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Tragic Emiliano Sala affair reveals the real nature of football: All business, some sentiment and barely any soul

The Stade de La Beaujoire was a tapestry of black speckled with yellow and green. And despondency.

On the pitch, men trooped out wearing black jerseys donning the name Sala. The mood was mournful. Emiliano Sala had been transferred by Nantes to Cardiff City a few days ago, but a sense of loss cut deep for the 37,000 fans in attendance as the Ligue 1 club mourned the death of their former striker, whose plane had crashed in the English Channel while on its way to his new club, Cardiff City.

 Tragic Emiliano Sala affair reveals the real nature of football: All business, some sentiment and barely any soul

FC Nantes supporters pay tribute as a portrait of late Emiliano Sala is displayed prior to the Ligue 1 match between FC Nantes and Nimes. AFP

Nantes had pulled out all stops to remember and honour a player who had truly been one of their own for four seasons. Tickets for their first home game against Nimes after Sala's death had been priced at nine euros, Sala’s jersey number. Sala's jersey itself had been retired. There were tears in the stands. Even coach Vahid Halilhodzic and his players struggled to keep emotions in check.

It was an overwhelming display of grief. It was a football club showing its compassionate best. Its soul.


At least that's what Nantes wanted us to believe.

Unfortunately, they have also shown us exactly what modern-day football clubs are: cold and calculating businesses.

Even before Sala's body had been identified, the French club had sent a letter to Cardiff City demanding the first slice of payment for the Argentine striker. The Ligue 1 had mentioned, in no uncertain terms, that should Cardiff fail to make the first installment of the £15million transfer fee within 10 days, they would be dragged to court.

It must be pointed out that the Welsh club had never tried to wriggle out from making the payment. Their contention, they claim, was that the timing for financial dealings to take centrestage was just inappropriate. Sordid, even.

Like it or not, the whole Sala affair reeks of crassness.

After all, just a few days before one club had sent a letter to another club threatening legal action over money, a family was scrambling to raise funds to keep the search operation going for the footballer in question. It is not known whether either club contributed to the GoFundMe page set up by the Sala family to raise €3,00,000 in order to keep the search mission in the English Channel running. But we can take a solid calculated guess.

Nantes are not alone.

In the aftermath of the shattering accident, every one of the key players has scrambled to make moves in self-interest even at the expense of decency and propriety.

Four agents ― Willie McKay and his son Mark, Meissa N'Diaye, Bakari Sanogo and Baba Drame ― have come forward to stake a claim to profits from the sale of Sala, according to a report in The Daily Mail.

According to a report in The Daily Telegraph, agent Willie McKay, who pulled the strings for the transfer to fall in place, even went to the extent of releasing emails to L'Equipe that he wrote to Sala "to set the record straight" after the plane crash.

In one, he tells Sala he knows that the footballer did not want to be transferred, but dangles the carrot of a move to the movers and shakers of world football like Manchester City or Liverpool or Chelsea in the near future should he agree to go to Cardiff.

"Let us introduce you to the way we operate and how we came to this Cardiff City saga. We work for clubs in France, and for players who want to be transferred to England. As far as you are concerned, we have talked to all the clubs, including Manchester, Chelsea, Liverpool. We think you could end up in such clubs.

"We approached Nantes, as we do with many players in other clubs, to obtain the mandate of sale. We are not preventing you from working with another agent, but most players are very satisfied with our mediation. We do not say 'we are like a father to a son to our players'. No, if you had not been a footballer, these people would not be interested in you. In the end, they are only interested in the money. What we all want a lot of, of course. That's why we like to work with just the clubs. No sentiment, we're just doing business."

Nantes players, staff members and Nantes' coach Vahid Halilhodzic pay tribute to late Emiliano Sala prior to the Ligue 1 game between Nantes and Nimes. AFP

Nantes players, staff members and Nantes' coach Vahid Halilhodzic pay tribute to late Emiliano Sala prior to the Ligue 1 game between Nantes and Nimes. AFP

It still remains unknown who owned the airplane Sala was flying in — but it is known that many parties like Cardiff are interested in knowing the answer to that one. After all, financial liability for the accident will stop at the doorstep of the owner of the plane should it be established there were improprieties in the airplane, or the pilot or the timing of the flight.

It has become apparent that the airplane was in no shape to handle the inclement weather conditions it encountered during its flight. According to a report in Argentina's Ole, Sala told friends in a WhatsApp message, "I'm up in this plane and it feels like it's falling to pieces... If in an hour and half, you haven't heard from me, I don't know if they're going to send someone to look for me because they won't find me. But you will know. Man, I'm scared."

Questions have also been raised as to why the single-engine plane was being flown in such weather conditions in the first place.

There are no answers, yet, to many of those questions. Probably, those will never be answered.

But what's crystal clear is that players in the business of football are merely pawns. No amount of exaggerated displays of grief will change that.

As McKay said to Sala, "No sentiment, we're just doing business."

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Updated Date: Feb 13, 2019 13:52:19 IST