Emiliano Sala: A year on from plane crash, his family speak of ‘pain that will never go away’

On a typical Saturday afternoon in Progreso, the streets seem completely deserted. As the summer sun blazes outside, most of its 2,000 inhabitants are sheltering indoors.

The only human presence is at San Martin football club, where a family is celebrating a baptism. It is the same place where the town mourned its most illustrious son, Emiliano Sala.

Located in Argentina’s agricultural heart, six hours’ drive from Buenos Aires, Progreso sadly became better known in the tragic story of Cardiff’s record signing, who died in a plane crash in January 2019. When his casket arrived back home, those empty streets held more people than they had ever seen before.

A year later, the pain is still palpable. BBC Sport visited between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, a time of reflection for most of the town. Here, Sala was not only a football star. He was El Emi, the kid everybody knew. He was a friend, a neighbour, a former pupil, a former team-mate.

For his mother, Mercedes, and his 24-year-old brother, Dario, it is not easy to speak about what happened.

When Dario opens the door of their home, Mercedes is sitting in the dining room. “Thanks for coming, it means a lot to pay homage to my son,” she says as she instantly offers a glass of water.

A smiling picture of Emiliano, Dario and sister Romina lights up the room. Sala’s father Horacio also died last year. He suffered a heart attack at the age of 58 in April, three months after his son’s death. He and Mercedes did not live together.

“When Emi was 15, he sat in the kitchen at our old house and told me: ‘Mummy, I want to be a football player’. He wanted that so much, and to pursue that dream he had to move to San Francisco, in Cordoba province,” says Mercedes.

“He was just a boy, and it was so difficult to see him leave, but he was so resolute, so convinced that he would make it. It was his dream, and he did make it. He loved football. And now he was so excited to play in the Premier League.”

Sala, who was 28 when he died, was on his way to join Cardiff City, following a £15m transfer from French side Nantes, when the plane he was travelling in crashed. He had signed for the Welsh club two days before. Cardiff and Nantes have since been in dispute over transfer payments. Sala’s body was recovered from the wreckage in the English Channel, but pilot David Ibbotson has still not been found.

The Nantes supporters loved Sala, who moved there in 2015. Some have come to visit Progreso since his death. Even his hairdresser travelled across the Atlantic Ocean to see where he lived and meet his family.

Mercedes’ living room is now home to many of the gifts her son received during his three and a half seasons at Nantes. Collecting and sorting his belongings was another of the very painful experiences the family had to endure last year.

“Every year I’d go to France in October for his birthday, and I’d stay with him for a month,” says Mercedes. “The first week was always a celebration of the food he loved. In my luggage, I would pack the ready-made pastry circles to make empanadas, and also breadcrumbs for Milanesas, because the ones in France were different.

“‘Mummy, please make all the dishes I love,’ he would tell me. I’d also make homemade pasta. But after this one week he’d quickly switch back to his football diet, with lots of fish, because he was so focused on being fit. He was a hard worker. On top of training for the club, he also had a personal trainer and set up a gym in his house.”

After home matches, supporters would gather, waiting for his car to go past on the way out of the stadium.

“He was shy, but he would always stop, open the windows and start signing autographs and taking selfies,” Mercedes says.

“All those fans, today, are the ones that I want to thank, because they are still sending me pictures I had never seen before.

“I receive so much stuff from France, from England, from the rest of Argentina.”

Dario says: “It was beautiful to see how much the people loved him. I remember when he was in talks to renew his contract and people would just ask him to stay.”

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