In a harrowing incident, Gambia’s national football team, led by head coach Tom Saintfiet, faced a life-threatening situation when their flight en route to Abidjan for the 2023 AFCON was forced to return to Banjul, Gambia, due to a low gas issue.
The aircraft, operated by Air Cote d’Ivoire, the official airline of AFCON 2023, experienced a pressurization problem that prompted the urgent U-turn, as detailed in a statement from the airline. Despite the potential for ground technicians to address the issue, previous delays had exhausted the crew’s permissible working hours, leading to the cancellation of the flight.
Speaking to the BBC, Coach Saintfiet confirmed that the cancellation resulted from low gas levels, expressing gratitude for the swift decision of the aircrew to return promptly to Banjul. He revealed the perilous conditions on board, stating, “We all fell asleep because there was a lack of oxygen – some of the players couldn’t be woken up.”
Saintfiet emphasized that if the flight had continued for another 30 minutes, the entire team might have faced dire consequences. He praised the pilot for recognizing the severity of the situation and taking decisive action, noting that the oxygen masks did not deploy during the incident.
This unsettling event comes just four months after the Gambian team experienced an earthquake in Marrakesh, Morocco, claiming nearly 2,000 lives in September 2023.
Despite the trauma of the aborted trip, the Gambian team decided to resume training upon their return to Banjul on Wednesday night. However, several squad members were unable to participate due to the ordeal.
As of the latest update, the Gambian team, scheduled to face Senegal in Group C on Monday, January 15, is en route to Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, where they will play the majority of their group stage games. The incident underscores the unpredictable challenges faced by teams participating in major sporting events and highlights the importance of prioritizing the safety and well-being of athletes in such circumstances.