While much of the African attention during this ongoing international break will be focused on the quintet of sides heading to the World Cup in Russia, there’s much intrigue to be found across the rest of the continent where giants and minnows alike are preparing for the Nations Cup qualifiers later this year.
Originally, the second round of group-stage qualifiers for the 2019 Afcon were supposed to be scheduled during the March break, but plans were shifted as Caf sought to give the continent’s World Cup five ample opportunity to prepare for the global showpiece in Russia later this year.
It’s left some of Africa’s other giants facing a fairly low-key fortnight, although none more so than Ghana, who ultimately weren’t able to schedule any friendly games during the break.
The Black Stars have managed to organise a June fixture against Iceland, with a match against Japan also understood to be in the works, but the government’s decision to stop funding the national team’s friendlies have left the Ghana FA tightening the purse strings.
By contrast, Zambia and Zimbabwe are taking this fortnight very seriously, with the former hosting the Four Nations tournament.
FAZ will certainly be expectant of victory for Wedson Nyirenda and his star-studded squad, with the coach increasingly finding himself under pressure after the Chipolopolo failed to build on their strong start at the 2018 African Nations Championship in Morocco.
However, Angola have also named a strong team—indication that they’re set to take this mini-tournament seriously as well.
Like Nyirenda, South Africa coach Stuart Baxter may begin to hear more voices raised against him if Bafana Bafana fail to win the four-team competition.
The official line may be that Baxter is not under any pressure to win the tournament, but the South Africa Football Association and fans alike will surely be expecting some strong showings after they failed to reach the World Cup.
Baxter has named a youthful and exciting squad, but preparations have been overshadowed by SAFA’s bungled attempt to bring innovative Orlando Pirates coach Rhulani Mokwena into the national-team set-up.
The fourth contenders, Zimbabwe, are in the midst of a rebuilding exercise under Sunday Chidzambwa, who sees the Four Nations as a valuable stepping stone as they look to rebuild their squad ahead of 2019.
The likes of Teenage Hadebe offer hope for the future, but the absence of experienced defender Costa Nhamoinesu following ‘travelling hiccups’ comes as a blow.
Elsewhere, reigning African champions Cameroon begin life after Hugo Broos with a friendly against Kuwait, with interim coach Alexandre Belinga using the match as an opportunity to recall some of those players sidelined during the previous regime.
Quite whether the returning Carlos Kameni still has a role to play for the Indomitable Lions remains to be seen, although injury has unfortunately denied Eric Maxim Choupo Moting and Jean Armel Kana Biyik the chance to make their comebacks.
The Ivory Coast also appear set to be without one of their big-name returnees after Yaya Toure failed to report for international duty, at least at the time of writing.
The 34-year-old had come out of retirement to represent the Elephants, who play Togo and Moldova, but the Ivorian federation have been left in the dark as to why the 102-cap midfielder hasn’t shown up.
They’re also without Wilfried Zaha after injury ruled the Crystal Palace man out of their upcoming fixtures.
Finally, in some of the more intriguing fixtures involving African teams, Tanzania are set to face both Algeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while Mali meet Japan and Uganda face off with Sao Tome e Principe.
Kenya’s Harambee Stars begin life without Paul Put with a pair of compelling fixtures, against the Comoros and the Central African Republic, although the East Africans will have to do without Ayub Timbe and Brian Mandela.