Crowds flock to Argentine village to pay tribute to footballer Sala

Sunday, February 17, 2019

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PROGRESO, Argentina (AFP) — The death in a plane crash of Cardiff City striker Emiliano Sala was a cruel blow to family, friends and supporters in his home village in Argentina, and yesterday they came, grieving, from miles around to pay their respects.

Through the morning, mourners gathered for a public vigil in a gymnasium in Progreso, the small farming town in Santa Fe province which Sala left as a teenager to play in Europe.

He was “loved and admired by all”, a restaurant owner told AFP. Sala would come home on breaks and would never fail to kick the ball around with village youngsters, they said. Unlike some soccer stars, he would keep a low profile, not flaunting his new wealth.

As his heartbroken father, mother and sister watched on Saturday, a giant poster of the 28-year-old hung behind his coffin, which was draped in the red and white colors of the San Martin de Progreso club where he began his career.

Sala's father, Horacio, was devastated by his son's death, family members said, and refused for days to leave his home.

Outside the club, which was at the centre of the day's commemorations, was a banner reading: “Emi, you will never walk alone.”

“He represented a lot for us,” the club's president, Daniel Ribero, told AFP. “We're a small village and Emi was a celebrity, the only player to turn professional.

“He was one of us. He meant a lot to us.”

More than 3,000 mourners came to pay respects.

“We all carry Emi in our hearts,” said Mayor Julio Muller in an emotional tribute.

Sala had played for Nantes, becoming one of the top strikers in France, before being traded in January to Cardiff City in England's Premier League, in a 15-million pound (19.3 million dollars) deal.

Just two days after making the move, Sala had flown back to Nantes on January 21 to pay farewell to his former teammates.

On the return flight across the English Channel, the single-engine private plane carrying Sala and pilot David Ibbotson crashed near the British island of Guernsey.

Sala reportedly had messaged friends from the plane, flying in rough weather, that he was “so afraid” and that the craft “seems like it's falling to pieces”.

The player's body was recovered from the submerged wreckage on February 7, but 59-year-old Ibbotson remains missing.

Thousands of supporters —including French soccer star Kylian Mbappe and former England captain Gary Lineker — had donated a total of more than US$400,000 to pay for a private sea-bottom search, after authorities had given up hope of finding the plane.

An inquest in England later concluded that the footballer died of “head and trunk injuries”.

Cardiff City Manager Neil Warnock and club executive Ken Choo travelled to Argentina to attend the ceremony yesterday.

“It was important for us to come and pay the respect to the family,” Warnock told AFP.

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