his former club Nantes, who celebrated his Premier League move
The Argentine was not known only for his prowess on the field, he was also a keen guitarist
Sala was cherished not only for his 12 goals in 16 starts this season but also for his work-rate on the field and character in the dressing room. Adept with the guitar and an avid reader, Sala possessed a cultural hinterland that set him apart. He would often bring a book to the training ground for his down-time.
‘Reading is what I love,’ Sala said last year. ‘I’m into crime and drama fiction. I love to be transported into that world.’
After a childhood in Argentina, where he would study videos of the legendary Gabriel Batistuta, Sala took a huge gamble when he left his homeland aged 14 to join the Bordeaux academy.
Sala was one of Ligue 1’s top scorers this season, just five behind top striker Kylian Mbappe (R)
From there, he had loan spells in the top three flights of French football. He was fully immersed in French culture, speaking the language fluently, but he retained his Latin heritage by holidaying in Spain and always drinking mate, the favoured hot drink of so many South American stars.
Sala read Chinese philosophy and his favourite book was The Motorcyle Diaries, the story of Che Guevara’s trip as a student which inspired the striker to start thinking of launching a charity in Africa after his retirement from football.
Sala told SoFoot: ‘In Argentina, there was not much money. My dad was a van driver, we didn’t have much coming in. That period drives me on. I have had to work so hard at every stage of my life.
‘My mum found it so hard when I left. Other people in the town did not agree that a child could leave a village so young. Since I moved away, we have always spoken every day, about our hopes, worries and dreams.’
Sala had said his mum found it difficult when he left Argentina at 14 to pursue his dream
His social feed brims with family pride. He spent Christmas with his mother Mercedes and his two siblings Dari and Romina. His mother last spoke to her son before take-off. ‘He was so happy, this was the best moment of his career,’ she told reporters in Argentina.
His dad, Horacio, called to congratulate Sala on his transfer on Sunday evening.
In Argentina, journalists and supporters were attempting to discover more about a player they had never truly known due to his early move to Europe.
Despite his goals this season and a move to the Premier League, he was not a player who had been considered for a call-up to the national team. At 28, his moment in the sunshine had finally appeared after years of painstaking graft. In the early days in France, the picture appeared bleak, and he was even turned down by an Italian third division side.
Some eight years on, Sala had proved himself and was ready to join Cardiff’s relegation fight. Beyond the Premier League, the plan was to end his career in Argentina.
Sala said: ‘I left Argentina behind so young and I want to discover it again at some point. It would be a dream to do so at Independiente, the club I supported.’
For his family and friends, the hopes and dreams now give way only to sadness and memories.
Emotional supporters in Nantes paid tribute to their former player after his disappearance