The national football team of Gambia faced a life-threatening situation during an aborted flight to Ivory Coast for the upcoming 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, as disclosed by coach Tom Saintfiet.
The Air Cote d’Ivoire flight made a swift turnaround just minutes after departing the Gambian capital, Banjul, on Wednesday. Coach Saintfiet attributes the incident to a lack of oxygen, causing numerous members of the delegation to succumb to sleep.
The coach commended the quick thinking of the pilot, asserting that the team’s safety was maintained through this decisive action. Officials from the airline confirmed a pressurisation issue as the cause of the turnaround.
Speaking to BBC Sport Africa, Saintfiet shared, “The local crew said there was a problem with the air conditioning before we took off but that it would be all fine when we took off. After a few minutes, it was very hot in the plane. We all fell asleep because there was a lack of oxygen – some of the players couldn’t be woken up. The pilot noticed and we had to return.”
The coach emphasised that if the flight had continued for another 30 minutes, the consequences could have been fatal. He expressed shock over the incident, suggesting a potential threat of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Despite Saintfiet’s concerns, Gambia Football Federation (GFF) president Lamin Kaba Bajo refuted any evidence supporting carbon monoxide poisoning, stating, “I never felt it, and it’s not clinically, scientifically, or medically proven.”
The incident follows the Gambian team’s harrowing experience during September’s earthquake in Marrakesh, where over 2,000 people lost their lives. Despite this recent ordeal, The Gambia proceeded with training upon their return to Banjul on Wednesday night, with some players unable to participate due to lingering health issues.
The Gambia, set to face defending champions Senegal, Cameroon, and Guinea in Group C, demonstrated resilience, choosing to train despite the challenges.
With plans rearranged, the team was slated to travel on an Airbus 319 provided by Air Cote d’Ivoire. Notably, Gambia President Adama Barrow intervened to redirect the flight to Yamoussoukro instead of the initially intended destination of Abidjan.
Coach Saintfiet and team captain Omar Colley refused to board the same plane for the rescheduled flight, expressing a commitment to fighting for their country on the football pitch but not at the risk of their safety off it.
Video footage shared on social media by player Saidy Janko depicted the distressing conditions inside the plane, with players visibly sweating and describing the situation as unacceptable.
The GFF, in a statement, cited preliminary investigations pointing to a loss of cabin pressure and oxygen. The incident unfolded amid tensions between players and the GFF over bonus disputes, adding another layer of complexity to an already challenging situation.