Emiliano Sala: ‘A tragic plane crash; a stain on football’s reputation’ – BBC Sport
Last update on
17 October 2022
I still remember Tuesday 22 January 2019, as though it were yesterday.
My partner, a Cardiff City fan, woke up to find out that a light aircraft had vanished over Channel while en route from Nantes and Cardiff. She said: “Our new striker was from Nantes last night.” ”
The link was dismissed by me. I doubt that there are many planes making this journey every day.
However, within an hour, Rob Phillips, BBC Wales’ football correspondent reported that Cardiff were “seeking clarity” on the missing plane and that there was “genuine concern at the club.”
Emiliano Sala, an Argentine striker, had just signed for Cardiff in a club-record PS15m transfer from FC Nantes. Instead of welcoming their new striker to training, they were confronted with a torrent of media inquiries about the unfolding tragedy.
Soon it was confirmed that Sala was aboard the Piper Malibu aircraft – it was piloted by David Ibbotson and would make its way across the Channel Islands over the next 48-hours. It disappeared from radar north-of the Channel Islands just over an hour after taking off from Nantes Atlantique airport. There were no signs of any wreckage at that point.
Very few stories that I have covered as a journalist caught the attention of the public the way this one did.
Nantes fans loved Sala, a prolific striker. He was the hero Cardiff fans were looking for to save their team. A talented, beloved young footballer, he tragically died just as his Premier League career was about start.
Kayley Thomas, my investigation team colleague and Kayley from the BBC, was so interested in the story that Kayley and I were both asked to begin investigating the circumstances surrounding the flight. The BBC Sounds and BBC Radio Wales podcast series, Transfer: The Emiliano Sal Story, is the result. Episodes can be listened to here.
We began our research and realized that this story would not be leaving the newsstands soon.
As the fourth anniversary of the crash nears, so it has proven.
Emiliano Sala was born prematurely on 31 October 1990. His parents were told that he would never be able run due to the effects on his respiratory system. He grew up to be a happy, energetic child who was close to his siblings Romina, Dario, and Dario.
Sala’s mother Mercedes Taffarel, at the age of 4, took him to San Martin de Progreso for a game of football. At first, he wore a pair trainers because his family couldn’t afford boots.
He was passionate about the sport and, when scouts spotted him at age 15, he moved 200km to train with an Argentine college in San Francisco.
He told me to let him go. All he wanted was to kick a football and if he didn’t, he would be dead inside.” Mercedes stated in a moving statement to his earlier year inquest.
Sala’s connections to European clubs in San Francisco helped him realize his goal of playing at a higher level. Before he was signed by FC Nantes, he had shints with teams from France, Portugal, and Spain. He scored 48 goals in 133 games over three seasons. This made him a fan favorite and a target for management.
After seeing him play against Marseille in December 2018, Cardiff’s manager Neil Warnock knew that he had found his new striker. He scored one goal and set up another in a 3-2 Nantes win.
Negotiations began – with Mark McKay as agent, whose company Mercato Sports was given the mandate by Nantes to sell Sala. The chain of events that would eventually lead to disaster was initiated.
Kayley and myself visited Nantes in December 2019 to mark the anniversary of Sala’s passing. It was evident from our conversations that Kayley was initially uncertain about moving to Cardiff.
Marie Jeanne Munos Castelleanos greeted us in her cozy bungalow and served us coffee and chocolates while we chatted away.
She described herself as a surrogate mom or mental coach to Sala and showed us many photos and other mementoes from their friendship. He had sent her voicemails, in which he expressed reservations about the transfer. She shared them with us.
Marie-Jeanne said that he had not decided whether he would go to Cardiff from the beginning.
His mum wanted him to leave, but he was concerned because he was familiar with life in Nantes. He had his routines and all.
“He would be traveling to another country where he didn’t speak the language. It was something that he was worried about. ”
Mercedes also stated that her son felt under pressure over the move. She said it was done by Waldemar Kita, the owner of Nantes.
The transfer fee for PS15m was an unprecedented amount, both in Nantes and Cardiff.
Sala lived in Carquefou, a small town about 40 minutes from Nantes. He was well-known to the community as he went about his daily business: shopping at the supermarket, going for a drink or a meal at his favorite bar, or getting a haircut or attending church.
Our visit revealed a picture far from the stereotype of a star footballer. This was someone who enjoyed spending his time with his rescue dog Nala or hanging out at the hairdresser Jean-Philippe Roussel, and Lydie Roussel, who were close friends.
Roussel states: “He knew leaving Nantes would be a great career move. But was he willing to go to Cardiff?” To be truthful, he was being forced out. ”
Nantes said that Sala decided to leave the country “after many wonderful years”.
Louis Chene, a Nantes fan, lived in Carquefou’s centre and would often bump into Sala to talk about the club’s fortunes. Sala would walk around Carquefou saying goodbye to everyone he saw as he was leaving, he recalls.
Chene says that Chene went down the street to visit every shop he could find. He wanted to say goodbye to everyone. ”
Frederic Happe was a journalist at Agence France Presse, who had been following Sala’s career through France. He was one of few players to ask you how your day was when you arrived at the conference room. These are small details that players of a certain level forget. ”
These tiny but important details provided us with a rare and valuable insight into a life that many would dismiss as privileged, but which was in fact at the mercy the agents looking for new targets or the owners of football clubs seeking to make money off their star striker.
The last image Sala uploaded to his Instagram account – just hours before the crash — is captioned “La Ultima Ciao” (The Last Goodbye).
Sala smiles with one arm around his team-mate, while the Nantes side huddle in. Nicolas Pallois, his club friend, is smiling and he would drive Sala to the airport with his wife. They would then travel to Argentina to attend his funeral.
An overarching feeling of reluctance hovers over Sala’s story. It can be seen in the last photos of him leaving the community he loves, heading for a new job, or the voicemail he left to his closest friends in Argentina, from the Piper Malibu, as it taxied on runway 3 at Nantes Atlantique Airport.
He says, as the engine is blaring in the background. “I’m headed to Cardiff as I begin training with the new team tomorrow morning.
“If I don’t hear back from you in the next hour, I don’t know if anybody will search for me. They won’t find me.”
“Man, I’m scared. ”
Sala wasn’t the first person to use the Piper Malibu.
He described the landing in Nantes, France, two days before he left Cardiff, as a “coucou”, a French term for an old, rickety plane.
A recording of Ibbotson’s phone conversation with a friend after that flight shows that he also had concerns about the aircraft being “dodgy”.
A 59-year old gas fitter and a passionate for flying was asked to fly Sala to France and back. He was asked by David Henderson, a Piper Malibu pilot who couldn’t accept the job because he was in Paris with his wife.
Willie McKay was the one who arranged the private flight. He helped Mark to broker the transfer agreement.
Later, Willie McKay told the BBC that he was thinking about getting the boy home. We tried to help. ”
Cardiff City claimed that they offered Sala a flight to Nantes via Paris.
McKay stated that he believed Henderson and had no reason to doubt him.
Private pilot Ibbotson was not licensed to fly at night and had no license to transport paying passengers. His rating to fly the single-engine Piper Malibu aircraft was also expired two months prior.
A conversation with a pilot friend was held the day before the fatal flight. He said that he usually hid his lifejacket among the plane seats, but “tomorrow, I’ll be wearing mine, that’s for certain”.
He said, “You never know what might have happened…it might be your last chance for a good chat and a good moan.” ”
His comments, made in a lighthearted tone but revealing an underlying unease, echo Sala’s reservations.
The flight from Cardiff to Nantes was plagued by a loud bang, a low mist in the cockpit, and the stall warning system randomly going off.
Ibbotson landed and discovered that the left brake pedal was not working when he attempted to turn off runway.
“Why didn’t Sala refuse to go back on it?” Many people have asked this question since.
Language barrier – Ibbotson doesn’t speak Spanish, French or English. Sala also speaks no English.
He did not hesitate to get back on the subject. At 19:15 in January evening, flight N264DB took off from Nantes and headed north towards the Channel.
The plane lost radar contact north of Guernsey just over an hour after Ibbotson made his last contact with Jersey air traffic controllers.
Investigators from the Air Accident Investigation Unit concluded that the pilot lost control while descending to avoid cloud. The plane crashed into sea at 270mph (434km/h). It began to fall with a greater G-force than fighter pilots as it descends.
David Mearns, a shipwreck hunter, was determined and driven to determine the cause of the accident.
It’s unlikely that the plane’s wreckage and Sala’s body would have been discovered without his involvement. The body of Ibbotson has never been found.
We first met Mearns back in summer 2019. We were captivated by his passion when he spoke of his desire not to have to bury the bodies of families who lost loved ones in such tragic accidents.
“You are doing this for them. He said that you had volunteered your time and wanted to help them.
Sala’s mother recalled him telling Sala: “I’ll Find Him… I’ll Find the Plane and Hopefully He’s There.” ”
After hundreds of thousands of pounds had been raised through a fundraising campaign, Mearns led the search for wreckage on behalf the Sala family.
In a joint mission with Air Accidents Investigation Branch, his survey vessel located the plane’s place on the seabed.
After a few days, a meticulous operation by a specialist ROV team (remotely operated vehicles) managed to rescue Sala’s body from the wreckage. It was then brought ashore at Portland, Dorset.
Mearns returned later to the crash site for the Ibbotson families, but there was no trace of the pilot.
A late hunch by Dr Basil Purdue (home office pathologist), led to toxicological testing of Sala’s body. The shocking discovery of high levels of carbon monoxide in his blood resulted in toxicological testing.
The team discovered that Sala would have been unconscious from carbon monoxide poisoning. This was probably due to exhaust gas leaking from the plane’s engine. Ibbotson would also have likely been affected, but in a less severe manner.
Ibbotson was clear with air traffic control in his final communication. He was also flying the plane in its last moments. Investigators believe that a dramatic carbon monoxide leakage into the cabin occurred within the four minutes preceding the crash.
The investigation shifted from pilot error to the condition of the aircraft and the people responsible for it’s maintenance.
After investigations by the Civil Aviation Authority and Dorset Police, Henderson was taken into custody at his York home.
Henderson pleaded guilty at Cardiff Crown Court, October 2021 to trying to organize a flight for a person without authorisation or permission. He was also convicted of recklessly endangering an aircraft’s safety in the way that he had organized the flight for Willie McKay.
Henderson was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment. The judge said that Henderson had a “cavalier” attitude to safety regulations and that he was motivated primarily by profit. That messaging between Henderson and Ibbotson during the build-up to the flight showed his “lurking doubts” that the amateur pilot was up to the task.
The inquest into Sala’s death ended in Bournemouth in February 2022.
Dario, his younger brother, attended the event in person for the first week. Then he accessed it remotely via video link with an interpreter.
He spoke to BBC’s Transfer podcast and recalled his happy childhood with his brother, as well as the effects of his death.
He said, “It’s affected our so much.” He played a vital role in the family’s life. Although we were always close, it is difficult to look forward to the future without him. ”
Sala family lawyer Daniel Machover stated that the inquest had revealed the complicated facts that led to Emiliano’s premature death in a statement. It has shed light on many missed opportunities in football and aviation that could have prevented Emiliano’s tragic death. ”
The coroner’s decision not to issue a Prevention of Future Deaths Report highlighting safety concerns in the case was welcomed by the family. She also stated that “No family should have grief from a similar avoidable incident.” ”
One episode of the podcast was entitled ‘Money with a Capital M.’ It refers to a quote by the Sala family lawyer about an email Willie McKay wrote to Sala. In it, he persuaded Sala to consider Cardiff City’s offer.
It could have been applied to any aspect of the story.
Fifa, football’s governing body, ruled that Cardiff must pay Nantes the first PS5m installment of the transfer fee in September 2019.
Cardiff appealed against Fifa’s decision. The Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland (Cas), in August 2022, confirmed that Sala was a Cardiff player when he died.
Cardiff had claimed that the transfer was incomplete, partly because Sala hadn’t been registered as a Premier League footballer. Fifa agreed with Cas, as Sala was already registered with the Welsh Football Association in Cardiff. Therefore, the transfer was completed.
Cas’s full judgment revealed that Sala was initially denied registration by the Premier League because Cardiff made mistakes in his employment contract.
Sala was flying from Cardiff in the Piper Malibu, and his agent Meissa Na’Diaye assisted in amending his club contract. Eight minutes before the plane disappeared off radar, the new paperwork was completed.
Cardiff appealed to the Swiss Federal Court against the Cas judgment. The club will file civil action against all those involved in the organization of the flight, in the event that this fails. This includes FC Nantes and its agents. ”
Following the Cas judgement, a statement was released that stated: “All our thoughts must remain with Emiliano’s family, which are now financially supported by the trust the club placed for them.” ”
David Conn, Guardian’s investigation reporter, said on the Transfer podcast: “Whatever technical rights or legal niceties, it’s quite a stain upon football’s reputation, image, and honour that this unseemly dispute has been going on so long after a young man suffered this terrible death.” ”
Nearly four years later, the effects of Sala’s passing continue to be felt.
Three months after the crash, his father Horacio, 58, died of a heart attack. He lived with Sala’s mother, but he was divorced. Friends reported that he was devastated and trying to cope with the loss.
His mother Mercedes stated that her family missed Sala “every day like the first”.
She said that Emi cannot be brought back to us. However, we do ask for justice so Emi can go to peace. We also want peace of mind knowing we did everything possible to prevent similar deaths in the future. ”
Sala’s sister Romina was a newly-maternalized mother when she traveled to the UK to ask the authorities to continue searching for her brother. She has been struggling with emotional issues ever since.
Currently, civil proceedings are being brought against a variety of parties by the Sala family.
Progreso was packed when El Emi, the local boy who made it big, returned home to be buried.
He watches them from the mural by Gabriel Griffa, an Argentine artist. The mural was painted at St Martin de Progreso. It has since been renamed to the Emiliano Sala Stadium.
The artist traveled to Carquefou in spring 2022 to paint another mural about Emiliano. This was organized by Marie-Jeanne Roussels, and other friends.
Two cities, hundreds of miles apart, but forever linked by this talented, well-loved, and popular young man who will not be forgotten.
The team behind Transfer: The Emiliano Sala Story can be contacted at: email@example.com