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.”