Africa gets ready for the most bizarre international window in history

After 11 months without action, Africa's national teams regroup this week for an international break like no other.

It is the context that makes this window so momentous, given the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and the hardships that African nations and their sportspeople continue to endure in light of COVID-19.

Only days before their men's national team play Nigeria in an international friendly, for example, Tunisia's government announced a resumption of restrictions on local sports for the following two weeks, which serves as an ample reminder of the ongoing consequence of the virus on African sport.

The football during this international break has also been affected by COVID-19, not least because of the practicalities that are involved in the mass transit of players across the world, to assemble with their compatriots for a week, before departing again for their clubs.

Nigeria: Absentees mean opportunities

Nigeria will have to do without Victor Osimhen, after he was 'excused' for international duty in light of the virus's imposition on the Napoli squad, while Ajax have denied their players the chance to travel due to concerns about them having to quarantine upon their return to the Netherlands.

This means that Mohammed Kudus (Ghana), Lassina Traore (Burkina Faso) and Morocco duo Noussair Mazraoui and Zakaria Labyad will miss out on their country's upcoming fixtures.

Having to deal with absentees for other reasons, Nigeria's Super Eagles have a pair of testing fixtures ahead of them, as they meet African champions Algeria on Friday before squaring off with their rivals Tunisia four days later.

These are changing times for the West African giants. John Obi Mikel, Victor Moses, and Odion Ighalo are all history, while Wilfred Ndidi, Oghenekaro Etebo, Joe Aribo and the aforementioned Osimhen are all missing.

Their absences represent opportunity, however, with uncapped Chidera Ejuke and Cyriel Dessers -- both of whom were called up for the March internationals but missed out on their debuts when the games were postponed due to COVID -- back in the squad.

The duo have both moved clubs since the Spring -- Ejuke to CSKA Moscow and Dessers to Genk -- and both have the potential to be major assets for Gernot Rohr if they can bring their club form to the international arena.

In goal, Nigeria will be severely tested by their North African rivals, as the Super Eagles will have to do without both Daniel Akpeyi and Francis Uzoho.

In their stead, Rohr has named four keepers with two caps between them including, notably, Dele Alampasu, who received his one and only cap after being introduced as a substitute against Togo in 2017.

Whoever starts between the sticks, they must contend with the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Andy Delort, or Bagdhad Bounedjah.

Algeria: Still caught up on Aouar?

Algeria fans will be keen for the players at their disposal to end the talk about the players who aren't with the side when Les Fennecs face Nigeria and Mexico.

Yet again, Djamel Belmadi spent a portion of his pre-match press conference talking about Arsenal target and Olympique Lyonnais midfielder Houssem Aouar, who made his debut for France against Ukraine on Wednesday.

"We did the work [to recruit Aouar]," he told journalists [as per Le Buteur]. "The people don't understand that we did everything.

"I entered into contact with him almost the day I started this job, but it turns out that he's always dreamed of playing with France."

As long as Algeria miss out on dual-nationality players, they will continue to be a fractious talking point among the nation's fans and media...but it's distracting speculation that Belmadi would do well to sidestep.

Partey needs new-look Black Stars

While Aouar didn't ultimately move to Arsenal, Thomas Partey did... before promptly joining up with Ghana's Black Stars in Turkey ahead of their meeting with Mali on Friday.

Montpellier-born Strasbourg defender Alexander Djiku, who could have been called up by Senegal, has been named in Ghana's squad, while there's also a place for one-time wonderkid Bernard Mensah, who has been out of the fold for half a decade.

His introduction is among the big decisions taken by Ghana boss CK Akonnor, one of several coaches taking the reins for their first senior international break, along with Zambia's Milutin Sredojevic.

Beaumelle turns to Gervinho

Patrice Beaumelle of the Ivory Coast is another new coach, with the Frenchman having previously been number two to Herve Renard with Morocco, and in the Afcon-winning Zambia and Elephants teams.

While Micho has already courted some controversy in the Chipolopolo camp -- dropping Tanzania-based duo Obrey Chirwa and Clatous Chama from his squad after they failed to meet the prescribed deadline for arrivals -- he began his tenure with a 1-0 victory over Malawi in Lusaka on Wednesday, in a precursor to the weekend's action.

Zambia next meet Kenya on Friday, before squaring off with South Africa on Sunday. It will be intriguing to see whether Beaumelle can stand on his own two feet as a head coach after being a long-term number two -- it's not always a steady transition -- and his Ivorians will be tested when they face a star-studded Belgium side before meeting Japan on Tuesday.

The stand-out decision of Beaumelle's squad selection was to hand a recall to national-team legend Gervinho, who returns for the first time in three years.

The wideman, currently with Serie A Parma, was part of the Elephants' Afcon-winning squad of 2015 -- alongside Beaumelle -- and makes his return after enjoying a renaissance of sorts in Italy.

There will be no fairytale comeback, for now at least, for Cameroon duo Nicolas Nkoulou and Vincent Aboubakar, who were named in Toni Conceicao's provisional squad of 32, before missing out on the final 24-man cut.

The Indomitable Lions are also set to face Japan, on Friday, although they'll be without Bayern Munich new boy Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting, who was not named in the squad, and in-form Ignatius Ganago, who is out with injury.

Derby day for Bafana, Namibia

Finally, on Thursday evening, South Africa and Namibia square off in a derby at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium outside Rustenburg.

There's no shortage of familiarity between these two sides, with many of the Namibian team plying their trade in South African football, notably Mamelodi Sundowns striker Peter Shalulile, while other members of the squad will be short of game time due to the suspension of the local league.

"South Africa is our neighbouring country, so this is an international derby in itself," goalkeeper Loydt Kazapua told ESPN.

"We're just looking to go out there and do our best for the Namibian nation and hold our own against one of Africa's top countries.

"For many of us, this is also a platform to market our talent to a broader audience since our Namibian league has been inactive for a while.

"I believe we have the hunger and drive to go out there and get a result against South Africa."

Namibia struggled at the Africa Cup of Nations in 2019 -- their first qualification since 2008 -- although they largely held their own in a showdown with Bafana, before falling to a second-half winner from Bongani Zungu.

"This match is of paramount importance to the Namibian footballers," added forward Pandu Nekundi.

"It serves as a measuring stick between when we started with our training camp two weeks ago and how we look to improve ourselves before the upcoming Afcon qualifiers.

"We haven't tasted high level football in a while, so the motivation is intrinsic, and all the players are excited to get a sample.

"The aim is to assess our fitness levels as well sharpening ourselves mentally, whilst working on tactical identity and cohesion."

Namibia, like other African nations, are aware of just how important this international break could prove to be considering the intense, backlogged, competitive schedule that awaits African nations in 2021.