A body recovered from the submerged wreckage of a plane that went down in the English Channel more than two weeks ago has been identified as that of soccer player Emiliano Sala, British police said on Thursday.
The light aircraft was carrying the 28-year-old soccer player from France to his new English Premier League team Cardiff City when it disappeared near the British island of Guernsey, along with 59-year-old pilot David Ibbotson.
Argentine soccer idols Diego Maradona and Gabriel Batistuta were among the first to pay tribute to the talented young player, who hailed from the South American nation.
The striker’s body was on Sunday spotted by British rescuers using a remotely operated underwater vehicle close to where the plane vanished from radar on Jan. 21.
His body was recovered on Wednesday and taken to the Isle of Portland in southern England for formal identification by coroners, who investigate deaths in Britain.
Sala’s disappearance sparked an outpouring of grief and a flood of cash to support a private hunt for the plane when the official search was initially called off.
“I am very sorry about this sad news. Many of us kept a glimmer of hope for you, Emiliano,” soccer superstar Maradona said on Instagram, after the identification of the body.
“What sadness, this is the worst news. Rest in peace warrior,” tweeted retired Argentine player Gabriel Batistuta.
Argentine President Mauricio Macri also offered his condolences to Sala’s family following the “painful news.”
“We are with you,” he said.
The small Argentine town of Progreso, where the soccer player grew up, was left “very affected.”
“Since we found out, it’s all anyone can talk about,” said local restaurant owner Oscar Heymo, a friend of Sala’s father, Horacio. “He was very much loved and admired by all.”
The initial search operations to trace the plane were suspended in the days after it went missing, but a shipwreck hunter hired by Emiliano Sala’s family with funds donated by soccer stars such as Lionel Messi found the wreckage.
The plane, a Piper PA-46 Malibu, vanished from radar about 20km north of Guernsey, with Ibbotson the only other person aboard.
Emiliano Sala had been flying in to join up with his new club Cardiff City in what was the most expensive signing in the Welsh club’s history.
His former club Nantes have consulted lawyers to explore legal options to ensure Cardiff pay the transfer fee for Sala, a source close to the French club revealed on Wednesday.
According to the source, the first installment of the 17 million euro (US$19.3 million) deal for the Argentine striker has yet to be paid, despite the transfer being finalized before the accident.
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