By John Jones
Tributes continue to be made to missing footballer Emiliano Sala after a plane carrying him disappeared over the English Channel two weeks ago.
The new Cardiff City signing, along with pilot David Ibbotson, was flying to the Welsh capital from Nantes – where he had earlier said goodbye to his former teammates – when the aircraft vanished from radar on the evening of 21st January.
A search and rescue operation covering roughly 1,700 square miles was immediately launched, but was called off after three days after no trace of the aircraft or its occupants was found, with Chief Officer of the Channel Islands Air Search John Fitzgerald claiming that there was “no hope” of finding either men alive.
However, a private search has now been undertaken by Sala’s family, after over €300,000 was raised through online crowdfunding. Significant donations were made by Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan, PSG star Kylian Mbappe and Sala’s compatriot Gonzalo Higuain.
Numerous tributes have been made to Sala right across a stunned footballing community, with fans and players alike showing their support through social media, whilst City fans have laid a carpet of flowers outside the club’s stadium, alongside a touching banner referring to Sala as ‘our beautiful Bluebird’.
As news of the plane’s disappearance broke, Cardiff City CEO Ken Choo spoke of Sala’s excitement to join the club during an in-house interview.
“He was so happy to join Cardiff City. You could see from his face that he is so so happy to be here and so ready to start” he said.
“We really feel sad to hear of this news because we met such a great person. We’d like to reach out to the family because it’s a very tough time”.
A numb Neil Warnock, Sala’s new manager, also spoke of his shock and sadness at a press conference.
“I’ve been in football management for 40 years, and it’s been by far the most difficult week in my career, by an absolute mile” said the Cardiff boss.
“It’s probably hit me harder than anyone else, as I’ve met the lad and talked to him for the last six to eight weeks”.
“Football is important, relegation and things are important, but in the context of life, it just opens everybody’s eyes, whether you are involved with Cardiff or any of the families”.
Warnock is absolutely right – in times of tragedy, football and its politics should obviously take a back seat to remembrance and support those affected.
That said, the Bluebirds manager and his team will also undoubtedly realise that the uphill battle they were already facing in the league this season has now become even steeper.
The squad has, understandably, been traumatised by the tragic events, with many seeking assistance from mental health professionals since Sala’s disappearance.
Whilst Warnock’s care and consideration of his players’ wellbeing has been admirable, he too has received support from the League Manager’s Association, revealing that he had considered his future as Cardiff manager and asking, simply, “who motivates the motivator?”.
Losing games is one thing, but losing a squad member, no matter how new, is incredibly difficult to even comprehend. As well, lifting a team and community numbed by loss is a mammoth task indeed.
It must also be recognised that Sala became City’s record signing for a reason. With 13 goals in all competitions this season, the 28-year old sat only behind Mbappe and Nicolas Pepe as Ligue 1’s third highest goalscorer, and it was hoped that a prolific striker would improve the Bluebird’s measly fortunes in front of goal.
Such clinical finishing was again missing from Cardiff’s game as they took on Arsenal last week, in what could have been Sala’s debut for the club.
Whilst Cardiff’s performance in such difficult circumstances must be applauded, as it duly was by Warnock, who hailed it as their best of the season, they failed to take their chances. Despite dominating the first half and grabbing a poignant late goal through Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, earlier strikes from Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette saw the Bluebirds succumb to a 2-1 defeat.
On such a sombre night where the pre-match tributes rightly took precedence over the match itself, dropping points is obviously not something of major significance given at this current juncture.
But it soon will be. Stuck in the relegation zone, Cardiff know that every game will count from here on out.
Luckily, as was the case with Leicester earlier in the season, Cardiff have an outstanding set of supporters that lifted the team and stayed long after the final whistle at the Emirates.
In a city numbed by tragedy and united in grief, the Bluebirds will be looking to band together to get through this extremely difficult period.