Emiliano Sala's 'last goodbye' tweet gathers added poignancy

Plane disappeared Monday near Channel Islands

Getty Images via CNN

Police searching for missing Argentine soccer player Emiliano Sala say they are prioritizing their search based on the possibility that he may have landed on water and made it onto a life raft which was on board the plane he was in.

(CNN) - Emiliano Sala wanted to say goodbye one final time.

At the age of 28, the Argentinian had just put the final touches to a multimillion dollar deal that would take his career to the next level in the English Premier League.

After signing for Cardiff City, he returned to Nantes, to say farewell to the teammates that he had grown to consider family during his four-year stay at the French club.

It was then that he posted the photo to social media with the caption: "La ultima ciao," meaning "the last goodbye."

After saying his farewell, he boarded an airplane bound for Cardiff and what he hoped would be the opportunity of a lifetime.

Except since he left France, none of his family and friends have heard from him since the single turbine Piper Malibu he was flying in disappeared from radar near the Channel Islands just before 8:30 p.m. local time (3:30 p.m. ET) Monday.

As authorities continue to search for the wreckage of the plane, those who know Sala have come forward to share their stories.

While their tales vary, the themes remain consistent. They speak of a man who made time for others and one who had worked hard for his big opportunity in the sport.

"This year he became one of the top scorers in the league," Gilles Criniere, President of Allez Nantes Canaris, the largest group of supporters of FC Nantes, told CNN.

"In the past years, he hasn't performed to that level but as we've always said, he has been a player who would know how to 'work up a sweat' and give everything for the team."

Sala made little secret of his desire to reach the very top of his profession. After leaving home as a teenager, he was determined to repay the faith and support shown in him by his family.

His move to Cardiff was the realization of a childhood dream to play in one of the world's biggest leagues and ease the burden on his parents.

"In Argentina, there was not much money. My dad was a van driver, we didn't have much coming in. That period drives me on. I have had to work so hard at every stage of my life," he told SoFoot in 2017.

"My mum found it so hard when I left. Other people in the town did not agree that a child could leave a village so young. Since I moved away, we have always spoken every day, about our hopes, worries and dreams."

When his father, Horacio, was asked about his son's disappearance on Tuesday, understandably he was in a state of shock.

"He was fine, he was happy for his next step ... going forwards ... a bigger club and he could play [in the] Premiership. He was very pleased," he said. "We can't explain this."

READ: Hope begins to fade as search goes on for airplane

READ: Sala was on missing plane, says French official

'Unforgettable'

Yacine Bammou played with Sala at Nantes before joining Caen at the end of last season and in an emotional interview with French newspaper L'Equipe, the Moroccan international revealed he had spoken to his former teammate just 48 hours before he departed for Cardiff.

"I have spent wonderful years with him, unforgettable," Bammou said.

"I am still waiting for something. It is not yet official. We don't really know what's been going on. It is really, really hard, even for my family and friends. He used to come to my house, he was like a brother.

"The plane must have landed somewhere, I am imagining things. I called him this morning on WhatsApp. It still rang, because it's an app, but there was no response."

Sala's story has touched people across the world, from his native Argentina to those in Europe.

Like so many who had gone before him, Sala took the well trodden but precarious path from South America to Europe with the hope of making a career in the sport he loved.

'Forever friend'

For those back in Argentina, Sala's success was something to be proud of, it was an adventure that they lived vicariously through him.

Martín Moltemi grew up with Sala. The two were childhood friends, spending their time as five-year-olds kicking a ball around Santa Fe.

"Emiliano was a forever friend," he told CNN Espanol.

Moltemi said the two had spoken recently, excitingly discussing Sala's move to the Premier League.

"Emilio was very excited because he had to go back to training today, Tuesday," Moltemi said.

"His debut was going to be next week against Arsenal. For us, football people, it is a dream -- for him it was a dream and a challenge."

Sala had waited patiently for his opportunity to play on one of Europe's biggest stages.

It was on the streets of Santa Fe where Sala may have first discovered his talent but it was in France where he made his name.

After showing considerable promise at Argentine club Proyecto Crecer, he moved thousands of miles away form home as a teenager to join Bordeaux in 2010.

'Come on brother'

It was there that he found a home away from home. Marcelo Vada, the club's Under-16 coach was also from Argentina, and his son, Valentin, had also graduated from Proyecto Crecer.

Sala soon moved into the Vada family home. Valentin, who grew to become something of a younger brother to Sala, tweeted on Tuesday: "Come on brother! Please return."

After two impressive loan spells playing lower league football, Sala became part of the Bordeaux senior squad for the 2014-15 season.

He scored six goals in each of his two seasons with the club before making the move to Nantes in 2015, a move that would breathe new life into his career.

"One of the great tragedies here is that he's having the season of his life," football journalist Tom Williams told CNN.

"He's been a very consistent player for Nantes but this season it really felt like he was making a breakthrough."

Sala's 12 league goals so far this season matched his entire total for the previous two -- a statistic that had not gone unnoticed in Cardiff.

And while an integral part of the Nantes team, few supporters begrudge Sala the opportunity of a lifetime.

"Ordinarily when an important player leaves the club midway through the season, there's disappointment and people are angry sometimes," Williams told CNN.

"But amongst the fans I've spoken to there was a feeling that this was a dream move for him and a chance to play football in the Premier League.

"At the age of 28, perhaps this was his last big career move, potentially, and I think that has added to the sense of sadness."

'It feels special'

Sala's arrival at Cardiff had been highly anticipated with the club struggling at the wrong end of the Premier League and in desperate need of goals.

The club broke its record fee to sign him and Sala was relishing the opportunity to prove his worth.

"I'm very happy to be here," Sala had told Cardiff's official website upon completing his transfer last week.

"It gives me great pleasure and I can't wait to start training, meet my new teammates and get down to work.

"For me it feels special [to be the club's record signing]. I have come here wanting to work and to help my teammates and the club. I can't wait to get to work straight away and do everything I can."

As the news of the missing plane and Sala's whereabouts began to filter through, fans in Cardiff and Nantes began to congregate in the Welsh capital and the Breton city respectively.

In Nantes, supporters dressed in the club's colors of yellow and green brought yellow tulips and lit candles at the Place Royale.

Some shed tears as the crowd stood for long periods in silence, occasionally chanting Sala's name into the night sky.

"Emiliano was very appreciated by the supporters," said Criniere. "He was very approachable, discreet and a perfect fit for the FC Nantes mentality.

"He deserved his transfer to Cardiff, even if it was a loss for our forwards' line."

'So cruel'

Meanwhile social media has been awash with tributes from the great and good of the game.

Former France international and Monaco manager Thierry Henry tweeted: "Devastating news about Emiliano Sala. Wishing and praying for strength, courage and some good news for his family and friends."

Fulham manager Claudio Ranieri, who coached Sala at Nantes, called him a "wonderful character."

Those who know Sala well are only too aware of how hard he had worked for the opportunity to play in the Premier League and all the riches that go with it.

Though not widely considered the most naturally talented player, he was someone who worked hard to improve his game and stretch himself to the very limit in order to become the best he could be.

But it was honest endeavor and work rate that endeared him to the Nantes supporters and propelled him towards England's Premier League.

That is why, Thomas Toure, a former teammate of Sala's at Bordeaux, believes that the timing of his disappearance is so cruel.

"This is happening at the time he just landed the contract of his life, which could have kept his family secure," Toure told L'Equipe.

"He worked hard to get there, to have such an opportunity in a big league. And then suddenly, everything collapses."

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