Lionel Messi urged investigators on Friday to resume the search for missing striker Emiliano Sala after police called off rescue operations, and admitted the chances of finding him were “extremely remote”.
Police from Guernsey abandoned the search on Thursday after the light aircraft taking the 28-year-old Argentinian to Wales following his signing with Cardiff City from Ligue 1 side Nantes disappeared from radar near the British island on Monday.
“While there is the possibility, a shred of hope, we ask that you please #NoDejenDeBuscar (don’t stop searching) for Emiliano. All my strength to your family and friends,” said the Barcelona attacker on Instagram, with the hashtag “#PRAYFORSALA”.
Messi’s plea comes after Sala’s father and other players, including Bordeaux’s Valentin Vada and Leganes’ Uruguayan attacker Diego Rolan, begged authorities to continue the search.
Sala’s family have asked that Nantes not to commemorate their former teammate at this weekend’s French Cup clash with third-tier Entente Sannois Saint-Gratien.
“We ask you to respect the family who absolutely refuse to talk about mourning and ask us to keep believing,” Nantes captain Valentin Rongier told more than 300 Nantes fans who came to an open training session on Thursday.
“It is for this reason that we are not going to have a minute’s silence or a minute’s applause because we still have hope.”
Meanwhile, British investigators said on Friday they were probing the licence held by the pilot of the small plane carrying Sala.
The local coastguard on Wednesday named the pilot, the only other person in the plane, as David Ibbotson – a 60-year-old married father of three from northern England, according to reports.
A spokesman for Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) told AFP his licence would be reviewed as part of its probe into the plane’s disappearance.
“We would look at operational aspects of the flight, and that would include licensing,” he said.
“Our purpose is not to apportion blame or liability. Our purpose is to establish the cause of an accident,” the spokesman added.
Ibbotson reportedly told a friend via social media shortly before take-off that he was “a bit rusty” with some of the controls on the plane.
According to a US Federal Aviation Administration database, Ibbotson held a British private pilot licence which provided the basis for a similar certificate issued there in 2014 permitting him to fly single-engine planes.
Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority, which issues UK licences in accordance with European Union regulations, said on Friday it could not “confirm the type of licence held by Ibbotson”.
According to EU aviation rules posted online by the CAA, a private pilot licence is “for recreational flying only”.
“You aren’t allowed to be paid for any flying you do using one, apart from some flight instructor work,” its guidance states, noting pilots receiving payment need a commercial licence.
Rescue workers formally called off the search for the missing plane on Thursday, prompting Sala’s sister to make a desperate plea for its resumption.
Romina Sala said that she feels her brother and Ibbotson are still alive.
“Please, please, please don’t stop the search,” she told a press conference in Cardiff on Thursday. “For us, they are still alive.”