1986. The year of Maradona. The year when even the gods smiled down on the short but sturdily-built footballer, enabling his country, Argentina, to become world champions, something that wouldn’t have been possible but for the victory in a tough quarter-final match through the famous ‘hand of god’ goal that shattered tens of millions of English hopes into a million tiny smithereens on a football field in Mexico.

1986. A year that not only set Nepali TV screens alight with exciting World Cup action night after night, and the spectacular undulation of thousands doing the ‘Mexican wave’, but also with the most popular TV advertisement ever made here, which showed a dashing mustachioed young man in blue blazer getting out of a sparkling red Toyota, leather briefcase in hand, striding down confidently to his office, and flaunting his liking for a particular cigarette brand, the first brand to be launched by a brand new company that soon went on to become the biggest cigarette-making company here.

Oh yes, 1986 was a memorable year for this football-crazy nation, not least because Maradona gave inspiration to all Nepali footballers (both the established and the aspiring); he was of average Nepali height and build, and even had Nepali looks, thus our footballers could easily identify themselves with this maestro. Added to that was the fact that he could singlehandedly bring the most formidable defense crashing down with his magical dribbling skills, super-speed, and amazing dexterity, jumping over muscular outstretched legs with great aplomb, ever moving forward, the ball not one feet away from his fantastically talented feet. This was added cause for footballers to believe in themselves all the more, Maradona had proved that even if there are ten players in the team, one single player with blessed skills honed to perfection and with the spirit of a champion can make all the difference on whether the game is won or lost.

Now, coming to the equally magical lure of the advertisement mentioned above that was shown frequently before, in-between, and after the games, as well as during the news and the replays, it too was a source of inspiration to many Nepalis, for it was something to be proud of, something that lifted the bar miles high in the advertisement and marketing field of Nepal. And, something that was right up there among the best as far as favorable public-consumption was concerned. And, for this writer, it will always be one of the most memorable parts of 1986, and indeed, his life. How so? Well, this writer was that suave, mustachioed guy in the said advertisement. Oh yes, 1986 was all about Maradona and me!

Okay, so much for nostalgia, guess it’s time to talk a bit about the football (and sports, in general) scenario in our country. Still, I can’t but go back to 1986 even when doing so, for that was also the time when the sporting scenario in Nepal was at its peak, and this writer, too, happened to be part of it. How so? Well, that was when I had just taken a back seat to younger folks in my chosen sport of Tae Kwon Do. It was in 1983 that I had carried the Nepali flag at the 6th World Tae Kwon Do Championships in Denmark, the first time the country had participated at this level in this brand new sport (at least for us here, and I was part of the team that established it). As anybody knows, it went on to become a really popular sport that even produced a few notable world champions.

Anyway, what I’m saying is that I was pretty much in the midst of the sports scene at the time, and here I must state that Nepal sports had a really able leader at the helm, who through means that were daring and courageous, put sports at the top of the national agenda for many years, something that it definitely isn’t today, nor for quite some time now. Football was, no doubt, the main sports then as it always has been, and that was the time when stadiums were built all over the country, so that this most popular of sports could be played everywhere, and so that championships could be held everywhere, as well. That was also the time when boxing, too, was its zenith, as were badminton and table tennis and handball. Other sports were also making great strides. It was an exciting time for youth to take up sports!

That was also the time when one national team or the other was taking off for a foreign land to raise the Nepali flag proudly at one international game or the other. There was no question of pitiful whinings, such as, ‘We’re not ready’, ‘We’re not up to standard’, ‘We have no budget’, and so on. Something called ‘sports tax’ took care of the finances, and so pumped up were our sportspersons, what with foreign coaches, brand new stadiums, and multi-purpose covered halls everywhere, added to the prospect of going abroad, that we had quite a few sportspersons in many fields who could take on the best in the world.

Sports like football and boxing and Tae Kwon Do and badminton and table tennis created their own icons. Icons that served as inspiration to numerous aspiring youngsters, and I daresay, still continue to do so today. That’s what we need more of, and thankfully, a later entry into the country’s sports arena, cricket, is playing a big part doing so. Other sports, on the other hand, aren’t doing as well as they should, considering the peaks they had achieved in their heydays during the glorious years. Football, in particular, which is still the most popular game here and in the world, has taken a breather, it seems, considering that we were the best team in South Asia once upon a time (gold in South Asian Games in 1984 and 1993, and silver in 1985 and 1999), and poised for promisingly greater heights. A promise, sadly, not fulfilled. Yet.