WHO FOOTS THE BILL? Football, Finances, And Paying For A Player That Never Arrived

Who Foots The Bill?

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On January 19, 2019, 28-year-old Argentinian forward Emiliano Sala was signed by Premier League side Cardiff City for a club-record fee of roughly $19 million. Two days later, Sala’s single-engle plane disappeared off the coast of Alderney and the young footballer was never seen alive again.

In the months since Sala’s tragic passing, further disturbing details surrounding his death have been revealed, from legitimate claims of faulty flying equipment to conspiracy theories of nefarious involvement from a shadowy “football mafia.”

However, while the initial response from the world footballing community was one of compassion and comprise, the business end of the sport has reared its ugly head in recent weeks between the club who sold Sala — FC Nantes — and the club who bought him — Cardiff City — and that question is one of greed: who foots the bill for a player that never arrived?

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Unlike American sports, the life of a professional soccer player begins as soon as the powers that be deem them ready to do so. In the NFL and the NBA, you must be a certain age or have certain experiences before entering the league, and when you enter said league, you do so through a league-run draft. You know how the story goes: player X has been selected by Team Y with the Z pick in the draft.

Soccer, on the other hand, is run by an entirely monetary system. If, let’s say, Real Madrid find an 8-year-old attacking winger in Tusla, Oklahoma, that they wholeheartedly believe will one day develop into the next David Beckham, they have the ability to sign that player — there is no governing body forcing that player to enter some sort of league-mandated draft.

The same goes for the exchange of players already in the midst of their professional career: in the states, we call these trades, in soccer, they’re called transfers. And while trades in American sports usually center around the exchange of one player for another player and/or draft picks, transfers in soccer are mainly built upon the swapping of a player for a sum of money.

The reason that this needs such a thorough explanation is that it’s vital to understand that, perhaps more than any other sport in the world, professional soccer players are bought and sold as if they were assets.

Cardiff City, who were relegated to the Championship after just one season in English football’s top-flight — the Premier League — now find themselves with significantly fewer resources than they had when the initial deal for Sala was struck. They have fewer assets than they did this time 12 months ago, which perhaps explains why the club has been refusing to pay FC Nantes for the tragically deceased striker.

The decision is no longer Cardiff’s, though, as FIFA — the international governing body of the globe’s association football — ruled in late September that Cardiff must pay $6.7 million to Nantes by within 45 days, or by December 19. If Cardiff were to opt to withhold payment from the Ligue 1 side, they would face a three-window transfer ban, further crippling their ability to accrue — you guessed it — assets.

“[Cardiff] shall be banned from registering any new players, either nationally or internationally, up until the due amounts are paid and for the maximum duration of three entire and consecutive registration periods,” FIFA’s official ruling stated.

However, because Cardiff City has decided to appeal FIFA’s ruling, it’s put the 45-day payment clock on hold for an appeals process that could take up to a year, effectively dragging out both the mundane process and the painful memory of Sala’s untimely and ill-fated passing. It’s a protracted, unnecessary, and constant reminder of one of the darkest moments in the last decade of world football, all over a relatively meager sum, especially when considering Kylian Mbappe, a 21-year-old French superstar who played in the same professional league as Sala, is valued at over $200 million.

When my grandfather died no more than a year ago, I distinctly remember my mother — who had already been through the cruelly tedious hell of making a loved one’s death official the previous year with the passing of her sister — saying bluntly and almost irreverently that “the bureaucracy of dying is a real bitch.”

That’s a uniquely human phenomenon: the paperwork of passing away. And yet, whether it be 89-year-old Floridian grandfathers or 28-year-old professional Argentinian footballers, the languid nature of making the next life official remains present. Documents, signatures, paperwork. Signed, sealed, delivered.

And as FIFA themselves have stated, they received said documents from the Welsh soccer federation completing Sala’s transfer to Cardiff City mere hours before his plane fatefully went down. Whether they like it or not, at the moment he passed on to a better place, Emiliano Sala was a Cardiff City player. Perhaps most notably, the all-important paperwork said he was theirs. Sala died a Bluebird. He died a Premier League footballer. His dream of being a Premier League player was realized and his remembrance should reflect that fact.

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“Hello, my brothers, how are you? Boy, I’m tired. I was here in Nantes taking care of things, things, things, things, things, things, and it never stops, it never stops, it never stops. Anyway guys, I’m up in this plane that feels like it’s falling to pieces, and I’m going to Cardiff. [It’s] crazy, we start tomorrow. Training in the afternoon, guys, in my new team… Let’s see what happens. So, how’s it going with you guys, all good? If in an hour and a half you have no news from me, I don’t know if they are going to send someone to look for me because they cannot find me, but you will know… Man, I’m scared!” – an audio message Sala sent to his Nantes teammates just prior to his doomed flight to Wales.

Which is why, ultimately, the burden rests on FIFA to end this litigation madness and make Nantes whole themselves. A notoriously misanthropic organization with a rich and layered history of vile decision-making, not only does FIFA have a bottomless pit of wealth to repay the French club the $19 million that Cardiff owes them, but it would be an easy public relations win for an organization that desperately needs one, more so than ever with the highly and rightfully scrutinized Qatar World Cup just three short years away.

The longer this Emiliano Sala saga exists in its current financially disputed state, the more sullied the man’s memory becomes. For Nantes fans, he’ll always be their bright-faced goalscorer, but for those who never had the pleasure of watching him play, his lasting impact will become a narrative about the inherent greed that corrupts football should these two clubs continue this nickel-and-diming for the foreseeable future.

Emiliano Sala’s life was worth more than the $19 million he cost. His memory should be treated the same.


Eric is a New York City-based writer who still isn’t quite sure how he’s allowed to have this much fun for a living and will tell anyone who listens that Gotham City is canonically in New Jersey. Contact him on Twitter @eric_ital or via email eric@brobible.com

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Eric Italiano is a NYC-based writer who spearheads BroBible's Pop Culture and Entertainment content. He covers topics such as Movies, TV, and Video Games, while interviewing actors, directors, and writers.