Progreso, Argentina – Each time he returned from Europe on holiday to Progreso, the small town in Argentina where he lived until the age of 16, Emiliano Sala became "Emi" once more, just like in his childhood.
"He wasn’t Sala the player, he was Emi. He was one more, he was riding a bike, like when he was a boy," Diego Solis, a former coach to Sala at San Martin in his teenage years, tells AFP.
Sala, missing since Monday after boarding a plane in France to head to Wales to link up with his new club Cardiff City in the Premier League, "went with his teammates to the pitch, with a ball, to run, to the bowling alley," Solis recalls with a certain sadness.
In Progreso, a town of 3,000 residents in the province of Santa Fe, in northern Argentina, where Sala was known by everyone, family and friends are not yet ready to accept the worst.
"We still cannot take in the facts of what happened to him, I still have hope on my part," Solis bravely maintains, daring to imagine a happy outcome to a seemingly tragic ordeal.
"For me, ‘Emi’ is out there, he will appear soon and come out on a pitch in the Premier League," Solis hopes.
After excelling in French football with Nantes, the 28-year-old forward signed a contract on Saturday with Cardiff in a club record deal worth a reported 17 million euros ($19.3 million).
Sala, who came up against the likes of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe in Ligue 1, had been a selfless striker since his youth, fully committed to the team cause and not purely on the hunt for goals.
"He was caring, he wasn’t stubborn, he played for the team, he wasn’t bothered if he had to give it to a teammate," recounts Solis, who coached him until Salamoved to Proyecto Crecer, an academy in the town of San Francisco, four hours north of the capital Buenos Aires.
At the academy, which has a partnership with Bordeaux, Sala stood out and a few years later, in 2011, he made the switch to Europe with the six-time French champions.
"Many who don’t know him are getting to know him now, unfortunately," Solis says regretfully.
Yet none of that appears to matter much in Progreso, where residents are crossing their fingers in the belief that Sala could yet appear alive and well.
Sheltered by neighbours and friends, the striker’s family is holding out for good news, a wait that is largely consigned to inside the family home.
"I would have liked the press not to be here because of what happened, but instead for a call-up to the Argentina national team," says Martin Molteri, a friend of Sala’s dating back to when they played together as kids.
"For me there’s something more than hope. He’s going to appear soon and is going to be OK," says Molteri, wearing a Bordeaux shirt he received as a gift from Sala.
Molteri saw Sala flourish and reach the professional ranks, albeit in Europe, far away from Progreso.
"I don’t know from where or how I know him, because I’ve known him for all his life," he says as rain falls on the unassuming town.
"He’s a humble, kind person, who has extraordinary mental strength."
"He is very selfless, he achieved everything based on effort," explains Molteri, describing the Sala family as "very hard-working".
Far removed from the spotlight that attaches itself to the big stars, Sala carved out a successful career path without going through the Argentine first division.
"He had very clear goals," Molteri says. "He wanted to go far in football and succeeded."