Nothing in football is ever entirely definitive but, if there was any doubt that Ivory Coast's golden generation came to an end in Rustenburg in February during the Africa Cup of Nations, it was removed by the omission of Didier Drogba from the squad to face Gambia on Saturday. Ninety-six games and 60 goals after he made his debut against South Africa in 2002 Drogba will not even be part of the squad, although whether he has been dropped or asked to be left out remains unclear.
After the defeat by Nigeria in the Cup of Nations quarter-final there had been widespread calls from Ivorian fans for mass changes and the culling of the old guard but the Ivory Coast coach, Sabri Lamouchi, had hinted that he would retain the old core. Lamouchi had left Drogba out for the second game in the Cup of Nations, the victory over Tunisia, but that was explained by the fact that Drogba, the Chinese season long over, was lacking match fitness – and it was even suggested it had been Drogba's decision.
Now he has moved to Galatasaray and is playing regularly and his omission seems less explicable. Lamouchi again hinted Drogba had had some part in the decision. "He's not in top form now," he said. "He now wants to work so as to regain his form before rejoining the Elephants. In eight months Drogba has played for three clubs in three continents. This affected his form and it is visible. He is currently working hard at his new club, Galatasaray, to recover his form. Drogba's absence does not mean any humiliation. He will come back to the fold and help us qualify for the 2014 Fifa World Cup."
Anzhi Makhachkala's Lacina Traoré, a tall physical presence, will presumably replace him. He is a similar type of player to Drogba and has been his obvious successor for a couple of years but it is hard to believe, in pure footballing terms, that Drogba would not be an asset from the bench. Pure footballing terms, of course, are only ever part of it.
Drogba was clearly the leader of his generation, Ivory Coast's captain for seven years and somebody others clearly respected, not just for what he did on the field but also for his work in trying to mitigate the effects of the civil war. When he was left out against Tunisia, he seemed determined to make a point of being supportive, leaping an advertising hoarding at one point to join the goal celebrations.
Perhaps Lamouchi felt that the baggage Drogba would bring sitting on the bench would inhibit the rest of the side but this feels like a defining moment for his management: get this wrong without Drogba – whoever's decision it was – and it could terminally undermine his reign, if the Nigeria defeat has not already done that.
Drogba is not the only player omitted: Emmanuel Eboué, Romaric, Siaka Tiéné and Igor Lolo have also been left out and, in a sense, a home game against Gambia is the ideal place to start the process of rebuilding. They lie bottom of the qualifying group, with one point from their opening two games, and realistically should provide no more than perfunctory opposition. For Ivory Coast, getting through a group that also includes Morocco and Tanzania really should not be an issue.
They top the table with a win and a draw, which came away to Morocco in what, in theory, should be their hardest game. The difficulty is in making sure that, by the time the group stage ends in September, they have forged a strong enough team to get through the play-off.
The other most notable absentees are the Ayew brothers, who have made themselves unavailable for selection by Ghana, largely because of a spat between Dédé, the elder of the two under consideration, and the coach, James Kwesi Appiah. Ghana are in serious danger of failing to qualify, partly for reasons beyond their control. They went down 1-0 to Zambia last June but the match that has really boosted Zambia, giving them a three-point lead, is one they lost. Zambia were beaten 2-0 in Khartoum, only to be awarded a 3-0 victory when it emerged that Sudan had fielded an ineligible player in Saif Ali. Ghana still have to go to Khartoum.
That has increased the pressure on Ghana before they host Sudan on Sunday, while Zambia, for all their uncertain form at the Cup of Nations, will surely not slip up away to Lesotho. Appiah himself is now under intense scrutiny. After Ghana's oddly lethargic showing at the Cup of Nations many felt he was lucky to keep his job – although the Ghanaian FA did promise to send him on a coaching course – and he must know that anything but a win at the weekend will almost certainly mean the end, if only to get the Ayews back in the squad. Milovan Rajevac, the Serbian coach who led Ghana to the World Cup semi-final, has made clear through Nenad Glisic, who acted as an aide and interpreter for him, that he feels he has "unfinished business" with Ghana and would be keen on a return.
Emmanuel Frimpong, the Arsenal midfielder on loan at Fulham, has been called up to the squad for the first time but he and the winger Christian Atsu are both injury doubts.
Nigeria, the African champions, can take control of their group with a win over Kenya, while Burkina Faso, the side they beat in the Cup of Nations final, need to beat Niger to have even a chance of making the play-offs. They drew their opening game 0-0 against Congo, only for the match to be awarded as a 3-0 defeat for fielding Herve Zengue, a player Fifa deemed ineligible. Zengue, who was born in Cameroon but is married to a Burkinabe, had previously been a source of controversy after playing in a 2012 Cup of Nations qualifier against Namibia; Namibia's appeal was rejected by the Confederation of African Football because they supposedly filed it too late. Fifa also awarded Niger a 3-0 win for their opening game against Gabon, who fielded an ineligible player in Charly Moussono. Although he played all four matches for Gabon in the 2012 Cup of Nations, he was deemed ineligible by Fifa because he had represented Cameroon in the 2006 Beach Soccer World Cup. As a result Gabon, who looked a rising force as Cup of Nations hosts in 2012, face a crucial trip to Congo on Saturday.
South Africa, after sloppy draws against Ethiopia and Botswana, have a must-win game against an improving Central African Republic, while Mali, after losing in Benin in their opening game, cannot afford to lose in Rwanda. Benin themselves could take a major step towards the play-offs by negotiating an away trip to Algeria without defeat. And in Yaounde Jean-Paul Akono at last faces the first proper test of his career as Cameroon manager as his side face Togo.