AFCON 2023: Gambia squad in near-death ordeal

By a stroke of luck, the players of the Gambia national team narrowly escaped a potential tragedy on January 10 while en route to Ivory Coast for the Africa Cup of Nations.

The Air Cote d'Ivoire flight quickly returned to Banjul, the capital of Gambia, shortly after taking off on Wednesday. According to Tom Saintfiet, the lack of oxygen and unfavourable conditions caused several members of the delegation to become drowsy.

Gambia coach Sainfiet praises pilot en route to AFCON 2023

The 50-year-old Belgian was effusive in his praise for the pilot for the safety of his team.

 “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,” the coach said.

“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.

“People got headaches and if the flight had gone on for another 30 minutes, the whole team would have died. The strange thing is that the oxygen masks didn't come out – it's good that the pilot realised that this was a deadly situation and so turned back.

“But we are still in shock.”

AFCON 2023 Gambia
Photo by Icon sport

Air Cote d'Ivoire reacts

Air Cote d'Ivoire, the official airline for AFCON 2023, has released a statement explaining that the flight crew made the decision to return due to a pressurisation issue. The airline stated that while the problem could have been fixed by a mechanic on the ground, the flight was cancelled due to the impact of earlier delays on the crew's working hours.

Kaba disagrees with Saintfiet

According to Saintfiet, it is possible that his players may have been exposed to carbon monoxide poisoning. However, Lamin Kaba Bajo, the President of the Gambian Football Federation (GFF), holds a different opinion and disagrees with the manager's assessment.

“I never felt it and it's not clinically, scientifically or medically proven,” Kaba Bajo quipped.

“Those are individual observations and perceptions, but there was not anything like that. I was almost sitting next to the coach and I didn't see anyone collapse.

“I know that people, when a plane takes off, they sleep.

“Some people were dozing, sleeping, but we landed safely. There was not a single incident, we all came down and boarded the bus to go back to the terminal.”

Second Gambia near-death experience in four months

Four months ago, the Scorpions of Gambia experienced a near-death experience when they were caught up in a devastating earthquake in the Moroccan city of Marrakech. This tragic incident resulted in the loss of 2000 lives.

It is important to note that the Gambian team was in Morocco during that time for a crucial AFCON 2023 qualifier against Congo in September 2023.

President Adama Barrow intervenes

The Scorpions, having adjusted their plans, were scheduled to board an Airbus 319 provided by Air Cote d'Ivoire, that departed from Banjul for Yamoussoukro at 16:00 GMT on Thursday. According to a statement from the GFF, Gambia's President Adama Barrow had intervened to secure permission for the aircraft to land in the Ivorian capital instead of the originally planned destination of Abidjan.

Saintfiet stated that he and team captain Omar Colley had declined to board the same plane for the journey across West Africa, emphasizing, ” We want to fight and die for the country on the football pitch but not off it.”

Saidy Janko fumes

Former Manchester United youngster Saidy Janko, who is now based in Switzerland and plays for Young Boys, posted a video on social media showing the squad leaving the plane in The Gambia. The footage depicted the players heavily sweating after the aircraft's return and tagged the situation “unacceptable”.

“As soon as we entered the small plane hired to fly us, we noticed the immense heat that left us dripping in sweat,” he wrote on Instagram.

“It was assured to us by the crew that the air condition[ing] would start once in the sky.

“The inhumane heat mixed with the occurring lack of oxygen left many people with strong headaches and extreme dizziness. Furthermore, people started falling deeply asleep minutes after take-off.”

Janko also praised the pilot, saying the consequences could have been a lot worse.

“Knowing what could have happened, if we would have been exposed to the situation for any longer – in an airplane, running out of oxygen,” he said.

Photo by Icon Sport
Photo by Icon sport

Scorpions in a bonus row ahead of AFCON 2023

Wednesday's incident occurred amidst tension between the players and the GFF due to a dispute over bonuses. The players decided to boycott a training session as they demanded a bonus payment for qualifying for their second Nations Cup, which they had failed to achieve in previous decades.

According to the local Sports Minister, Bakary Badjie, the players had already received 5,000 euros each for participating in a training camp in Saudi Arabia earlier this month.

In exchange for diplomatic passports, the players agreed to waive their qualification bonus. Gambia's captain, Omar Colley, revealed that the GFF had received a sum of over 500,000 euros from the government.

The situation had even reached President Barrow's attention, as mentioned by Badjie. The money is expected to be distributed to the players in the coming days.

The Gambia is facing a challenging group, as they are set to compete against their neighbours and defending champions Senegal, Cameroon, and Guinea. Their first match is scheduled for January 15 against Senegal.

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Godfred Budu

Godfred Budu is a purpose-driven Ghanaian sports writer with a sharp eye for excellence. He has had stints with and He loves to talk and write about football on the African continent.