Monday 18 February 2019

Daniel Taylor: 'Bickering behind the scenes is insulting to victims and families'

Emiliano Sala’s image is displayed at the Ligue 1 match between Olympique de Marseille and Lille. Photo: Reuters
Emiliano Sala’s image is displayed at the Ligue 1 match between Olympique de Marseille and Lille. Photo: Reuters

Daniel Taylor

If nothing else, at least there is a body now. Emiliano Sala's family can grieve properly. A funeral can take place and, tragic as it is, it has to be better this way rather than finding out it was not him in the wreckage of that plane at the bottom of the English channel. At least Sala has been recovered and, as Neil Warnock said, the family can hopefully find some peace rather than the alternative of him being lost at sea, possibly forever.

Not the pilot, though. The family of David Ibbotson may never have that comfort. The search has stopped now and how can anyone even begin to comprehend the kind of shattering grief and stress they must have endured before, during and after the identification process?

It was only going to be one of the two. For the friends and family of Sala, the arrangements can be made now to repatriate him to Argentina. As for the second person on that Piper PA-46 Malibu, flying from Nantes to Cardiff, nothing so far. Awfully, there is no guarantee that is ever going to change.

In these circumstances, perhaps you might have thought the two clubs at the centre of this tragedy would be united in their grief. Was it so unreasonable to think, at the very least, that they could have refrained from falling out over money before Sala's body had even been brought to the surface? Or that this wasn't the time to remind everyone what a hard-faced industry football can be sometimes? The sport, as Gareth Southgate once said, that so many of us love when, in reality, there is much to dislike. The sport where, at a certain level, money blurs what is right and wrong far too often.

If you hadn't heard already, the written demand for Sala's £15m transfer fee arrived in Cardiff City's post on Tuesday, including an apparent threat of legal action from Nantes if the money continued to be withheld. Nantes had made it clear in an email the previous Thursday that they had waited long enough. The first bits of wreckage had not even washed up on the shores of Normandy by that stage.

Yet the message was clear: Nantes wanted the first £5m instalment as quickly as possible. Cardiff have been warned they face a possible transfer ban from FIFA if they do not cough up the money. And it is grim, to say the least, to see this being played out in public.

It feels particularly galling when both clubs deserve praise for the touching and sincere way they have handled the tributes. Cardiff's grief has been raw and genuine and Warnock, in particular, has shown there are different layers to his personality. Away from the caricature, Cardiff's manager is not always 'slamming' or 'blasting'. There is a soft-focus Warnock and we have seen that side to him since Sala's plane went down on January 21.

Nantes, too. Maybe you saw the television pictures of that beautifully choreographed tribute when Les Canaris played Saint-Étienne at the Stade de la Beaujoire, when the game was paused in the ninth minute (signifying Sala's shirt number), the fans held up thousands of yellow and green cards to create a mosaic of his name and the moment, when play restarted, that the coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, took his seat again and could not hold back his emotion any longer.

Halilhodzic's association with Nantes goes back to 1981, as a player, when he used to wear that No 9 shirt himself. Now 66, he let it all out, weeping into his fist.

Those images will stay in the memory: something pure, untainted and so much more fitting than the subplot of two clubs squabbling over money.

Nantes, who did not even wait for Sala's body to be brought to the surface before firing off their invoice. And Cardiff, deciding it would be a good idea to corroborate the details with L'Équipe, of all the publications.

Cardiff are "shocked", apparently, and perhaps that is genuine. But why publicise it? Why say anything when it was obvious it would create a terrible stink? Unless, of course, it is a tactic on Cardiff's part and, without wishing to sound too cynical, there is actually more to this than meets the eye. Because somehow I don't imagine the initial leak, to the football desk of BBC Wales, originated from France.

It is hard not to be cynical after watching this story unfold, with all the various agents wanting their cut (five at the last count, plus others hovering on the edges), the particularly impressive efforts of one of these middle men, the reliably noxious Willie McKay, to remind us of Joe Kinnear's tribute to that particular world ("dogs, worms, vermin"), the stand-off between the two clubs and what the latest disclosures tell us about the transfer market in modern-day football. None of it being attractive whatsoever.

I am also not entirely sure we needed to hear the voicemail message from Sala, mid-air, admitting that he was "really scared" and saying that he thought the plane was breaking apart. Or, indeed, the updates on rolling 24-7 news channels of the operation, stage by stage, to recover his body from the seabed, 21 miles off the coast of Guernsey.

Then I look again at McKay's role in this story and wonder what possessed him, other than some warped attempt at self-justification, to forward to L'Équipe the sales pitch he emailed to Sala on January 6. "Emiliano, my name is Willie McKay," it began. "We are not interested in your personal belongings, finances, holidays, babysitting, it's not our business." The only objective, McKay explained very matter-of-factly, was to make money. Sala was his latest pawn and McKay happily admitted he had planted misinformation in the media about Everton and West Ham wanting the 28-year-old striker, trying to whip up interest. "We do not say 'we are like a father to a son to our players'. No, if you had not been a footballer these people would not be interested in you. No sentiment, we're just doing business." Perhaps, in hindsight, Kinnear was being too kind.

For those not familiar with him, it is fair to say McKay has been a notorious figure in football for some time. So notorious, indeed, there was a time when Newcastle United, early in the Mike Ashley era, had a policy not to deal with McKay because, in the words of the then chief executive, Derek Llambias, they did not want to engage with "an animal like that".

Does McKay feel even a flicker of embarrassment that Didier Drogba has trashed one of the lines that was fed to Sala, namely that the former Chelsea player was among the agent's previous clients? Why did McKay want to publicise this sordid example of his working practices and, on a similar theme, what compelled him to release the text messages from Sala about arranging the flight?

I have also found myself wondering about the unsatisfactory set of circumstances, away from the public shows of grief, that have distorted the headlines during the last week and put the clubs at odds with one another. Sure, there was always the potential that it might get a bit complicated further down the line, especially when Bordeaux are due 50 per cent via a sell-on clause and there are so many agents with their fingers in the pie. But this quickly? Did it really have to be this way?

The explanation from France is that it is an expensive business running a football club in Ligue 1 and, well, of course they want what is owed. Nantes are not skint but they are not well off either and their financial position under the ownership of Waldemar Kita is not helped, it appears, by his habit of throwing good money after bad.

The compensation package, for starters, when Miguel Cardoso was sacked as coach in October, four months after being hired. Before that, it was Claudio Ranieri being paid off. Halilhodzic is the 14th manager since Kita, a Polish-French businessman, took over 11 years ago and £15m is a considerable amount for a club that have never spent even half that on a player and are currently 15th, having finished ninth, seventh, 14th, 14th and 13th in the previous five seasons.

Nantes have a point: the bottom line here is the transfer was signed off on on January 19 and ordinarily the first instalment would have been paid within a week. It goes without saying they ought to have shown more tact rather than, as it stands, opening themselves to allegations of crassness, at best, and a lack of sensitivity that contrasts sharply with the way they have handled everything else.

Nantes have retired their No 9 shirt and offered to pay for Sala's body to be flown to Argentina. There would be, and is, so much to admire were it not for the fact that the bickering behind the scenes, however they attempt to dress it up, doesn't look good whatsoever.

Ultimately, though, it was not Nantes who placed this story in the media. Kita, usually regarded as something of a rent-a-quote within the French media, has not uttered a word on the subject and appears to have been caught out by the decision of Mehmet Dalmian, Cardiff's chairman, to confirm to L'Équipe that, yes, the story running on BBC Wales was true. As soon as Dalmian spoke on the record, it was carte blanche for every other media outlet to jump on the same story. And it is difficult to think he and Cardiff would not have known that.

So, what next? Some common sense, hopefully, but who can be sure where this story will lead when there is so much money involved and Cardiff's insurance is limited, apparently, to £16m even though the overall cost, factoring in wages and agents' fees, will be considerably higher?

Of the two clubs, it is Cardiff who can stop this from escalating even further, but it is not particularly encouraging that all the information from south Wales is that, before paying a single penny, they want to find out exactly what happened via the official investigation. Why? An investigation could take a year, minimum. Whatever comes out, nothing is going to change the fact that the last two days of Sala's life were spent as a Cardiff player.

This is the biggest worry here: that Cardiff are going to allow this to become a saga with the potential to run and run.

For the most part, Dalmian and his colleagues have handled an incredibly difficult situation with great dignity. Now they need to realise it has not helped anybody to go public and that it would be better for everyone, starting with the families of Emiliano Sala and David Ibbotson, if the club did the decent thing and nipped this in the bud.

Football is still capable of doing the decent thing, isn't it?

Observer

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