Cardiff City and a peculiar kind of grief…

Sarah Winterburn

Football is often directed by precedent. Especially now, with finances so wild and egregiousness so acute, no matter how ridiculous the situation, there is nearly always an example. Even Kepa had happened before.

Not at Cardiff though, where nebulous gloom hangs in the air. It’s ill-defined because nobody knows quite what to do or say and, as yet, there is little finality. Mercifully, Emiliano Sala has been found, his body has now been returned to his family and laid to rest. Unfortunately, it will be many weeks and months before the true cause of the crash is
known. More regrettably, Sala’s passing has created a logistical and financial quandary which threatens to blight this mourning period with unsightly skirmishes.

Yes, football paused for a little while, removed its cap and bowed its head at all the right moments, but now people want to be paid and nobody’s quite sure who owes what. It shouldn’t matter, but it invariably does and at the time of writing it seems a matter destined for the courts – and one which is already making the sort of headlines his family could do without.

In sports films, this story would have only one ending. After tragedy strikes, the hero must prevail and they must prevail because of what has happened. Here, that refers to Cardiff’s tussle with relegation, which one way or another will be a close-run thing. To the great credit of Neil Warnock’s side, they won two from three while these terrible events were unfolding. The fought bravely at Arsenal, they beat Bournemouth at home, and then they won at Southampton. Six points from nine was defiant form for players whose focus had to have been frayed.

But this isn’t a sports film. While Hollywood could commodify the events of late January into an affecting montage, completing the arc with a cathartic, tearful triumph on a sunny May afternoon, life isn’t nearly that neat.

I meet Scott Salter under the Fred Keenor statue around which the tributes to Sala were laid at Cardiff City Stadium.

A football writer – and a good one – he helps run The View From The Ninian website around his full-time job. He’s been a City fan all his life and remembers Emiliano Sala’s name entering Bluebird consciousness in November, when rumours of a possible transfer began to emerge.

A back-and-forth transfer saga unfolded. He was coming, then he wasn’t. Cardiff wouldn’t meet Nantes’ asking price, then they did. Finally, a late, lucrative offer from China was rejected and Sala, who had given his word on the deal, was heading to Wales. Cardiff don’t play Premier League football very often and never in their history have they signed a £15m player while doing so.

Scott, like everybody else, has no idea how to process the events of the past month. He speaks of the crash’s pervasive effect on the city. While he was waiting for me on Friday, he overheard a passing child ask her father whether the man in the statue, Keenor, was the  player who died. To say this has just touched everybody would be cavalier; this is something which now seems part of Cardiff.

At the end of January, ESPN’s Sam Broden wrote a piece describing Sala’s last days in France. He described him visiting his favourite shops for the last time, dropping in on friends, and sorting furniture into what he would be taking and what he would leave behind.

It’s a wonderful piece of journalism which adds colour to the life of someone most of us barely even knew as a footballer. Embedded within the article, though, are pictures of the mourners in Wales. The most striking is of Sala’s sister, Romina, caught walking the short perimeter of cards and flowers which gathered outside the ground, with her face contorted by grief.

Another shows Ken Choo, standing at the foot of the Keenor statue, his hands folded in prayer. In the background stand expressionless supporters, not really sure of how to behave or just how much of this sorrow they can claim. They’re not the figures who drew the camera’s lens, but they’re the most descriptive part of the picture, illustrating this situation’s terrible awkwardness.

Players have died during their careers before. But when they do, they leave behind something to celebrate. Goals, memories, sometimes even substantial achievement. At Nantes that was the case. When their fans gathered, it was to pray for and remember a player who had worn their colours and represented their cause. They bought replica shirts and pictures of him wearing their canary yellow, processing what they felt through the memories of what he had been to them.

At Cardiff there’s no such direction and the figures gathered solemnly in those photographs, who are stood in quiet, confused respect, express that with their blank faces.

Writing about football is easiest when the events of a game bend neatly around the surrounding story. The narrative.

It’s tempting, then, after the 1-5 defeat to a ruthless Watford, to attribute that defeat to wilting spirit and to translate the porousness of their midfield into some abstract psychological theory. But while they did play with a limpness which encourages trite cliches about emotional fatigue, indulging those would represent one of the great liberties sport often takes in these situations. It weaponises grief into an attribute.

That doesn’t seem appropriate, not least because, in this case, it doesn’t seem accurate. Emiliano Sala’s name isn’t being used as a rallying cry by the Cardiff fans, nor does it seem to be instructing anything on the field. Instead, there appear two moods here, existing independently of each other: there are the staples found in every stadium – the noise, the demands for urgency and effort, the grievance – and then, in the quieter moments, a respect which can be heard every once in a while.

In the dressing-room that may be different. Warnock has been as impressive as he has ever been in the handling of this issue and, at various intervals, Sol Bamba has spoken affectingly too. Some of those players met Sala, some of them did not; how they cope with that is their own private business rather than something for the outside world to speculate on.

Inside the stadium, everything is almost exactly as it was. The floodlights still flash before kick-off, the Welsh and English fans trade the usual barbs, and when Josh Murphy is cut down inside the penalty-box just before half-time, the home supporters still seethe. They mutter and moan in the concourse at half-time, one fan describing it as the worst decision he’s ever seen. Perhaps not, but the point is that football carries on.

Sala never really belonged to these Cardiff fans, they don’t have the memories to fill the gap left by his death.

‘Sing a song for Sala
We will never let you go,
You’ll always be,
At the city here with me’

The loudest part of the ground is away to the left of the press box, high behind the goal at the far end. Periodically, the song leaks out into the night. It’s moving. It’s something that you hope is sung for many years to come, but which – at the same time and despite its bouncy chords – you hope not to have to hear too often. That’s a contradiction, of course, but then this is a conflicting situation: the act of remembrance is heart-warming, but actually remembering him is to know how he died, in the cold and the dark, and in a moment of awful violence.

In September 1980, the late Hugh McIlvanney reported from Los Angeles on the fight which would cost Johnny Owen his life. It’s desperately sad, but arguably among the finest pieces of work he ever produced.

‘There is something about his pale face, with its large nose, jutting ears and uneven teeth, all set above that long, skeletal frame, that takes hold of the heart and makes unbearable the thought of him being badly hurt.’

McIlvanney wasn’t aware then that Owen would succumb to his injuries, but having seen him fall – in that disturbing, lifeless way – he would have known it was likely. And he was right: looking at pictures of Owen now and hearing him speak with that soft, nervous lilt makes the thought of his death difficult to bare.

With a different description, he could also have been writing about Emiliano Sala, because there was something about that smiling face which has multiplied this non-specific grief and left an incurable emptiness which nobody can do anything about.

Cardiff City will sing about him less in time, that’s only natural, and eventually people will come to and from this stadium without Sala coming to mind. But the sadness will always be there. Goals and victories won’t change that, football can’t make anyone forget that a young man has died much too young.

Seb Stafford-Bloor