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Afcon 2023: Gambia coach feared team would die during aborted flight to Ivory Coast

The Gambia national soccer team endured a terrifying experience this week when their flight to the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) 2023 was abruptly aborted shortly after takeoff.

According to head coach Tom Saintfiet, the aborted Air Cote d’Ivoire flight could have resulted in the deaths of the entire Gambian delegation. Saintfiet believes dangerously low oxygen levels caused players to lose consciousness, forcing the pilot to turn back.

Afcon 2023: Flight Aborted Minutes After Takeoff

The alarming incident occurred on January 11th as the team was traveling from Banjul to Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast for the upcoming Afcon 2023 tournament.

Just minutes into the flight aboard an Air Cote d’Ivoire plane, the cabin began getting extremely hot according to passengers. Most of the players and staff then apparently fell asleep, which Saintfiet attributed to insufficient oxygen in the cabin.

This oxygen shortage left players unable to be woken up. Fortunately, the pilot noticed the dire situation and decided to abort the flight just 30 minutes after takeoff, potentially saving the lives of all on board.

Gambia Coach Fears Team Could Have Died

Saintfiet did not mince words about the close call, saying his squad “could have died” if the flight had continued much longer. He called the lack of oxygen “a deadly situation” and commended the pilot’s quick actions.

The Belgian coach said players were left in shock after the incident, some suffering headaches and dizziness. He kept medical staff on high alert to monitor the team upon returning to Banjul.

Saintfiet remains baffled as to why oxygen masks did not deploy in the cabin as the plane lost pressurization. He suggested carbon monoxide poisoning could be to blame, but this has not been officially confirmed.

Airline Confirms Pressurization Malfunction

In a statement, Air Cote d’Ivoire verified there was indeed a pressurization problem aboard the aircraft. However, they claim the issue could have been fixed by a mechanic on the ground.

The airline says the flight was ultimately canceled due to the crew exceeding their duty hours after returning to Banjul, not specifically due to the pressurization malfunction itself.

Second Near-Death Experience

Horrifyingly, this latest in-flight scare comes just months after The Gambia team was involved in a fatal earthquake while in Morocco.

In September 2022, a devastating 7.0 earthquake struck the city of Marrakesh where the team was staying just days before. The quake resulted in over 2,000 casualties.

The Scorpions managed to escape unharmed and later dedicated their Afcon 2023 qualification to the Moroccan earthquake victims. But now months later, the team is coming to terms with another near-death experience.

Safety Fears Ahead of Afcon

The disturbing aborted flight has cast doubt on the safety procedures and aircraft being used at Afcon 2023. It has left Gambian players and staff extremely concerned.

Coach Saintfiet and team captain Omar Colley both refused to board the same Air Cote d’Ivoire plane for the rescheduled flight to Ivory Coast. Despite assurances from Ivorian aviation authorities, the team remains skeptical.

The traumatic incident has compromised the mental state of the squad right before its crucial Afcon 2023 opener against Senegal. The Gambia Football Federation (GFF) is demanding a full investigation into what went wrong.

Afcon 2023: Bonus Dispute Adds to Troubles

As if almost dying aboard a faulty plane wasn’t enough, The Gambia team is also embroiled in a financial dispute with GFF officials.

Players boycotted training while demanding bonus payments for qualifying for Afcon. The federation claims bonuses were waived in exchange for diplomatic passports. But this conflict has strained morale ahead of The Gambia’s second straight Afcon 2023 appearance.

Between nearly asphyxiating on their flight, surviving an earthquake, and now battling their federation over money, the beleaguered Scorpions have faced immense adversity just to make it to Ivory Coast.

Team Vows to Fight On

Despite the challenges, coach Saintfiet insists The Gambia will be ready to compete at Afcon 2023. He praised his players’ bravery and mental strength to train immediately after the air emergency.

Drawn into a difficult Group C with Senegal, Cameroon, and Guinea, the nation is hoping to channel that same determination to defy the odds on the pitch.

Few expected The Gambia to even qualify for its first Nations Cup in 2021. But the Scorpions plan to build on their inspiring quarterfinal run and survive their group this year.

After all they’ve endured over the past year, merely competing at the Africa Cup of Nations will be an accomplishment for this courageous Gambian team.

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