Emiliano Sala would have almost certainly made his debut for Cardiff against Arsenal on Tuesday night.
The Argentine striker was meant to have been registered in time for the Bluebirds match at Emirates Stadium but Neil Warnock’s side were instead faced with an emotional trip to north London without their new buy.
An official search for Sala and pilot David Ibbotson was called off last week, with coastguards saying the chances of finding them alive was “extremely remote”. What has since followed has shown how football can be used positively to bring the community together during times of heartbreak.
A plea from Sala’s sister to continue the search privately resulted in over £290,000 being donated by the public – with many contributions coming from the footballing fraternity, including Arsenal captain Laurent Koscielny.
Sala’s name was included in Tuesday’s match-day programme, with a picture of a daffodil placed next to where his number would have been.
The news has deeply affected those close to Sala in Argentina, with one director at the first club he played for, San Martin, saying that the “town is shocked”.
“We’re at a loss. The town is shocked. There’s only lost faces. He came to live in Progreso when he was very little. He started his football career at San Martín,” Daniel Rivero said.
“At San Martín there’s a branch of the Proyecto Crecer [“grow-up project”], which is connected to Bordeaux in France. That’s how they spotted him and brought him and after lots of to-ing and fro-ing he ended up in French football.
"He wasn’t so well known in Argentina because he never played for any of the bigger clubs in our country.
“We had known him all his life and we know how much he deserved this moment, a huge transfer and all the media attention. He was the first person from our club to really make it. What happened makes no sense. We’re hoping for a miracle, for him to turn up alive.”
Daffodils were handed out to journalists in the press box and given to Arsenal fans by Cardiff supporters. A yellow mosaic lit up the away end as the Welsh club’s chief executive Ken Choo confirmed that the yellow flower “is the flower of Wales and has significant to Nantes”, Sala’s former club. “Forever a bluebird” read one banner, “once a blue, always a blue” read another.
At times like this football pales into insignificance, yet it is also the reason we are all here. It brings us together, gives us that community feeling and reverberates hope across the board.
Whether you support a team in the Premier League or in the lower leagues, the belief that your team can bring happiness into your life when you’re at a low point is the feeling that becomes addictive.
Players are idolised and worshipped for that very reason and Sala was certainly a striker who would have scored countless goals in the top flight, just as he promised to Warnock upon signing for the club.
While the stadium was surrounded in sombreness, the match itself was narrowly won 2-1 by Arsenal.
Warnock admitted before the game that he wasn’t sure how many of his players would be in the right frame of mind for a match that was played in the biting cold of north London, but his players put in a valiant effort throughout.
The result itself will not be remembered, but Emiliano certainly will. A banner in the Cardiff end emphasised just how much Sala means to them, even if he never got to wear the blue shirt that he was expected to play in from this week.
“We never saw you play, and we never saw you score, but Emiliano, our beautiful bluebird, we will love you forever more.”