Nantes FC today led heartfelt tributes flooding in from around the world for 'conqueror of hearts' Emiliano Sala by retiring his football shirt number from further use, after his body was identified by police last night.
The Argentine striker’s former team said that ‘9’ would no longer be used by the team in special honour of the “work, grit and unlimited kindness” of the top-scoring player.
The Sala family, meanwhile, praised everyone around the world who supported their search for the football star.
The Premier League footballer went missing last month as he travelled from his former club Nantes FC to Cardiff, where he had just signed a record deal, but the plane went off-radar over the Channel Islands.
After an extensive search and rescue operation, the wreckage of the Piper Malibu aircraft he had been flying in with pilot Dave Ibbotson was found under the sea.
A recovery operation was attempted, and in "challenging conditions" the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) and its specialist contractors successfully recovered the body.
The plane wreck was unable to be recovered due to poor weather, but investigators said that they had enough video footage to be able to further their inquiries and produce an interim report within one month.
The body was then taken to Portland to be passed into the care of the Dorset Coroner. Last night, Dorset Police confirmed that the body was that of Sala. His pilot, David Ibbotson, has not been located.
Pictured: Emiliano Sala and pilot Dave Ibbotson, and the plane wreckage, which was unable to be recovered.
This morning, Sala’s family released a statement expressing their “infinite sadness” at the news, but thanking everyone who had sent their well wishes.
“We would like to thank you for all your signs of affection and support in what is the most painful time of our lives. Seeing the whole world mobilized to support us in our research has been an infinitely precious help. Thanks to you, we are now able to mourn our son, our brother.”
They added: “On this Friday morning, our thoughts go to David Ibbotson and his family, hoping that the authorities will do their best to find him. We ask you to respect our grief in these difficult times and keep Emi in your prayers and thoughts.”
Nantes FC sent its “deepest condolences to the Sala family” as they posted an emotional tribute on their website (pictured top), changing the homepage to a black and white photo of the star, captioned in French: “We will never forget you, Emi.”
Communiqué - Disparition d'Emiliano Sala.— FC Nantes (@FCNantes) February 8, 2019
Nous ne t'oublierons jamais, Emi' https://t.co/AImoPIj1B9
In a statement, the team said it was with “immense sadness” that they had learned the body discovered in the plane wreck was Sala, but that the news “put an end to endless and unbearable waiting.”
Reflecting on his career, it continued: “Arriving on the banks of the Erdre river in July 2015, Emiliano Sala knew how to conquer the hearts of the Nantes supporters. Through his work, his grit, and unlimited kindness, he finished top scorer in the Yellow House for the last three seasons.”
Waldemar Kita, President of FC Nantes, added: "I do not have the words. It's a tragedy, I'm devastated. Emiliano left his mark. This is why, like many fans, I want to honour him by retiring the number 9.”
FIFA and the whole football community are deeply saddened about the death of Emiliano Sala. FIFA and its President Gianni Infantino would like to extend their sincerest condolences to his friends and family. Our thoughts are also with the family of pilot David Ibbotson pic.twitter.com/U2bBV7cb36— FIFA Media (@fifamedia) February 8, 2019
Clubs around the world – as well as their players – have also shared messages of sadness and support for Sala’s family.
FIFA said the "whole football community" is "deeply saddened about the death of Emiliano Sala", adding: "FIFA and its President Gianni Infantino would like to extend their sincerest condolences to his friends and family. Our thoughts are also with the family of pilot David Ibbotson."
Manchester City star Sergio Aguero said he was “terribly sad”, while Paris Saint-Germain footballer Kylian Mbappe wrote: “RIP EMI.”
Cardiff FC, which Sala was due to join in a £15million record deal, offered their "heartfelt sympathies and condolences to the family of Emiliano".
"He and David will forever remain in our thoughts," the team added.
Enorme tristeza QEDP Emiliano. Mis condolencias a familiares y amigos #PrayForSala //Terribly sad Rest in peace, Emiliano. My condolences to his friends and family #PrayForSala pic.twitter.com/n9aV5CGcI1— Sergio Kun Aguero (@aguerosergiokun) February 8, 2019
Spanish club Barcelona tweeted: “Rest in peace.”
UEFA, the official body of European football behind the Champions League, described it as "a sad day" as they sent their thoughts to Sala's loved ones.
Social media tributes also came from the football community of Sala’s native home, Argentina.
Independiente, the Argentine club he supported, posted words of solidarity, while former footballer Diego Maradona sent “a big hug” to the family and friends of the footballer, for whom he said he had kept a “light of hope”.
View this post on Instagram
Lamento muchísimo esta noticia tan triste. Muchos guardábamos una luz de esperanza por vos, Emiliano. Le mando un abrazo muy grande a tus familiares y amigos, y agradezco en nombre de los argentinos el respeto de los colegas e hinchas de todas partes del mundo. Hasta siempre Emiliano! #RecenPorSala #PrayForSala
Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s president, sent his condolences on Twitter.
“We are with you," he told Sala's family.
Pictured top: The homepage tribute posted on Nantes FC's website.
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