Tragic days for soccer fans, as the plane that was carrying the Italian-Argentinian footballer Emiliano Sala, who had been missing for two weeks, was found at the bottom of the sea last Sunday.
More surprisingly though is the fact that no one truly knows what happened to the Piper Malibu that was carrying the new Cardiff recruit and its pilot over the English Channel. Operations to lift the plane on ground land had to be called off due to weather conditions, and without the wreckage, the reasons of the crash could not be established.
And yet, this whole story has divided people into two teams: the controversial conspiracy believers, who claim to whoever wants to listen that Sala’s disappearance was a setup, and the faithful supporters, who paid tribute to the missing striker and provided a great support to his family.
Recently recruited by Cardiff City for £15m, the young footballer was expected on the field with the Bluebirds on Tuesday, January 22, after his aircraft had left France at 7.15pm on Monday. But a few instants after the aircraft had taken off, the pilot sent a request to the Jersey Air Traffic Control for permission to descend, before contact was lost.
As a result, the air traffic sent an alert to the Guernsey Coastguard, indicating that a light aircraft had gone off their radar approximately 15 miles north of Guernsey. This was the last time Emiliano and his pilot were heard of.
Since then, incredible theories have been around on the Internet, popping all over Facebook. But the most startling ones could be found on the feeds of French users, most of them being fervent supporters of French Club Nantes - where Sala played for three years and scored 42 goals in 120 games.
The first questions that these supporters came across are the usual 5Ws everybody ask themselves in any confusing situation: who, what, when, why, how. Why did the player refuse to take the airline ticket offered by Cardiff City? Why all the confusion about who organised the flight? And why a Piper PA-46-310P when the weather conditions forecasted were terrible?
On January 18, after finalising the deal between his new Welsh team and FC Nantes, Emiliano Sala asks to go back to France to say goodbye to his former teammates and get some of his belongings. Cardiff City offers a commercial flight with correspondence to the player, but the latter refuses due to the length of the journey. Willie McKay, the Scottish intermediary who took part in Sala’s transfer to Cardiff, offers him a free trip by private plane and contacts a pilot to set up the preparations.
But rumour has it that David Ibbotson, from Crowle, North Lincolnshire, was not the original pilot designated to operate the aircraft. Instead, Dave Henderson, a more experienced pilot, was supposed to fly the Malibu and his passenger over to Wales, but was replaced at the last minute by another “Dave”.
All this could have gone unnoticed but for the police investigations. Indeed, investigations revealed that Mr Henderson had paid for all the costs related to the Piper Malibu’s journey, as well as Ibbotson’s nights in France.
A few sources have also claimed Henderson was spotted next to Sala at Nantes airport, and was controlled by the border police at 7:40pm, but never took place in the aircraft. However, other sources close to Mr Henderson have denied these allegations - along with the man itself.
But why this late change of pilots? It appeared Henderson had refused to operate the aircraft and had given the responsibility to David Ibbotson, one of his acquaintances. But questions from the French side were raised on the new pilot’s ability to fly the aircraft after it was revealed Mr Ibbotson was not a professional pilot but a DJ and gas boiler engineer.
He had, nevertheless, already piloted small engines of this kind before, although only a few times and mainly for parachutists and skydivers.
As if this was not enough, the pilot confessed being “a bit rusty with the ILS” (the Instrument Landing System, intended to land a plane by any weather but which requires specific training) in a Facebook post dated from January 19.
Eric Denieul, aeronautical specialist, also criticised Ibbotson’s choices, revealing that the pilot had chosen to reduce altitude from 5,000 ft to 2,300 feet, which was “suicidal in such weather conditions,” according to him. Sources also revealed the flight had been prepared with a banal iPhone application, testifying of “the pilot’s amateurism.”
“When you are about to fly for 310 miles, and especially over the Channel, you prepare everything very seriously,” added Denieul. The aeronautical specialist thinks the frost could have provoked the final crash of the PA-46-310P.
Another troubling revelation came from Emiliano itself, right before he took off on the Piper Malibu. In a few texts exchanged with his family, the player revealed he felt unsafe onboard. Wales Online, quoting Argentinian media, shared the messages left for his family: “Anyway guys, I’m up in this plane that feels like it's falling to pieces, and I’m going to Cardiff… If in an hour and a half you have no news from me, I don't know if they are going to send someone to look for me because they cannot find me, but you will know… Dad, I'm so scared!”
After these revelations, many French supporters had cried out for conspiracy and begged whoever was holding Emiliano captive to set him free.
*Unbelievable story. Sala felt it coming, sent many texts, three people came to the airport but only two got on the plane, the professional pilot originally designated replaced by a pilot and "DJ in his free time" in his sixties who hasn't practised aircraft landing in a long time, and the police calling off the search... A 17 millions transfer (£15m) and yet they are unable to get a professional pilot and a jet? What is this, bring back our player"
Others, who have followed Sala since his beginnings, paid an emotional tribute to the striker.
Cardiff City and FC Nantes have also paid tribute to the soccer player, and many have contributed to an online lottery to fund research, such as Mbappé and Kante.
However, it was not until last Sunday that the wreckage of the plane was finally found by Blue Water Recoveries (a privately funded company specialised in shipwrecks hunting) on the seafloor near Guernsey, after weeks of intensive and complicated searches. The reasons why the plane crashed have yet to be discovered, but unfortunately for the conspiracy believers, no one was holding Emiliano captive.
A body was found in the wreckage at some 67 metres below the surface of the ocean and was later identified as Sala’s. Mr Ibbotson, the 59-year-old father of three hasn’t been found yet. His family has recently call out for donations to help fund the search.
While a good deal of speculation has been made as to what might have happened, little has been confirmed to this point. But one thing for sure is Emiliano will be remembered as the last player endorsing the number 9 of FC Nantes.