Airport representational image
Airport representational image BRIAN SNYDER/Reuters

A plane flying the Gambia national football team for the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) made an emergency landing due to a lack of oxygen in the cabin.

The flight took off from Gambia's capital city, Banjul, on Wednesday on a short trip to AFCON's host city, Yamoussoukro in Ivory Coast. Just 20 minutes into the journey, the flight suffered a dangerous dip in cabin pressure and oxygen, which could have turned into a fatal accident.

Some players passed out and fell asleep after the sudden lack of oxygen, according to Gambia head coach Tom Saintfiet. He also revealed that he and his players feared for their lives when oxygen went so low on board. The flight was then forced to return to the airport in Banjul, delaying Gambia's arrival at AFCON.

"Many of my players are still in shock. Some of them are still dizzy or have headaches. But today we are going to train, we have no other choice. The group is very mentally affected. I have already told my players, 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger'," added Gambia boss Saintfiet.

Air Cote d'Ivoire, the airline responsible for the flight and also the official transport partner and sponsor of AFCON 2023, released a statement, admitting that the air pressure problem forced the plane to make a U-turn.

Meanwhile, the Gambia Football Federation (GFF) said that everyone travelling was "safe and in sound health". It also stated that once the team had landed again in Banjul, they held a training session under the floodlights at the Independence Stadium in Bakau, a town to the west of the national capital.

"The technical team of the operating company of the flight, Air Cote d'Ivoire is further assessing the situation to establish what caused the lack of oxygen and cabin pressure," a statement from GFF added.

Gambian defender Saidy Janko, who had club stints with Manchester United and Celtic, took to social media to reveal a few details of the incident. Janko said that the players experienced "immense heat" as soon as they boarded the plane and reported that several fell asleep. The 28-year-old, who currently plays for Swiss club Young Boys, added that the situation was "unacceptable" ahead of their AFCON preparations.

AFCON is scheduled to go underway on Jan. 14, with Gambia's opening fixture the next day against defending champions Senegal. Gambia are also due to take on Guinea and Cameroon in their Group C games.

This is the 34th edition of the tournament, which was originally scheduled to be played in June and July last year but was postponed to avoid Ivory Coast's tropical rainy season.