NANTES, France (Reuters) – Emotions ran high as Nantes paid tribute to their former player Emiliano Sala on Wednesday in their first game since the Argentine went missing in a light aircraft over the English Channel.
Referee Frank Schneider stopped play in the Ligue 1 match against St Etienne at La Beaujoire in the ninth minute — in a possible reference to Sala’s shirt number — for a minute of applause during which Nantes coach Vahid Halilhodzic was pictured in tears.
Fans unveiled banners for Sala, most notably a giant Argentinian flag, and all of Nantes’ players had Sala’s name on the back of their shirt.
A portrait of Sala was unfolded on the centre circle as the players stepped onto the pitch to chants of ‘Emiliano Sala’ from fans.
The Nantes players wore a t-shirt saying ‘On t’aime Emi’ (We love you Emi) and the St Etienne players had t-shirts saying ‘Pray for Sala’.
Several former Nantes players were in the stands, including Caen striker Yacine Bammou, who was shown in tears.
A few fans from Cardiff City, for whom Sala had just signed when he went missing, were at the stadium unveiling a banner that said ‘We never saw you play and never saw you score, but Emiliano our beautiful Bluebird we will love you forever more.’
Sala scored 48 goals from 133 appearances for Nantes.
Earlier on Wednesday, investigators searching for the lost plane carrying Sala said an underwater search would begin after they found two seat cushions on the French coast that likely belonged to the aircraft.
The 28-year-old had been en route from Nantes with pilot David Ibbotson to make his debut for Cardiff City when the plane disappeared over the English Channel on Jan. 21.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis)