Gambia team: Oxygen failed on AFCON flight

Sports

Gambia head coach Tom Saintfiet has said his team avoided tragedy on Wednesday when the plane transporting them to the Ivory Coast for the Africa Cup of Nations was forced to turn back due to a lack of oxygen.

The team were travelling in a small 50-seater propeller plane, registered to Air Cote d’Ivoire, which had been arranged for them by the Gambian football association.

Saintfiet has said the oxygen supply on the flight failed, causing some members of the team to lose consciousness before the pilot opted to return to the Gambia’s capital, Banjul.

ESPN have approached Air Cote d’Ivoire and Gambian FA for comment.

In a statement reported by the BBC, the Gambian FA said that “preliminary investigations indicated that there was a loss of cabin pressure and oxygen.”

Saintfiet told ESPN: “We were really dying in the plane. There was no oxygen in this plane, everyone fell asleep, became a little bit unconscious, and the pilot decided after nine minutes of being in the air to return to save our lives.

“There were no oxygen masks dropping down … I am ready to die for Gambia, but on the football pitch, not off it. I had short dreams where my life passed, I had moments where I thought I was dying.”

Gambia defender Saidy Janko said his teammates began to slip into unconsciousness after the plane took off.

“As soon as we entered the small plane that was hired to fly us, we noticed the intense heat that left us dripping with sweat,” Janko said in a post on Instagram. “It was assured to us by the crew that the air conditioning would start once we are in the sky.

“The inhumane heat mixed with the lack of oxygen left many people with strong headaches and full dizziness. Furthermore, people started falling deeply asleep minutes after takeoff.

“In the air, the situation got worse, leaving the pilot with no choice but to initiate an emergency landing. If it wasn’t for this, the consequences could have been a lot worse.”

They are due to play their AFCON opener against holders Senegal in Yamoussoukro on Monday, but Saintfiet said their participation at the tournament now hangs in the balance.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) declined to comment.

“People still have headaches, vomiting, are dizzy, it could take weeks before we recover from this,” Saintfiet added. “We are confused, and we’re even saying to not go to the Africa Cup, because we don’t get treated as we want.

“We have families, we have children, but [they] put us in the cheapest plane possible. We haven’t trained for three days, didn’t sleep for three days, for two days we’ve had no lunch.

“If this is the case, let’s go home, let’s forget AFCON.”

Saintfiet said his Gambia team remain in Banjul, having refused invitation from the Gambia FA to re-attempt the 2100-km flight on the same aircraft they originally boarded on Wednesday.

“They tried to put us on a plane — the same plane — this morning, and we all refused it,” Saintfiet said. “Even if tomorrow we have to travel on a commercial flight, we will do, but we will not enter that plane, or any similar type of small propeller-type plane.

“We fly with a real plane, not with a illegal plane or a plane like that.”

After facing Senegal next week, Gambia — who are competing in their second ever Nations Cup after successive qualifications under Saintfiet — are due to face Guinea in Yamoussoukro on Jan. 19, before closing their group-stage campaign against Cameroon four days later.

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