Senior Sports Editor
WHEN ZIFA president, Felton Kamambo, sent a Christmas message to every Warrior, extending an olive branch to mend the bond shattered by the chaos that marred their 2019 AFCON finals, one response charmed his spirits.
It came from Tendayi Darikwa.
Team manager, Wellington Mpandare, was the courier, in what was a demonstration of the respect, for the communication channels, which these professionals are taught to value, from the start of their careers.
“Merry Christmas to you manager,’’ wrote Darikwa. “Tell the president thank you for the letter and I will be back in 2020 to lead the nation once fit.’’
Stuck in the depths of the English winter, and battling a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury he had suffered a few months earlier, the Nottingham Forest defender could have been forgiven for focusing his mind elsewhere.
After all, he hadn’t played for Forest, all season, had not featured for the Warriors since that disastrous campaign in Egypt, which tested the frosty relationship between the players, and the ZIFA leadership, to breaking point.
But, Darikwa, ever the consummate professional, decided to respond to the ZIFA boss.
“Just before Christmas I personally wrote letters to each and every one of the players that donned the Warriors shirt in 2019, wishing them Happy Holidays, and the best of what 2020 has to offer,’’ Kamambo told The Herald.
“The response from the lads was heart-warming.
“However, the one from Tendai Darikwa was reassuring, it’s a message that gave me hope as the New Year begins to slowly unfold — second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour.
“Now, when you lead an FA that has players who are ready to die for the nation like Darikwa, players who put their body on the line like Khama Billiat and players who wear the national shirt with pride like captain Knowledge Musona, you feel like you owe the nation a piece of your skin.’’
Fast forward 11 months later, the ZIFA president’s words now appear to have been prophetic.
Darikwa is back in action, after recovering from his serious injury and, in his two comeback matches for his country, he has been one of the stars of the Warriors.
Fate could not have provided a tougher challenge, like the one he has had to confront, in the past 15 months, in which injury forced him to miss the rest of the last English Championship season.
And, when he recovered to resume duty for his country, the assignment could not have been tougher.
A back-to-back duel against the African champions, who were unbeaten in 20 matches, ahead of their first showdown in Algiers last week.
Tasked, in moments of the game, to mark Riyad Mahrez, is one of the toughest examination any defender could ask for.
And, for one just coming out of long-term injury, it can be a brutal test.
But, refreshingly, Darikwa is cut from the cloth that makes tough guys — blessed with both the physical presence, and the mental strength, he has been, over the two legs of our bruising battles with the Desert Foxes, the standout Warriors player.
His fighting spirit was there for everyone to see, a true Warrior who took no prisoners, who refused to be bullied by the pedigree of the opponents and, rather than be overwhelmed by their quality, he chose to fight fire with fire.
In Algiers, when some of his fellow Warriors were being blown away, by the occasion, he thrived on that grand stage, playing with the composure expected from one of the leaders of the team.
And, crucially, adding the technical element which ensured our defensive wall would not collapse.
Maybe, the Zambians didn’t have someone like him, and that explains why they were blown away 5-0 by these Desert Foxes, the last time an AFCON qualifier was played in Algeria, before our arrival there.
He was the expression of a modern defender, never hurrying his clearances, embracing the pressure, measuring his passes, playing well from the back, without having to worry he was in the den of the Foxes.
And, adding as much value to defence as he was doing to attack.
For someone who had not started a club game since playing 69 minutes of Forest’s 2-1 win over Swansea at the City Ground on March 30, last year, and not played for his country since the 0-4 massacre at the hands of the DRC in Cairo, on June 30, last year, this was as good as it gets.
And, when the African champions came here, on Monday, Darikwa was uncompromising down the right side of our defence, playing with both authority and quality.
Now and again, he kept providing us with a good exhibition of how a fullback can remain loyal, to his primary defensive duties, and — at the same time — retain the instincts to try and supplement the attack, down those channels.
His leadership qualities are there, for everyone to see, a Warrior who doesn’t embrace mediocrity, barely panics, even under intense pressure, and plays football the way this game should be — tough and fair.
The defining moment, for me, came he was pulled out, with nine minutes left on the clock, by coach Zdravko Logarusic — in a tactical move given we needed more men in attack then defence — at that stage of the game.
He came off for Prince Dube and, rather than take his seat on the substitutes’ bench, he appeared to join Loga, as his assistant coach.
And, together, they appeared to recreate one of world football’s iconic moments when, during the 2016 Euro final, an injured Cristiano Ronaldo turned into the assistant of Portugal coach, Fernando Santos, at the Stade de France.
In an era where Loga has questioned the commitment of other members of the British Brigade, to the national cause, and decided to leave them out of his team, Darikwa comes through as a different breed.
And, it’s not just his football, which paints this fine picture of him being a very good man, something which is even better than being a very good footballer.
He also has a heart for the poor and the young to help them,so that they become better people.
In February, he sourced boots and jerseys which were donated to the Kotwa Academy through ZIFA and his local representative, Mistry Chipere.
Kamambo also donated 30 balls to Area Zone clubs from Kotwa and Mutoko at the same occasion.
A week earlier, Darikwa paid a visit to the pupils at Abbey Gate Primary School in Nottingham, where he talked about the importance of education and belief in their potential.
Watching him in the two games against the Desert Foxes, one could feel this was the rebirth of a true Warrior.
It couldn’t have happened to a better person.