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My Africa Cup of Nations: Flight cancellations, the snowstorm of a decade and sleeping at the airport

Football reporter Rahman Osman is travelling to Cameroon to cover the AFCON, however he is currently stranded in Istanbul caught in a huge snowstorm.

Covering a major tournament is the dream of all football writers.

The Africa Cup of Nations comes around every two years and I have covered the last two editions with ease, passion and a smile on my face but, fair to say, a lot has changed this time.

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The 33rd edition for me has been a nightmare, an eye opener and everything that could have gone wrong has - but I’m staying positive

We’ve seen underdog stories, incredible goals and also tragic incidents at the AFCON this year, and when I get there I will be covering it for NationalWorld.

Football reporter Rahman Osman, right, with his new-found friends at Istanbul Airport. Credit: Rahman Osman

But I am writing this piece at around 4am Turkish time, stranded in Istanbul Airport en route to Cameroon, sitting on the floor with my new-found friends and not knowing when we can fly.

So for this to make sense, let me take you back to how my trip started and why I’m still stuck in Istanbul.

The struggle to get CAF Accreditation

CAF - African football’s governing body - organises the AFCON and gives out press accreditation.

Normally I’m one of the first to get CAF accreditation for the AFCON, but after starting with NationalWorld I lost my CAF media account and a new administration took over at CAF.

So by the time I started with the website, CAF had closed the accreditation request portal.

I contacted CAF and explained why I could not apply on time but they gave me a straight no and hung up the phone.

Rahman Osman Kante

I felt bad as I have covered the AFCON ever since I moved to the UK.

It doesn’t sit right for me to be an African journalist, having grown up adoring the AFCON for all its uniqueness, and not being a part of it.

I like to think that I am a well connected journalist, so I contacted people I knew who worked for CAF and eventually after weeks my last option managed to help.

After a little talk, he assured me of a pass and a few minutes later I got a message from CAF asking for my details for a press pass.

Train cancellations and entry denial at Gatwick Airport

While travelling to Gatwick Airport on January 23, to fly to Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, via Istanbul, I found that the Gatwick Express had been cancelled.

I had to rush through the airport with just an hour to spare, and just managed to check in on time.

But if I thought the trains were a nightmare, I was in for a real awakening.

After checking all my details, Turkish Airlines asked me for a visa for Cameroon - to which I replied I didn’t need one as I had a press pass for the AFCON.

After reading through the press pass and my details, confirming I was a journalist, they agreed to check me in and give me a boarding pass. Thank God, I thought I was through.

A few minutes later, I got called by one of the attendants and was told I could not fly because they have received information from the Cameroon immigration that they should not let me on if I did not have a visa.

I said it could not be and that I had been assured by CAF And Local Organising Committee that all accredited media personnel did not need a visa to get into Cameroon.

My saving grace came when the flight was delayed by an hour because there were heavy snow in Istanbul.

I took advantage of that and went back to the flight attendant, asking to her to send a copy of my press accreditation to Cameroon.

She agreed, but said if they insisted it was still a no then she would not let me on the plane.

Eventually she got off the phone: “Yes his accreditation is real and he doesn’t need a visa to come to Cameroon.”

Missing my connecting flight and stuck in Istanbul

When I jumped on the plane, I realised almost everyone wanted to be my friend.

A British Cameroonian, going home for a week’s holiday, said: “Man you’re a fighter with a smile on his face.”

We touched down in the beautiful city of Istanbul but the one hour delay, that meant I was allowed on the flight, turned out to be a problem.

I checked on the board and saw that my connecting flight to Yaounde had just left - I had missed it by just 10 minutes.

Deflated and dejected by just missing my flight, I tried to find out where the help desk was, but no one seemed to understand English or maybe my accent.

Eventually I spoke to a staff member, who said I only needed to get an e-visa so they could book me into a hotel to stay and catch the next day’s flight to Cameroon.

We sat on that coach for almost two hours to the east of Turkey, almost 60 miles from Istanbul, to a small town called Celtik, somewhere around Silivri.

Almost everyone who sat on that coach was furious and shouting “Where are you taking us?”.

We finally arrived at this hotel and it took another two hours for them to sort out our rooms - but the wifi only worked in the reception.

The snow storm of the decade

The next day, on January 25, the coach arrived back at the hotel to get us back to the airport so we could catch our evening flight but just 10 minutes after leaving the hotel we got hit by a snow storm.

Snow was falling heavily, and visibility was low and the coach seemed to lose balance every time the driver applied the brakes.

I told the guy sitting next to me that this doesn’t look good for our flights, and given how cars were stuck on the roads due to snow, they would probably be cancelled.

I took a mobile hotspot from my American friend and to inform my editor back in London, but he sent me a news article that froze me.

The snow at Istanbul Airport. Credit: Supplied

Reuters was reporting that all flights had been cancelled and all roads had been closed as the snow was causing havoc.

At this point a lot more people had moved closer to me as I had become some sort of leader for the stranded.

I spoke to Turkish Airlines staff, and they confirmed that all flights were cancelled and we were even lucky to be in the airport - if we had been outside we would have been stuck.

Football reporter Rahman Osman, left, writing his piece stranded at Istanbul Airport. Credit: Rahman Osman

I asked when the next flight would be, and she said the earliest would be on the January 26 - three days after I had left London - even though improved weather could mean an earlier flight.

Passengers were furious, as Turkish Airlines said it would not provide a hotel - as this was a natural disaster.

My editor suggested I get a hotel, but at this point I had become a helpline to five people who followed me around, and leaving them would hurt my conscience.

So I grabbed a few pillows from the business class area of the airport, and we made beds on the floor.