The family of Emiliano Sala has paid tribute to the footballer after police confirmed it was his body that was pulled from the wreckage of a missing airplane in the English Channel.
The 28-year-old Argentine, who had recently signed for English Premier League club Cardiff City, died along with pilot David Ibbotson when their light aircraft crashed last month.
In an emotional post on Instagram, his sister Romina Sala wrote: “Your soul in my soul will shine forever, illuminating the time of my existence. I love you Tito.”
A statement from the Sala family thanked the public for their support, which they said was “infinitely precious help,” adding the news of the body’s retrieval meant they were now able to “mourn our son, our brother.”
“We would like to thank you for all your signs of affection and support in what is the most painful time of our lives,” said the family, adding their thoughts were with Mr. Ibbotson and his family.
“We ask you to respect our grief in these difficult times, and to keep Emi in your prayers and thoughts.”
Sala’s body was identified by UK police late Wednesday after being retrieved from the submerged wreckage. In a statement, Dorset Police said: “The body brought to Portland Port today … has been formally identified by HM Coroner for Dorset as that of professional footballer Emiliano Sala.”
The statement continued: “The families of Mr. Sala and the pilot, David Ibbotson, have been updated with this news and will continue to be supported by specially-trained family liaison officers. Our thoughts remain with them at this difficult time.”
Police also said they will continue to investigate the “circumstances of this death.”
Argentine President Mauricio Macri sent his condolences to the Sala family, tweeting: “We are with you.”
Sala and the 59-year-old Ibbotson were flying in the single-turbine aircraft from Nantes, northern France, to the Welsh capital of Cardiff, when it disappeared from radar near the Channel Islands on January 21.
The Argentine striker had joined Cardiff for a reported £15 million ($19.3 million) from French side Nantes and was heading to Wales after saying farewell to his former teammates.
Cardiff City said in a statement: “We offer our most heartfelt sympathies and condolences to the family of Emiliano. He and David will forever remain in our thoughts.”
Cardiff’s players will wear black armbands during Saturday’s Premier League game at Southampton.
“I don’t think you can ever forget something like this,” Cardiff manager Neil Warnock told reporters Friday. “There are times during the day that you do think about it. You have to try and move on.”
FC Nantes President, Waldemar Kita, has confirmed that the club will retire the No.9 jersey worn by Sala.
“I don’t have the words,” Kita said in a statement on the club’s website. “It’s a tragedy. I’m crushed. Emiliano left his mark. That’s why, like many fans, I wish to honor him by retiring the No.9 (jersey).”
Wreckage from the plane thought to be carrying the footballer was found Sunday by a privately funded search team working in close coordination with the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB).
On Sunday, the AAIB also began a three-day underwater search of an area four square nautical miles off the island of Guernsey, a British crown dependency.
David Mearns, a marine scientist leading the team hired by Sala’s family, said the wreckage of the plane had been located by sonar equipment at a depth of about 63 meters (207 feet) within the first couple of hours of starting Sunday’s search.
Experts on a larger vessel — Geo Ocean III — used by air investigators confirmed it was the missing Piper Malibu aircraft.
“Rest in Peace Emiliano,” Mearns tweeted in the early hours of Friday morning.
“I was glad to provide some small comfort to Romina, Mercedes (Sala’s mother) and the whole Sala family during the past two weeks but my heart goes out to the family and friends of David Ibbotson whose loss is the same.”
Tributes for Sala have been flowing in from across the world of football.
Argentina football legend Diego Maradona wrote on Instagram: “I am very sorry about this sad news. Many of us kept a glimmer of hope for you, Emiliano.”
Manchester City star Sergio Aguero, a fellow Argentinian, tweeted: “Rest in peace, Emiliano. My condolences to his friends and family #PrayForSala.”
Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil also tweeted, writing: “No words to describe how sad this is. Thoughts and prayers go out to his family and also to the family of the pilot. #RIPsala.”
DC United player and former England striker Wayne Rooney tweeted: “Rest in peace Emiliano Sala. Thoughts are with friends and family.”
The official search operation was called off on January 24 after Guernsey’s harbormaster, Capt. David Barker, said: “The chances of survival at this stage are extremely remote.”
That decision prompted tearful pleas from Sala’s family, who urged officials to “use all means possible” to find out what happened to the plane that had requested descent on passing Guernsey, but disappeared from radar at about 2,300 feet.
The private search mission was financed through a crowdfunding campaign, with French World Cup star Kylian Mbappe among the footballers donating to the initiative.
On January 30, seat cushions believed to be from the missing plane were found on a beach near Surtainville, on the northwest coast of France.
Last week, Cardiff City and Nantes both held emotional tributes to Sala before their matches.
Nantes manager Vahid Halilhodzic was reduced to tears when play was briefly stopped in the ninth minute — Sala’s squad number — of Nantes’ Ligue 1 match with Saint-Etienne.
Speaking publicly on January 28 for the first time since it emerged that Sala was on board the plane, Cardiff manager Warnock said he had considered retiring during “by far the most difficult week in my career by an absolute mile.”