El Emi, Such a Spectacle

Tell us, did you see it?”

“I saw it!”

“Seriously? Is it very tall?”

“It is so tall! And so beautiful!”

We will never forget when El Emi returned from his first experience in France. Our friend had visited the Eiffel Tower! Our pride was incredible.

We were 12 friends: Emi, Gino, Coli, Nico, Franco, Gustavo, Walter, Joaquín, Germán, Fabio, Quetan and me. Enough to form a football team. Football was our everything. Our hobby, our mischief, our toy.

Our group was called Quespectáculo. A shortened version of the words that the father of one of the boys would use to refer to us: “Qué espectáculo!”

Courtesy of Martín Molteni
Courtesy of Martín Molteni

Such a spectacle.

We grew up in a very small town, Progreso, in the rural part of Argentina. One school, one club, 10 blocks. The road and the countryside. That was it.

We always did everything together. The town provided a closeness among the people — and a closeness with nature — that you couldn’t find anywhere else.

When we were younger, we would build houses along the side of a deserted road. We would take some logs, nail them together, and then cover them with some cloth and sheets — and then look after them. The little houses did not last long, but we had fun in them.

Every day was the same: When we got out of school, we would drop off our backpacks and change out of our school uniforms, and then we would go to someone’s house, or to some little pitch — and then we would play! Sometimes we would play softball, basketball or handball, but never for more than a couple of weeks. Nothing could change our love for football.

Emi and I played together from the time we were four to when we were 14 years old, when we were teammates in San Martín, the town’s club team.

We saw each other every day. We would go to the club, we would train for an hour and a half, and then we would go home and continue to play football. And on Saturdays, as soon as the club game was over, we would play amongst ourselves on the little pitch outside the stadium. Football was the first, the second and the third activity that we had. If there weren’t enough of us, we would look for a way to play anyway: limited numbers, or headers, but always football.

We would always go to Colito’s house, which had a large backyard, and we would play headers with a rubber ball — a Spiderman rubber ball — that was completely impossible to control. You would kick it and it could go anywhere. At night, even if we couldn’t see anymore, we’d still play until eight or nine. Whoever was playing in goal ended up saving shots by instinct, because there was absolutely no visibility.

At San Martín I was a central defender. I admired Roberto Ayala. El Emi was a striker. His idol was Gabriel Batistuta. When we played on the same team in training, I never had much trouble. But if, for some reason, we had to face each other, it became difficult. You had to kick El Emi to stop him!

Batistuta was his point of reference, but not because of Emi’s physical characteristics. When he was a boy, he was very skinny, very small — the speedy-dribbler type. Only after he left San Martín did he begin to look more like Bati; he changed his physique and even changed his game.

Courtesy of Martín Molteni
Courtesy of Martín Molteni

On the pitch, Emi would catch your attention. He was the person who made the difference for us. But when he was 15, Emi hopped on his dad’s truck and went for a trial in San Francisco, in the province of Córdoba.

Emi had already had a trial in Colón de Santa Fe, one hour away from Progreso, but he hadn’t been picked. I had it much easier, because my brother was already playing in Colón, and I was tall for my age. When you are a tall center back, you start with an advantage. But there were so many strikers with characteristics and skills similar to Emi’s that it was naturally harder for him to get in. While I started playing for Colón’s academy, living in a house with my brother in Santa Fe, Emi moved to the academy housing of Proyecto Crecer. He was completely alone.

Being in San Francisco, it was more difficult for him to come back to Progreso, so he had to toughen up, like so many boys who are looking for a dream. But for him it was more than a dream, he had his objective clear.

“I am going to be a footballer.”

Proyecto Crecer is an affiliate of Girondins de Bordeaux. Over the next couple of years, Emi traveled to France several times for month-long adaptation periods. For the rest of us, each trip was a revolution. Imagine. We haven’t even crossed the borders of Santa Fe, and he was going to Europe. To Europe!

Besides, there was no WhatsApp, no Instagram or cellphone photos. So we were all waiting for him to tell us what it was like. He would come back and tell us all about the Eiffel Tower, about Bordeaux, the players, the training sessions. The training methods, the perfect pitches, the differences between there and where we came from, really caught his attention.

For the rest of us, each trip was a revolution. Imagine. We haven’t even crossed the borders of Santa Fe, and he was going to Europe. To Europe!

Small-town people like us were eagerly waiting for him to tell us about all of those things. And then, because I liked football a lot, I bombarded him with questions talking about how they played, and he would tell me about tactics, playing styles, and the teammates he had — big, strong guys.

Some may think that Emi’s superpower was to play football well. To score goals. Those are the ones who didn’t know him.

For those of us who did know him — it is so hard to be writing this in past tense — it was clear that Emi’s real superpower was his willpower. It was something out of the ordinary.

I’ll give you one example: In Benfica, when he went there for a trial, he was with Rui Costa, one of the players who best understood Batistuta throughout his career. And Rui Costa told him: “You are a very good player, you have to continue that way.” But Emi was not picked at his trial. He was also in Spain, in Mallorca, and he got rejected there, too. And he had to return to play again in a small club in the province, Guadalupe de San Jorge, where he scored a lot of goals. There were moments in his career when anyone might have faltered and said, “I’m going home. I will start to study, to work.” But he didn’t, he went on.

For some people, each rejection is a slap. But I’m sure that in Emi’s case every refusal was fuel for his pride and only made him stronger. He said nothing to me, I never saw him shed a tear. He must have been angry, he might have reasoned, might have complained, but he would go to the next one with more faith than he’d had for the one before.

Even signing for Bordeaux meant that he had to keep fighting. On February 8, 2012, he made his debut, in the French Cup against Lyon. He entered in the first half of overtime, and Bordeaux lost 3–1. That was the only game he played. Then he left for Orleans, and it was there that he began his professional career: first with Orleans; then with Niort; and again with Bordeaux, when he scored in the first game against Monaco, but played little, and after six months went to Caen, whom he saved from relegation by scoring several goals, including one against Paris Saint-Germain. Only then did Nantes buy him.

Do you see that it was not easy at all?

When he was already playing in France he would come back in our summer, Europe’s winter, and we would go to a river two kilometers from town to have a drink. And while we were there hanging out, next to the water, he would start running and working out, to continue training because he knew he had to return. He was a fanatical about preparation, he was always training. He liked to rest for a little while, but then the urge would become too much for him and he would want to resume immediately. That was the difference between him and us, he constantly wanted to train! We just wanted to relax.

Ligue 1 is one of the most physical leagues in Europe. Maybe we would send him a picture of the central defender that he had to face the next game. “Oh, no, this one crushes you in every action,” he would tell us, joking. But we knew that it was the other guy who had better watch out. In reality, Emi was strong and established, and it was the defenders who were going to have their hands full. Over time, Emi had transformed his physique. He had set up a gym in his house so that he could work out continuously.

During those holidays, we would always play epic football games on Christmas and New Year’s eves, on a pitch — a field, actually — at the entrance to the town. For a few years, Emi had not been able to attend, but he couldn’t stay away. Even after he became a veteran professional, he loved to come back and play in those games. For us, it was great. We enjoyed it tremendously. It was a tradition, to meet friends and say goodbye to the year doing what we liked. It was an opportunity to be together again, reunited, playing ball, like in the old days.

Jean-Sebastien Evrard/AFP via Getty Images
Jean-Sebastien Evrard/AFP via Getty Images

In 2017, four of our group — Franco, Joaquín, Gino and Gustavo — visited him in France. I couldn’t go, because of work. I said, “Next year I will go.” I couldn’t find anyone to go with, and I still had not bought plane tickets. The next year I asked my old man, “Will you come with me for a month to Europe?” He said, “Yes, let’s do it. Get the tickets.” And it happened.

Our first stop was Nantes. We were at Emi’s house for a week. Fantastic. Soon after we arrived, we attended a training session. And here’s one anecdote: They were having an end-of-the-season barbecue — for executives and players — in the middle of the pitch. But they wouldn’t let us in. We could see El Emi arguing with a club employee, who was saying that only one visitor was allowed. We were two, my dad and I. “If they are not allowed, I’m out of here,” he said. They couldn’t have the party without the club’s number 9. Of course, we ended up being allowed to enter, and it was unforgettable.

It was the last week before the end of the season. On Saturday they played, winning 1–0, and then we continued our trip to Barcelona, while El Emi went back to Progreso.

It was the first time we’d experienced Emi as a professional footballer firsthand. Until then, our only contact with him had been only through the photos and messages that he would send to us. It had been a virtual life. But being there in person, it was real. People would stop him in the city center, asking him to “please stay one more year.” So those were things we also got to experience. People stopped him all the time to tell him to stay. We don’t speak French, so he would translate what they were saying.

He did not like drawing attention to himself, not because it inconvenienced him, but because he was very shy and always wanted to keep a low profile. But we were thrilled — to us, it was fascinating to see how people recognized him and loved him.

Courtesy of Martín Molteni
Courtesy of Martín Molteni

Some of his new routines included a healthy diet. For instance, ahead of a game he would tell us: “Before playing, I’ll have salmon.”  It was a way of living that made him feel comfortable. When we were there, however, we did all kinds of things — granted it was the last week of the season, and he was a little more relaxed. He took us downtown, we went to a nearby beach, and took a walk around some lakes. The truth is that we didn’t miss out on anything because of his schedule.

It was fascinating for us to see him there — the affection people showed for the kid who ran around with us every Christmas and New Year’s — rubbing shoulders with the stars. I remember at one training session he got out of the car and immediately in the next car I saw Claudio Ranieri, the famous Leicester manager — the man who had also coached Valencia, Chelsea, Juventus. And I said to myself, My friend is there in the same locker room with this guy.

I do not know if El Emi ever stopped to think about what he had achieved. It is what happens to so many players. Football takes you. Only when players retire do they realize the magnitude of their achievements and how fast it all happened. Besides, a person like him, with such keen ambition and clear objectives, surely got up each day thinking about what he was going to do to keep improving. His next goals were to play in a better league, to be called up for the Argentine national team, and to maintain the same playing level. He was like a racehorse, always going forward.

I do not know if El Emi ever stopped to think about what he had achieved. It is what happens to so many players. Football takes you.

We talked a lot about the national team. When a roster was announced, we’d joke, saying things like, “Hey, how on earth is this one in and not you, with the goals you are scoring in France?” Making the team was one of his goals, but he also knew that it would be very difficult, because he was a person who was not mentioned in the press, who was low-profile. And although he scored many goals, his competitors for positions on the team were at a very high level, too. It wasn’t something simple, but we always talked about it.

There is a group of supporters of the San Martín club who would let each other know what time his games were going to be broadcast on TV, and on which we shared comments about the results, his performances, if he had scored a goal, everything. The town was always expectant. I can’t help but feel that, because he was never on the national team, the rest of the country missed out on what we got to live in our town.

It would have been interesting to see Emi in the Premier League. Argentina had already started to talk about him. In November, he was second only to Messi among Argentine scorers.

There was a picture of him with Mbappé, the two of them greeting each other, that circled around the entire town. A screenshot from ESPN’s SportsCenter showing him as Europe’s top goal scorer — ahead of Mbappé, Messi, Suárez and Neymar — also went viral.

We would ask him about transfer rumors: there was Sevilla, Lazio, some others. In December 2018 he told us that there could be a possible move to Cardiff City, and a month later he told us that everything was done, that he’d seen the team’s facility and grounds, but that nothing could be said publicly until he signed the contract. “I will sign it tomorrow,” he said. And the next day, a Saturday, he went to sign the contract, and that’s how everything was confirmed.

I don’t remember how that trip was, I don’t remember that he told us anything about the conditions of that trip, whether they were complicated or not. I did know that he was going by private plane, because he’d sent me a picture of the aircraft. And then the transfer was announced. He returned to France to say goodbye.

Surely he wanted to start training right away, because on Saturday they were playing Arsenal. The truth is that clearly there should have been someone saying, “In these conditions you cannot travel.” I don’t know who that would have come from — the airport, or the pilot, or the agent who booked the plane. Those things about the plane and the pilot? At the time we still didn’t know. But when you just looked at the weather, and that kind of plane, there clearly should have been an order saying that such plane couldn’t travel with the weather like that. How many times do we see such cases? That plane could not travel in those conditions, so why then let it out?

But I don’t see Emi ever saying something like, “No, on this plane I don’t travel.” Who would do that?

You, as a footballer, in Emi’s shoes, going to play in the Premier League, the big dream? You show up and you get on the plane.

Would you say, “I can’t get on this plane”? Would you even think twice about it?

No. You’d say, “I am calm because I know that those who are running this operation, they know what they are doing.”

Two days before, in our town, there had been a cheese festival, a party that has a lot of notoriety. Over the loudspeakers in the main square it was announced that El Emi was moving to the Premier League, and that he was going to be the most expensive transfer in the history of Cardiff City. People were clapping. And two days later, the plane crash happens. The party in the main square became only tears and people praying.

I was in my apartment, sleeping. At a quarter to seven my dad calls me and says: “Turn on the TV. Emi’s plane has disappeared.”

Those days were … it is very difficult to describe them, but it was as if a part of your body had been torn off. It was waking up every morning — actually, getting up is a better way to say it, because you hadn’t slept. And when they tell you that the search is over, you feel that the world is collapsing before your feet, because you are not going to have any more news from your friend. It is so hard.

And then, the fact that the search had been restarted because of the contributions of fans — it revives you a bit. The fact that his body was found, and that you won’t have to live with the uncertainty of not knowing where it is … that gives you some peace of mind. I don’t know if that is the right way to say it, because those days we spent waiting for news, and these days we are spending now, I assure you that I do not wish them on anyone.

These are things you never expect to happen in your life, to happen to someone you love so much. It’s awful.

Knowing what happened to Emi was the start of a new stage. We’d had a very painful stage — which included not knowing, the search, the uncertainty, the search for answers. And when you know what happened, some people are able to start a new stage, to mourn him and keep him in mind and raise his flag.

I still notice that the town is not yet the same town — and it may never be the same again.

Now, I try to think in a positive way.

If I pass by the school, if I pass by his house, if I pass by the club, by the pitch, by some of the houses where we met, I always try to remember the good things. It makes me feel better to chat with our friends about the stories and the beautiful things in our lives. I think it is better to remember the good than to be down because all you can think of is the bad. That is why I am sharing these memories — as a homage on behalf of the group.

When we were at the dedication of his mural, we talked to the boys about how nice and how important it would have been for him to see it. We thought of things like that, in a mural, a museum, or something particular. He would not have liked it, clearly. “Take this down, cover it,” he would have told us, just because he might have felt embarrassed.

One day in 2017 he attended an event to celebrate San Martín’s centenary. As the club’s most prominent alumnus, he shared a few words with the boys and girls who were playing there. He was quite nervous, he did not like to speak in public. But his speech … his words were very emotional.

He talked about sacrifice.

About never giving up.

Courtesy of Martín Molteni
Courtesy of Martín Molteni

He talked not so much about his own story, but instead about what he expected the boys and girls to do — to stay humble, to chase their dreams, to keep trying and to not give up.

The attention and silence of the boys and girls as he spoke — not just them, but also the grown ups — was unforgettable. In the end, all the kids ran to ask for pictures with Emi, the star, the symbol.

For us, he was still our friend, the one who had told us about the Eiffel Tower. But for others who mainly saw him on TV, they would approach him with such great admiration that it would make you emotional.

I think that many people in the town were touched by those words and still remember them.

That day, without knowing it, El Emi was passing on his superpower, which today is his legacy. The legacy of a kid from a small town who wanted to be a footballer and who went on trial after trial, and who persisted in the face of rejection after rejection — until he succeeded. And not only did he succeed, but, quietly, he also became a star.

A star that illuminates us all today.

There is not a single day that El Emi is not with us. He lives in us, in this town, in this club, in these streets, in our memories. And in those words.

We are here, Emi, keeping your legacy.

It’s damn hard, but we are not giving up.

Martín Molteni wrote this piece on behalf of all the members of Quespectáculo, the group of friends that keep Emiliano Sala’s legacy alive.

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