Emiliano Sala, the Argentine footballer, who died aged 28 after the light aircraft in which he was travelling from France to Wales came down in the English Channel, had just joined Cardiff City as the Premier League club’s record £15 million (Dh71.3 million) signing.
Tall and willing, Sala was coming into his prime as a centre-forward, having spent his entire career in France. His route to success had not been straightforward, arriving as he did at Bordeaux aged 20 without a word of the language and already comparatively old to be called a promising talent.
More hard-working than technically adept, he struggled to establish himself at the club, and in 2012 was sent on loan to Orleans, then in the third division of French football.
There he scored an eye-catching 19 goals in 37 matches. When he was dispatched the following year to Niort, who played in Ligue 2, he claimed a similar tally.
The Girondins, as Bordeaux are known, appeared unconvinced, of his merits, however, and having sent him out again, to Caen, they agreed to sell Sala in 2015 to Nantes for €1 million (Dh4.16 million). He had made only 13 appearances for Bordeaux in five years.
Playing in Ligue 1, Sala quickly became a favourite with the fans at the Stade de la Beaujoire. In his second season he scored 15 times in 39 matches, and in 2017-2018, when Claudio Ranieri was his manager, he bagged 14 in 38 as the team finished ninth.
Sala had the striker’s knack of timing, and was especially good in the air, but what endeared him to managers and supporters alike was his lack of selfishness on the pitch. He would defend from high up it and be prepared to drop deep to help out.
“People see the way he fights for every ball,” said Ranieri. “That encourages his teammates to do the same. He is a good example for everyone.”
Yet, despite being the side’s topscorer for three seasons in a row, he had a period in the wilderness late last year when he seemed not to figure in the plans of the new manager, Miguel Cardoso. The owners of Nantes, who had earlier rejected interest in Sala from Wolves, planned to sell him to Galatasaray.
Yet Sala dug in his heels and, when Cardoso departed after just eight matches, won back his place. By January of this year, when Cardiff bid a reported £15 million for him, he had scored 13 goals.
Only a clutch of starrier names, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe among them, had more in Ligue 1, and Sala had also grabbed Nantes’s first hat-trick in more than a decade. In total, he scored 48 times for Les Canaris in 128 matches.
Of Italian descent, Emiliano Raul Sala Taffarel was born on October 31 1990 in the small town of Cululu, in Santa Fe province, north-west of Buenos Aires. His parents Horacio, a lorry driver, and Mercedes, have two other children, Dario and Romina.
The family moved to another small community, Progreso, and then at 15 Emi went to live at a soccer school in San Francisco, in the neighbouring province of Cordoba. It had ties with Bordeaux and, after a spell in Spain and a solitary match for a Portuguese club, Sala signed for the French side.
Although Sala acknowledged in an interview that “le foot — c’est ma vie” (loosely translated to ‘football is my life’), he also enjoyed detective novels and playing the guitar. He was a familiar figure in the cafes of Nantes with his labrador, Nala. Characteristically, Sala had delayed his departure for Cardiff to play one final time for Nantes, as the team had several injured players.