A year on, Sala’s death continues to haunt football and fuel disputes
Cardiff City, then in the Premier League, agreed to buy Sala from French side Nantes. The Argentine striker was on his way to his new club in a small plane when it crashed. The circumstances of the accident are murky and the aftermath has been a bitter dispute between the clubs.
On January 19, 2019, Cardiff, struggling to remain in the Premier League, agreed to pay Nantes 17 million euros ($18.85 million) for the 28-year-old Argentine who had been the Ligue 1 team’s top scorer for three straight seasons.
After passing his medical, Sala returned to Nantes to pick up some gear and say goodbye to team-mates. He then took off for Cardiff in the early evening of January 21 in a small, single-engine Piper PA-46 Malibu tourist plane which disappeared from radar around 8.20 pm near the Channel Island of Guernsey.
The immediate response was a frantic search for the wreckage of the plane and an outpouring of grief in Nantes, where Sala was popular, in Cardiff and in Argentina.
There were also questions over the suitability of the plane, the qualifications of the 59-year-old pilot, David Ibbotson and the decision to hire both.
The flight was arranged by another pilot, David Henderson, at the request of football agents Willie McKay and his son Mark, who were representing Nantes.
Sala sent a WhatsApp message before the crash saying he was “really scared.”
On January 24, Guernsey police ended the search, provoking a deluge of indignation. Two days later, Sala’s family announced the resumption of private searches thanks to an internet fundraiser.
On February 8, the plane was located and police announced that they had recovered Sala’s body. Ibbotson’s remains have never been found.
Tributes were paid to Sala in Ligue 1 and the Premier League. Nantes commemorated him on February 10 at a packed stadium with huge pictures of the striker, the team playing in black and fans singing and holding banners. It is a tribute they plan to repeat when they play Bordeaux, Sala’s first French club, on Sunday.
On February 16, Sala’s funeral took place in Progreso, his home town in Argentina.
Willie McKay’s twin sons, Paul and Jack, were both players on Cardiff’s books at the start of 2019. Paul had been loaned to Morecambe at the start of January, while Jack moved to Chesterfield on loan on January 31. At the end of the season, Cardiff let both players leave permanently.
On April 26, Sala’s father Horacio died of a heart attack aged 58.
On May 4, Cardiff was relegated to the Championship. On August 2, Vahid Halilhodzic, who had been at odds with club leadership, particularly over Sala’s transfer, resigned as Nantes coach.
Cardiff and Nantes quickly started arguing over the transfer money, while Cardiff also insisted they had wanted Sala to take a commercial flight.
On February 8, Nantes publicly expressed concern about the delay in paying the first instalment, and on February 27 the French club complained to FIFA.
Cardiff responded, saying there were “anomalies” in the contract and that FIFA should wait for the conclusion of investigations into the accident.
On June 19, British police briefly arrested Henderson.
On September 30, FIFA ordered Cardiff to honour the timetable for paying the transfer fee and to pay the initial instalment of 6 million euros to Nantes.
On November 4, FIFA threatened Cardiff with a transfer ban. The Welsh club responded by appealing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne.
– What next? –
CAS says it will not rule on the transfer before June.
“Cardiff and Nantes have agreed on the timetable for the written procedure, which is expected to last until around the end of April,” Matthieu Reeb, secretary-general of the CAS, told AFP. “A hearing will then have to be scheduled. In principle, a final decision is not expected before June.”
Meanwhile, British media have reported that Cardiff is considering legal action against Henderson, the McKay clan and possibly Nantes.
No comments yet