Emiliano Sala’s family ‘struggling’ but still have hope for missing footballer

The family of Emiliano Sala are “struggling” for answers as a private search gets under way for the Cardiff City footballer whose plane disappeared over the English Channel.

Relatives and friends of the Argentinian striker arrived in Guernsey on Sunday, almost a week after the light aircraft went missing.

Spokesman David Mearns, who is understood to be assisting the family, said they still have hope.

Speaking to reporters in Guernsey, he said: “The family still have some hope, they’re looking at this as a missing person, a missing plane, and until they are satisfied, that’s the mode that we’re in.”

He added: “This is a family that have come from Argentina with this huge shock out of nowhere and (is) struggling with what had happened, with very, very few answers about an unexplained loss.”

A football shirt with a message written on it left outside Cardiff City Football Club
A football shirt with a message written on it left outside Cardiff City Football Club

The Piper PA-46 Malibu in which Sala and pilot David Ibbotson were travelling disappeared off the radar on January 21 and an official search operation was called off on Thursday.

Pleas for the search to resume have come from the 28-year-old player’s family, Argentinian football stars Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona and Sergio Aguero, and the country’s president Mauricio Macri.

Donations from footballers including Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan helped a GoFundMe page raising money for a private search surpass the 300,000 euro (£259,000) target.

An update on the site when the target was reached said Sala’s family wanted to thank people for their generosity.

More than 80,000 people have signed an online petition demanding the search for the missing aircraft continues.

Guernsey’s harbour master Captain David Barker said last week that the decision to stop actively searching had been a “difficult” one, but the chances of survival after such a long period are “extremely remote”.

For Emiliano.For David. #CityAsOnepic.twitter.com/CB2PUvGre8

— Cardiff City Academy (@CF11Academy) January 26, 2019

Rescue teams scanned around 1,700 square miles and examined mobile phone data and satellite imagery but found no trace of the aircraft.

Three planes and five helicopters racked up 80 hours’ combined flying time looking for the plane, working alongside two lifeboats and other passing ships.

Mr Mearns said Sala’s mother and sister had travelled to be near to where the plane was last located and that they had spoken to authorities when they arrived in Guernsey.

He said: “As you know locally the search was terminated on Thursday and that was what triggered this private search.”

Two local fishing vessels had been looking out for any possible sightings over the weekend while they worked in the same area where the plane was last located, Mr Mearns said.

He added that there may be “more investigative technical searches underwater” at some point in the future.

The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) has opened a probe and their investigations will include whether the pilot had the correct licence.

Mr Ibbotson, 59, of Crowle, Lincolnshire, held a private pilot’s licence and passed a medical exam as recently as November, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

The Civil Aviation Authority said the light aircraft was registered in the US, so fell under American regulations.

US law states private pilots cannot make a profit by carrying passengers.

The flight left Nantes in France for Cardiff at 7.15pm on Monday, and after requesting to descend, lost contact with Jersey air traffic control over the English Channel.

It has emerged that football agent Willie McKay arranged for the flight to take Sala to Cardiff but he said he had no involvement in selecting the plane or pilot.

Staff and fans of Cardiff City, which signed Sala for a club record of £15 million, are expected to wear yellow daffodils on Tuesday for their match against Arsenal.

On Saturday, tributes were paid to the missing pair before a number of FA Cup games.