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Emiliano Sala – the finest striker Cardiff never had

In January 2019, Cardiff City were struggling at the wrong end of the Premier League.

They had been promoted from the Championship the previous season, finishing runners-up to Wolves, but, like many teams, they found the step up in leagues a big challenge, and soon were in the relegation zone.

A big problem for them was a lack of goals – they needed somebody who could find the net on a  regular basis. With no internal solutions available they decided to go into the transfer market when the January window opened and decided to make a move for Argentine Emiliano Sala, who was playing his football in France with Nantes, with whom he had scored 48 goals in 123 appearances.

A fee of just over £15 million was negotiate with the Ligue 1 side, a club record for the Welsh club. Sala was excited to be moving to the Premier League and, after passing his medical in Cardiff, signed a three and a half year deal.

A football agent then arranged for Sala to return to France by private plane so that he could say goodbye to his Nantes teammates, and wrap up his belongings.

Tow days later, the same plane, piloted by David Ibbotson set off on the return journey to Wales.

Somewhere near Alderney off the Channel Islands, the plane ran into difficulties, and lost contact with the ground. It was later established that Ibbotson was not licenced to fly passengers for profit, and that his rating to fly that particular plane, especially at night, had expired months earlier.

Although there was no trace of either man or plane, minutes before it disappeared a panicked Sala had sent a WhatsApp message to friends and family that he was flying in a plane that appeared to be falling to pieces.

The Coastguard launched an intensive air and sea search that failed to find any trace of the plane. When they proposed abandoning it after a few days, they were urged to continue by footballers like Lionel Messi, Gonzalez Higuaín, and Sergio Agüero, as well as the President of Argentina.

His family then funded a private search, which 13 days after the original crash, found traces of the wreckage. Four days later Sala was found still strapped in his seat.  He died of head and trunk injuries. His body was recovered and flown home to Argentina for his funeral.

Ibbotson’s body has never been recovered.

After his death, a bitter row broke out over who had organised and approved the fateful flight. Cardiff refused to pay he transfer fee, but FIFA sided with Nantes and ordered then to pay the first instalment of just over £5.3 million, with the rest due the following January,

However, ai December 2019 Cardiff appealed that decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

He remains the greatest striker never to play for the club.

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