Emiliano Sala’s former club Nantes are to retire their No 9 shirt in honour of the footballer who died in a plane crash in the English Channel.
The French club made the announcement in an emotional tribute to the striker after a body recovered from the wreckage of the plane was confirmed to be the missing footballer.
Manager Vahid Halihodzic was in tears as he told reporters he had a “special relationship” with the striker.
“He loved the club. He loved football. We will remember him forever,” he said.
“I have a lot of affection for my players as a coach. Working with him was a real pleasure.
“I lived with him for three or four months and everybody loved him, they adored him.
“I was a No 9. He was an extraordinary No 9.”
Police said the families of the 28-year-old Cardiff City striker and missing pilot David Ibbotson, 59, had been informed of the development and would “continue to be supported by specially-trained family liaison officers”.
His family described the last few weeks as “the most painful time of our lives” in a statement, and said they hoped the authorities would do their best to find Mr Ibbotson.
The pair went missing on 21 January after the plane they were travelling in from Nantes to Cardiff crashed 21 miles (34km) off the coast of Guernsey.
Dorset Police said they would continue to support the coroner’s investigation into the circumstances of the crash.
Nantes said in a statement: “This news puts an end to an endless and unsustainable waiting.
“Emiliano will forever be part of the legends that have written the great story of FC Nantes.”
The club said there had been “difficult mornings” and “nightmarish awakenings” since the “tragedy”.
“Unfortunately, reality catches up with us, Emi went away
“We are losing today a friend, a talented player, an exemplary teammate.”
Waldemar Kita, president of FC Nantes, added: “I do not have the words, it’s a tragedy, I’m devastated. Emiliano left his mark, which is why, like many fans, I want to honour him again by removing the No 9.”
Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock said the moment when he received confirmation of the footballer’s death last night “was strange” and described Sala as “somebody who could do something special”.
“He was just a nice lad, really. I’ve not heard anybody have a bad word to say about him,” he said.
“When something like this happens it brings all the football family together. It is a loss to everyone in football.
“I don’t think you can ever forget things like this.
“Our thoughts are with David Ibbotson and his family as well. His family will be going through hell as well.”
The footballer’s sister Romina led tributes on social media. She 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.”
Former England captain Wayne Rooney also paid his respects on Twitter.
Football clubs, including Barcelona, Porto and Sevilla, have been tweeting photos and tributes.
The formal identification comes after remotely operated vehicles in “challenging conditions” were used to recover the body from the water “in as dignified a way as possible”, according to the Air Accidents Investigation Branch.
Images earlier showed an ambulance bringing the body on shore from a ship in Portland, Dorset.
Sky’s Katerina Vittozzi said after the body arrived in the UK: “The AAIB has gathered a huge amount of video evidence, so they do have enough to start to piece together what happened in the final moments before the plane came down.
“The vessel only got into the harbour after 9am, though the mission happened overnight. They have taken their time over this.”
Poor weather conditions stopped efforts to recover the aircraft, which remains 67m (220ft) under water.
An AAIB spokesman said bad weather was forecast “for the foreseeable future and so the difficult decision was taken to bring the overall operation to a close”.
The investigators will publish their interim report within a month and footage captured of the wreckage is expected to provide “valuable evidence”, it added.
The plane was discovered on Sunday by marine recovery specialists who were hired thanks to a crowdfunding appeal launched after the official search was called off.
Sala had signed for Cardiff City from French club Nantes in a £15m deal two days before the plane disappeared.
Sky sources say Nantes have now started legal action against Cardiff, asking for the first payment of the transfer fee, which is understood to be more than £5m.
Cardiff have not yet paid any of the fee – a record for the club – for the Argentinian striker and privately believe questions first need answering about the ownership of the Piper Malibu aircraft and other issues.
Warnock told reporters earlier that finance “is the least of my worries”.
The plane had requested to descend before it lost contact with Jersey air traffic control.
An official search operation was called off on 24 January after Guernsey’s harbour master David Barker said the chances of survival following such a long period were “extremely remote”.
The remains of the aircraft were tracked down by a team co-ordinated by ocean scientist David Mearns, who has located some of the most elusive wrecks in the world.
Mr Mearns – known as the “Shipwreck Hunter” – and his team located the aircraft within two hours of commencing their search.
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