NOTTINGHAM — As he came through the youth ranks within the modest surrounds of Chesterfield, Tendayi Darikwa did not dare to dream of playing international football for any country.
The former West Bridgford schoolboy was just happy to have the chance to play football at all, at any level.
But, having climbed to the lofty heights of the Premier League with Burnley, before returning to play for his hometown club Nottingham Forest last season, it was an opportunity that began to feel increasingly more real.
And, last month, after a long wait for a Zimbabwe passport, Darikwa finally made his debut, playing back-to-back games against the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A 2-1 away win and a 1-1 draw at home edged Zimbabwe closer to qualifications for the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon).
And the games gave Darikwa his first taste of international football.
“To be honest, when I was young and growing up, with the system I came through at Chesterfield, I never thought that I would play at this level, where I am today,” Darikwa said.
“As soon as the Zimbabwe thing came about, I wanted to jump at the opportunity.
“I am very proud of my upbringing and my heritage. Playing for Zimbabwe was always something that I wanted, when the opportunity became clear.
“It is my father who is from Zimbabwe and I have been eligible to play for them, since birth.
“I looked at playing for them a few years back. The passport situation had been difficult, so it did not materialise as quick as I would have liked it to.
“Over the years, because of the way the FA worked and because of the way the country was, it was not the most professional set-up. But they have managed to sort things out and I am very pleased with the way it has gone.”
A point could be enough for Zimbabwe to qualify for the tournament — which will start in June, in Cameroon — when they travel to face Liberia tomorrow afternoon.
But Darikwa will not be involved in the game, having collected a suspension.
“I managed to pick up a booking in each of the two games I played, so I am suspended …” he said.
“That was disappointing, but I have faith in the players who will play the game in Liberia.
“We need a point to qualify and hopefully we can get the job done.”
Nottingham Forest have one heck of a chance to take leap from “mad as a box of frogs” Championship back to Premier League
“The country has gone through a tough time in recent years, but now, there is a new regime and a new government in charge. Hopefully, things can start picking up and going back to the way they were many years ago.
“It was good going out there, it was a special feeling for me. It was an honour to play for the country of my father’s birth. I have a lot of family out there as well,” Darikwa said.
“It was good to play in front of them, because many of them have never been over here to watch me play. It was pleasing for me on that front.
“And, more than that, we got two good results.
“I have been over there before to visit, to see them all. But this was the first time they were able to watch me play in a proper game. We got two good results and, hopefully, they will get to see me play in more games as well.”
Darikwa could be the first of a few English-based players to take up the call to play for Zimbabwe in the coming months and years, with much of the squad currently based in South African football, along with a handful in Belgium.
Knowledge Musona, who has 21 goals in 32 caps, plies his trade with Anderlecht and Tino Kadewere plays for Le Havre, in France.
Leicester City’s Admiral Muskwe, is also on the fringes of the squad.
But generally, the players are based in South Africa or, in some cases, playing in Zimbabwe for eclectically named clubs like Triangle United, Highlanders and Chicken Inn.
“There are a few players in England who are going through the same process, with their passports, as I had to complete. It can be a long process,” Darikwa said.
“There are a few players who play in Belgium. But the main core of the squad play in South Africa. It is not a bad league there. Once I knew I was going to be playing, I did a bit of research.
“There are some good players out there and hopefully, that will help us on the international stage.”
Darikwa is named after his father and hopes he will have taken some pride at seeing his son play for his home nation.
“My dad was not a footballer, he tries to tell me that he did bits back in the day, but I am not sure he was that great,” he said.
“It was a proud moment for me, but also for my family and I hope it will continue. His name is Timothy Tendayi, so I am named after him — my first name is his middle name. It was a proud moment for me and I reckon my dad is going to be proud of me as well, so that is a good thing.
“Hopefully we can qualify now and I would get to play in a major tournament.
“It would be massive for me, it is a big tournament and a lot of the great players over the years have played in that tournament and won it.
“It would be great to play a part in it myself. Hopefully we can book our place in the finals. That would be a great experience.”
It is down to the entire team to keep the clean sheets coming — and to keep Nottingham Forest on the path to success
Zimbabwe did qualify for the Afcon in 2017, for the first time since 2006, but went out in the group stages, having claimed only a single point, from a 2-2 draw with Algeria — a game in which Forest’s Hillal Soudani and Adlene Guedioura both played in, for the opposition.
It would be another big step in the right direction for the country if they could qualify again, for one of the African continent’s biggest footballing showpiece.
And it would also be another big moment in the life of a former West Bridgford schoolboy, who could find himself playing alongside the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Mo Salah, Kelechi Iheanacho and many other big names, having gone from a football education in Chesterfield to potentially, a place in the world spotlight in Cameroon.