Tributes poured Friday in memory of Argentine soccer player Emiliano Sala, whose body was recovered from the wreckage of a plane in the English Channel – ending a more than two-week agonizing search.
“Because Emiliano will never be part of the legends that have written the great story of FC Nantes, the number 9 he wore is retired,” his former French club, where he rose to prominence, announced Friday.
Sala, 28, was traveling from Nantes to Cardiff when the light aircraft he was in disappeared from radar over the English Channel near Guernsey on January 21.
He had just signed a record club transfer with the Wales capital city’s Premier League club and was returning from flying back to the French city to say goodbye to his former teammates when the aircraft went missing.
On Thursday, the agonizing search for Sala ended when Dorset police confirmed that the body recovered from the wreckage of a plane the day before was the soccer player. Search teams have yet to find pilot David Ibbotson, the only other person on board the aircraft.
"We offer our most heartfelt sympathies and condolences to the family of Emiliano," Cardiff City said in a statement. "He and David will forever remain in our thoughts."
Sala’s sister Romina posted an image of the striker on Instagram and wrote: “Your soul in my soul will shine forever, thus illuminating the time of my existence. I love you, tito.”
Investigators have not been able to recover the aircraft, due to what is being described as "challenging conditions." With an interim report due to be delivered within a month of the accident, authorities have expressed hopes a remote underwater vehicle provides evidence.
The formal search was called off within three days of the plane disappearing from radar last month. It took a campaign by Sala's family to raise funds for a private search by American-born, shipwreck-hunting specialist David Mearns, who located the aircraft within hours on Sunday in conjunction with air crash investigators.
Mearns told BBC Radio Wales that finding the pilot’s body would be difficult.
“I've been involved in operations when people were lost and the bodies were found days and weeks after, not far from where they were lost," he said. “But this is a pretty dynamic place. It's got fairly strong currents, it's not that deep water, you've got a lot of fishing activity, a lot of scallop dredgers moving in and out of the location.”
As Sala's family now mourns his loss, Nantes and Cardiff are in a legal quarrel, which neither club has denied, over settling the transfer payments still outstanding.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.