Belgian national coach of Gambia startled by earthquake in Morocco: “It seemed endless. Football does not come first now”

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The Gambia national football team, led by Kempen national coach Tom Saintfiet, was in Marrakesh during the severe earthquakes on Friday night. The team emerged unscathed from the earthquakes and is waiting for news. “Playing football now would be disrespectful to the more than 600 dead,” Saintfiet testifies from the Moroccan city.

Because its own national stadium is not yet ready, Gambia plays its home games in other countries. The all-decisive qualifying match against Congo-Brazzaville – with a draw or a win, Gambia is certain of participation in the 2024 Africa Cup – would be played on Sunday evening in Marrakesh, although that is now very doubtful.

Moving walls

“I was just in my room on the top floor of our hotel when I thought there was a pounding on the door,” says Tom Saintfiet (50), not yet realizing that it was an earthquake. “Then I thought it was a low-flying or crashed plane from the neighboring airport, until suddenly the walls started moving. I lay down next to my bed and covered myself with pillows. When nothing more fell on the cushions, I ran outside as quickly as possible.”

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There was panic and the damage to the building was significant, but fortunately everyone in the hotel was unharmed. “Lights fell from the ceiling, walls moved, mirrors and vases fell to shards on the floor and the air conditioning systems fell out of the wall. It may have only been thirty seconds, but it felt endless. This was one of the scariest moments of my life,” Saintfiet was still impressed twelve hours after the first quake.

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Postpone match

The hotel guests were welcomed next to the swimming pool and given sheets to rest under the starry sky. “We hear ambulance sirens all the time, you see on television that there are already more than six hundred dead and people are asking for blood donations. Football is important to us, but at times like this it really doesn’t come first.”

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The Gambian selection is impatiently waiting for news in the hotel and if it is up to the national coach, the match will be postponed to the next international period in October. “We have not heard from the CAF (African Football Federation, ed.), but it would show humanity and respect for the fatalities to postpone the match. It would be absurd to have to play now. We were not physically injured, but mentally we were all hit. We also cannot use our belongings in the hotel, although that is the least of our worries now,” concludes Saintfiet, who, together with his selection, including ex-Beerschotter Abdoulie Sanyang, is left with many question marks.

“With every plane that passes now – and there are many here near the airport – you think for a second that a new earthquake is starting,” Turnhout sports physiotherapist Sander Van den Heurck testifies from the hotel. “The building is full of cracks and you dare not imagine what will happen in the next shock.”

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