Emiliano Sala made a name for himself in France, playing for Bordeaux and Nantes among other clubs, but grew up in Argent inaand the shock of what has happened to him is felt as much there as it is in Europe.
The 28-year-old was travelling from Nantes to Cardiff on Monday night when the plane, a Piper PA‑46, disappeared off the radar. It has not yet been found despite an extensive search, and the rescue operation – which included help from the Channel Islands, UK and France – was suspended for the day at 5pm on Wednesday.
The disappearance of the aircraft has dominated the media in Argentina since the news broke, with speculation regarding dark motives behind its disappearance and stories of his early beginnings in the towns of Cululú, where he was born, and Progreso, where he grew up, both in the central province of Santa Fe.
The news has deeply affected the combined population of 2,000 people in the towns, where Sala is adored as the local boy who made it to the international big leagues. In both, locals have gathered at masses dedicated to the player.
“We’re in shock, we’ve held a ring of prayer all morning with much of the town taking part,” Alberto Gudiño, an official of the San Martín football club, where Sala played until age 15, told the TN television channel. “We can’t believe what’s happening.”
Only last weekend, people in both towns had celebrated the announcement of Sala’s transfer to Cardiff for a fee of £15m. The love was mutual, and Sala returned often for month-long stays, eating Argentine beef at the “asados” – Argentinian-style barbecues – prepared by his brother Darío.
“To us he’s family,” Gudiño said. “We’re badly affected. There’s so few of us here that we all know each other and Emiliano was just another one of us every time he came back, mixing with us. He never disconnected from us.”
Daniel Rivero, a director at San Martín, added: “We’re at a loss. The town is shocked. There’s only lost faces. He came to live in Progreso when he was very little. He started his football career at San Martín.
“At San Martín there’s a branch of the Proyecto Crecer [“grow-up project”], which is connected to Bordeaux in France. That’s how they spotted him and brought him and after lots of to-ing and fro-ing he ended up in French football. He wasn’t so well known in Argentina because he never played for any of the bigger clubs in our country.
“We had known him all his life and we know how much he deserved this moment, a huge transfer and all the media attention. He was the first person from our club to really make it. What happened makes no sense. We’re hoping for a miracle, for him to turn up alive.”
The model Berenice Schkair, 27, who had been dating Sala, made a call on social media to continue the search: “I want to wake up and for all of this to be a lie. Please investigate because I cannot believe this accident or that they suspended the search … I need to read that you’ve been found.” She posted this on Instagram below a set of photos and videos of her and Sala on Tuesday. “I feel impotent, I’m in a nightmare. I cannot stop thinking about you, Emi.”
The post continued with messages of love that Schkair later deleted, leaving only: “Investigate, don’t stop looking for him please.” She had earlier said: “What I most regret is not having told you that you made me feel something I hadn’t felt in a long time.”
In a Twitter post that has also since been taken down, Schkair suggested there could have been foul play behind the aircraft’s disappearance: “Investigate the football mafia because I don’t believe this accident.”
Schkair, a model from the Buenos Aires town of Tres de Febrero who has 53,000 Instagram followers, told the Infobae online newspaper she is devastated and that she had removed the posts bearing Sala’s family in mind: “The only thing I want is for him to appear. But out of respect for the family I prefer to wait, I’m going to say what I have to say in a few days.”