By M. Spiro
It hasn’t been a good week. Personally I’ve been walking around with an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach since I heard the news on Tuesday morning that an aircraft carrying Emiliano Sala and his pilot had gone missing.
I’m sure that most people who follow Ligue 1 will be feeling that same emptiness to a certain degree too. Bad things happen in this world, and they happen on a depressingly regular basis, yet the disappearance of Sala – and the terribly sad, scary details that are slowly emerging – have stirred emotions in me that are hard to explain. It’s a combination of sadness and anger, really. How was this allowed to happen? Why did it happen to him?
I didn’t know Sala well. I had the pleasure of conducting a long television interview with him when he played for Caen, and I remember being impressed by his insistence on conducting the interview in French. He struck me as a polite, engaging individual who was totally focused on his career. The smiling demeanour that many have spoken of this week was very much present before and after, but during the interview he talked football with real seriousness and a steely determination in his eye.
Still, his disappearance has hit me and thousands of football fans hard. This feels like a veritable bereavement because Sala was very much part of the Ligue 1 family. For people like me, whose lives revolve around the goings-on of France’s top flight, Sala had become such a familiar, likeable figure. His goals, his celebrations, his misses, his relentless running were part of my weekends.
I’d been following his progress from the moment he made his first tentative steps in the top flight with Bordeaux. Back then, if we’re being honest, he looked pretty clumsy most of the time. Indeed Les Girondins ultimately ran out of patience with him. But even in those early days you could see there was something about him. At 6’3″, Sala had a presence. He was a mobile forward and a powerful, willing runner. Above all, he had this determination that set him apart. He so desperately wanted to succeed and nothing was going to stop him.
Recently I travelled to Nantes to film a feature on Ciprian Tatarusanu. At the end of training, the Romanian decided he wanted to practise penalty-saving. This was great for us – our cameraman was going to get some superb close-up footage of the goalkeeper at work! As the rest of the squad returned to the warmth of the changing rooms, Sala stayed out to put Tatarusanu through his paces.
This, by the way, didn’t look like a chore. The Argentine seemed more than happy to have a bit of extra shooting practice. The problem was, out of the ten spot kicks he took, Tatarusanu didn’t get near one of them. We went home without any close-up footage of saves, although – for the record – Sala converted his penalty in the Ligue 1 fixture the following weekend.
Those extra sessions are almost certainly the reason why Sala’s finishing came on leaps and bounds. His goal ratio was getting better and better; indeed the 28-year-old reached last term’s tally of 12 league strikes before the halfway stage this time around. Nantes fans and their coach Vahid Halilhodzic were desperate for Sala to stay at least until this summer. He might easily have hit the 20-goal mark and fired the Canaries in to Europe.
Halilhodzic knew just how important Sala was – both on the pitch and in the dressing room, where he was hugely popular – and did his utmost to convince club president Waldemar Kita not to sell. For his part, Sala wanted to stay and complete what surely would have been the best season of his career to date. He wanted to sign a new deal with Nantes, where he was happy and revered by the fans. Ultimately Kita the felt he had no choice but to accept Cardiff’s offer of 17 million Euros.
Witnessing the blossoming relationship between Halilhodzic and Sala this season has been fascinating. Both speak French with incredibly thick accents but they understand each other perfectly because they are clearly on the same wavelength. Both were legendary Nantes strikers in their pomp. Both got the Beaujoire rocking through their goals and both will be cherished in the hearts of the Nantes fans forever.
This is a club that recognises class, and although Sala didn’t score nearly as many goals as Halildodzic, the Nantes fans worshipped him for his qualities as a human and a footballer. Sadly, barring the miracle we are all still praying for, Emiliano Sala will not be returning to manage the club in the future.
The fans will be left with the memories of a fantastic person and an honest, strong, wholehearted attacker who had an immensely positive impact on this famous old club. For the time being, however, just feelings of sadness, anger and incomprehension will remain.
>> More by Matthew Spiro