JOHANNESBURG — Didier Drogba is set for his international return after a seven-month break as Africa’s top teams head to Europe for a series of friendlies this week.
Chelsea striker Drogba was included in Ivory Coast’s squad for the first time since its final game at last year’s World Cup for the meeting with Mali in Valence, France on Tuesday.
Ghana — newly established as Africa’s highest-ranked team at No. 15 in FIFA’s standings and playing under new coach Goran Stevanovic for the first time — take on fellow west Africans Togo in Belgium.
On Wednesday, Cameroon is away in Macedonia and DR Congo and Gabon face off in another France-based all-African affair in Rouen.
South Africa is at home to Kenya and Nigeria plays Sierra Leone.
Drogba makes the relatively short trip from London to southeast France after last playing for his country in a 3-0 win over North Korea in the group stage in South Africa last year. The victory wasn’t enough to keep the Ivorians in the tournament.
Coach Francois Zahoui also included Salomon Kalou of Chelsea, Kolo and Yaya Toure of Manchester City and Emmanuel Eboue of Arsenal, along with recalled Hannover midfielder Didier Ya Konan.
But it’s the contribution of Drogba which is expected to interest Zahoui most ahead of the next round of African Cup of Nations qualifiers in late March.
The Ivorians have won two from two in the qualifiers and have lost just once to Mali in 20 matches.
Serb Stevanovic held his first training session with Ghana on Monday in unfamiliar Antwerp after officially taking over from compatriot Milovan Rajevac on Feb. 1.
All but one of his 19-man squad is based in Europe, including troublesome midfielder Sulley Muntari, who is on loan at England’s Sunderland. Michael Essien is still absent, though.
Muntari had run-ins with Rajevac during the African Cup of Nations and the World Cup in 2010, and was left out of Ghana’s opening Cup of Nations qualifiers late last year. However, he has been given another chance under Stevanovic.
Chelsea midfielder Essien hasn’t played for his country for nearly a year after being granted an international break by the Ghana football association.
Ghana is currently locked in a battle with Sudan and Congo for control of its 2012 African Cup qualifying group. Togo is unlikely to qualify from its group after slipping to fourth, 10 points behind surprise pacesetter Botswana.
Also Tuesday, Botswana is away to Mozambique after staying unbeaten in eight games before a 2-1 loss to Sweden in Cape Town in January.
On Wednesday, Cameroon is in Skopje for its first ever match against Macedonia. Boosted by the performance of TP Mazembe at the Club World Cup, a Mazembe-strong DR Congo team takes on 2012 African Cup co-host Gabon.
Back in Africa, Nigeria is at home to Sierra Leone in Lagos on Wednesday. The Nigerians will attempt to emerge from a disastrous 2010, when the team fell to a group-stage exit at the World Cup and was banned from international football by FIFA. Everton’s Victor Anichebe will be available but Newcastle striker Shola Ameobi missed out due to injury for new coach Samson Siasia’s first game in charge.
South Africa was forced to hastily line up Kenya for its friendly at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, one of England’s venues at the World Cup, after Burkina Faso pulled out at the last minute saying it didn’t have a signed agreement with South Africa’s football association.
Ahead of a crucial Cup of Nations qualifier with African champion Egypt in March, Bafana Bafana has picked Tottenham pair Steven Pienaar and Bongani Khumalo, Portsmouth’s Aaron Mokoena and Panseraikos striker Bernard Parker in its squad.
Regular frontman Katlego Mphela was omitted by coach Pitso Mosimane after he boycotted training with his club, reportedly claiming he wanted to move to a European club.
Egypt, which has made a poor start to Cup of Nations qualifying and is bottom of the group, cancelled its friendly with the United States because of the violent protests in Cairo.
The Pharaohs have slipped down to No. 33 in the latest FIFA rankings, behind Ghana and No. 26-ranked Ivory Coast.
Morocco will play for the first time since winning its bid to host the 2015 African Cup of Nations, against Niger in Marrakech.
Equatorial Guinea, which will share next year’s tournament with Gabon, continues its development under former France coach Henri Michel when it plays Chad at home. Equatorial Guinea last won an international match in 2008 and has lost its last nine games.
Other friendly internationals (all Wednesday): Guinea-Bissau vs. Gambia (Amadora), Cape Verde Islands vs. Burkina Faso (Obidos), Tanzania vs. Palestine (Dar Es Salaam), Libya vs. Benin (Tripoli), Senegal vs Guinea (Dakar), Swaziland vs. Zambia (Manzini), Namibia vs. Malawi (Windhoek).