The Gambia football team on Wednesday took off for the Ivory Coast ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations after boycotting their last training session at home over a qualification bonus dispute.
The players skipped training while demanding a bonus payment for qualifying for the tournament, local media reported, but the decision angered supporters who had come to watch the team in action.
Fans vandalised parts of the Independence Stadium in Bakau, not far from the capital Banjul. Sports Minister Bakary Y. Badjie then explained to journalists that the players were seeking 38 million dalasis (516,000 euros).
The players had already received 5,000 euros each for taking part in a training camp in Saudi Arabia in early January, the minister said. They had also said they would not claim a qualification bonus in exchange for diplomatic passports, he added.
“Unfortunately, they have the diplomatic passport, but now they want the money,” he said in disappointment.
Badjie acknowledged he was powerless in the face of what he presented as a common situation in African football.
“Sometimes, when you find yourself in a situation like this, call it anyhow, blackmail or kind of your hands are twisted, sometimes you give in in the interest of the country,” he said.
The matter was brought as high up as the president Adama Barrow, who was travelling abroad.
“He has given the directives that we should pay, get the players that, to ensure that we stick to the gameplan which is to go to Ivory Coast and do our best. Government is going to look for those moneys, 38 million, and pay to the players,” the sports minister said.
Captain Omar Colley confirmed to local media on Wednesday, as the team boarded the plane for the Ivory Coast, that the 38 million dalasis had been paid.
The Gambia, a country of around 2.5 million inhabitants, play their first match on Monday against neighbouring Senegal, the reigning champions.
Cameroon and Guinea are in the same group.
Known as the “Scorpions”, the Gambia reached the quarter-finals on their AFCON debut two years ago.