The Gambia squad travelling to Ivory Coast for the upcoming 2023 Africa Cup of Nations “could have died” during a flight that was aborted, coach Tom Saintfiet claimed.
The Air Cote d’Ivoire flight turned around just minutes after leaving the Gambian capital Banjul on Wednesday.
Saintfiet believes there was a lack of oxygen, saying conditions prompted many of the delegation to fall asleep.
The coach praised quick thinking by the pilot for keeping his team safe.
Officials from the airline confirmed there had been a pressurisation issue.
Saintfiet told BBC Sport Africa: “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.
“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.”
Air Cote d’Ivoire is the official airliner of Afcon 2023, and a statement from the company said the air crew decided to turn back because of a pressurisation problem.
It added that the issue could have been resolved by a mechanic on the ground, but that the flight was ultimately cancelled because of the impact earlier delays had on the crew’s working hours.
Saintfiet suggested the passengers could have been facing carbon monoxide poisoning, but Gambia Football Federation (GFF) president Lamin Kaba Bajo said there was no evidence to support that remark.
“I never felt it and it’s not clinically, scientifically or medically proven,” Kaba Bajo told the BBC.
“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.”
The incident came four months after the Gambian team, who will face defending champions Senegal, Cameroon and Guinea in Group C, were caught up in September’s devastating earthquake in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, when over 2,000 people died.
Despite the experience on board the aborted flight, The Gambia chose to train upon their return to Banjul on Wednesday night, even though some of the squad were unable to take part.
“Some players could not train because of what happened. They still have headaches and that is worrying, while some of the players are still dizzy,” said Saintfiet.
“The team requested to train as we had been travelling overnight from Saudi Arabia to return home on Sunday, and Monday as well.
“We trained in a bid to release the stress.”
Aborted flight ‘unacceptable’
The Gambia, who reached the quarter-finals of their maiden Nations Cup two years ago despite being the lowest-ranked team, are due to face neighbours Senegal on Monday in their opening game.
The Scorpions, with their plans rearranged, were set to travel on an Airbus 319 provided by Air Cote d’Ivoire, departing Banjul for Yamoussoukro at 16:00 GMT on Thursday.
A GFF statement said Gambia President Adama Barrow had intervened to obtain permission to land in the Ivorian capital rather than the initially intended destination of Abidjan.
Saintfiet said he and team captain Omar Colley had refused to return to the same plane for the flight across West Africa.
“We want to fight and die for the country on the football pitch but not off it,” the Belgian coach said.
Kaba Bajo said the players had not been asked to fly on the same plane again, but on a similar Bombardier model to the one used in the initial flight.
Video footage posted on social media by one of the squad, former Manchester United youngster Saidy Janko, showed heavily sweating players leaving the plane after its return to The Gambia.
Now based in Switzerland, the Young Boys player called 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.
In a statement, the GFF said that “preliminary investigations indicated that there was a loss of cabin pressure and oxygen”.
Bonus row for Scorpions
Wednesday’s incident came against a backdrop of tension between the players and the GFF in a row over bonuses.
The players had boycotted a training session while demanding a bonus payment for qualifying for their second Nations Cup after decades of failing to do so beforehand.
Local sports minister Bakary Badjie said that players had received 5,000 euros each for taking part in a training camp in Saudi Arabia earlier this month and that they had agreed to waive a qualification bonus in exchange for diplomatic passports, which have been received.
Gambia captain Omar Colley told local media on Wednesday that the GFF has received just over some 500,000 euros from the government, with Badjie having earlier said that the situation had gone as high up as President Barrow.
This money should then filter down to the players in the next few days.
In September, The Gambia secured their spot at the 2023 Afcon with a 2-2 against Congo in a match played in Marrakesh less than 48 hours after the earthquake.
Centre-back Colley said at the time that he could not celebrate their qualification given the trauma suffered during their time in Morocco.