In conversation with Tato, the driving force behind the rise of football in Mizoram

In conversation with Tato, the driving force behind the rise of football in Mizoram

LV Lalthantluanga, who is fondly known as Tato by everyone is a businessman and entrepreneur from Mizoram who played a pivotal role in the rise of football in Mizoram. He is the General Manager of Zonet Cable TV Pvt. Ltd. which is the biggest private player in the state. He has a keen personal interest in all sports and is the Assistant Secretary of the Mizoram Premier League Board and the Executive Member of the Mizoram Football Association.

He has been recently named as one of GQ's 50 influential young people. The co-founder of the Mizoram Premier League has been key in the rise of football in the state over the years.

In conversation with Jessica Passah of TNT-The Northeast Today, the University of Delhi alumni talks about the start of Zonet which was pioneered by 3 media background businessmen — K. Sapdanga (the owner of Vanglaini, the biggest Daily Newspaper in Mizoram),  Vanneihtluanga (owner of Lengzem, one of the biggest Weekly magazines in the state who also happens to be Tato's dad) and RK Lianzuala, an ex-executive at AIR who quit to focus on Zonet TV. The channel started in 2004 and has been making waves around the state and has also garnered attention from the other states in the Northeast.

Zonet has been growing ever since its establishment. It has had some successful TV shows over the years which have made a big impact on Mizoram. One such impact is the Mizoram Premier League. Zonet has 10 local channels with one being a satellite channel; it covers the entire state and other neighbouring states. There are also two music channels; one sports channel, two Infotainment channels and the rest are all movie channels.

One of the many grassroots programmes in the state
One of the many grassroots programmes in the state

Tato has previously been interviewed by leading newspapers The Times of India and Indian Express where he has highlighted sports in general in particular football and basketball. The TV channel has invested heavily in football with grassroots programmes and initiatives.

In 2012, Zonet and Mizoram Football Association had entered an agreement for 5 years to organize the Mizoram Premier League, where Zonet will give the MPL Rs 25 lakhs every season. The amount given so far is Rs. 125 lakhs. In return Zonet owns the commercial and television rights. In terms of financial prospect, "It's a total loss.. but after 4 successful seasons, we feel we have made a positive impact," Tato says

Tato in conversation with Baichung Bhutia
Tato in conversation with Baichung Bhutia

The Mizoram Premier League is a great platform for emerging clubs and players and with Aizawl FC in the I-league last season, it look like it's heading  in the right direction, on being asked what other positive signs he hopes will emerge from the state in football terms. He says,"Yes, Aizawl FC was the first team from Mizoram to participate in the I-League. The same Aizawl FC side participated in the last edition of the MPL and were beaten by 3 local teams. The point is that Mizo players are good enough for the national level. And in the last I-League as many as 42 Mizo players participated in the I-League, which means 15% of the total players in I-League are Mizo. And if you see the Indian National Team, you will find Mizo players at every level (from the junior to the senior level). The Mizoram Football Association should take credit for this as they have been doing a great job. The state government also plays a pivotal role; the installation of 4 artificial football turfs here in Mizoram is also a very big factor. The grassroots football initiatives have been doing very well, we even got an award from the AIFF.

NEUFC Grassroots Festival 2015
NEUFC Grassroots Festival 2015

Here are some excerpts from the interview.

TNT- Aizawl FC have achieved a lot especially in terms of reaching the Federation Cup finals, is it a disappointment that they might be relegated from the I-league even though they did not finish last.

Tato – Aizawl FC have done very well, the lack of experience cost them in the I-League. Yes, I feel they deserve to the in the next edition of the I-League and we hope our appeal will be held.

TNT- What initiatives have the Mizoram Premier League and the Mizoram Football Association taken to ensure that football becomes a viable career option for the youth of the state?

Tato – The MPL will always be a feeder institution for the other clubs & institutions. Clubs and other academies come annually to Mizoram to get players. Jerry Mawihmingthanga & Lianzuala Chhangte are such examples (both have been to Liverpool FC for exposure trip for DSK Academy). Others such players are Malsawmzuala (Bengaluru FC) and Jerry Lalrinzuala (currenty at Metz FC for exposure trip on behalf of AIFF). Given the opportunity all these players will perform. Some of the current Aizawl FC players will be taking the leap and will play the ISL this coming season.

TNT- Very rarely passion does not become profession, but we are seeing so many youngsters from Mizoram pursue their passion for the game. With so many youngsters not just in clubs in Mizoram but also in other I-League clubs, how does it make you feel about this generation's ability to cope with pressures in top clubs such as Mohun Bagan?

Tato – Mizo players have a very strong mentality, with proper guidance they can perform anywhere in any team. If you recall, AFC defeated Mohun Bagan here in Aizawl which was a huge boost for the boys.

TNT- Many of the players are making names from themselves outside their state. With Jeje being one of the most prolific Indian strikers to Samuel being the youngest goal scorer in the I- League, it seems like Mizoram is doing something right in grooming their talent. What do you think is different about the programmes you have initiated which have brought about this success?

Tato – The grassroots program has been doing very very well, and then there are the junior side of the MPL who plays competitive football. The number of qualified coaches also increased. So there are lots of positive signs to Mizoram Football

TNT- What do you hope will happen in the next few years in the state?

Tato – Difficult to say, but with new stadium coming in place, an initiative by the MFA to built a football excellence camp will also be very exciting. As long as the MPL is played i feel that we will have a positive impact.

TNT- Times are very different now as compared to a few years ago where football was basically looked upon as a hobby in the region, but with the entry of the ISL also, we see a lot of potential for Northeastern footballers to make it in the country, where do you think we are still lacking in terms of development of the sport?

Tato – Grassroots football is the key, with proper coaching the boys will perform. Because the interest in football is too much

TNT- The Northeast has the most number of footballers in the I League but the clubs from the region seem to struggle in making their mark in the I League. What would you attribute this to?

Tato – The lack in Infrastructure and Finance is the reason, I feel that NE football should be a feeder institution for the big clubs. I WOULD STRONGLY PROPOSE A NORTHEAST FOOTBALL LEAGUE. I believe it will be a huge hit.

TNT- With youngsters more serious about making a career out of football and taking care of their diet and training more, would you say we might even have a global star amongst the local talent?

Tato – A proper football education is needed, proper guidance from the grassroots level.

TNT- Where do you see Zonet TV going from here on out? Do you wish to focus solely on Mizoram (football) or maybe venture out to other states?

Tato- The core competence of Zonet is "Mizo Content" It basically appeals to Mizo speaking viewers, so venturing out would be difficult as of now. But apart from football we have started a successful Basketball League

Thank you Tato for speaking to TNT-The Northeast Today, we hope the Zonet TV will continue to grow and scale new grounds and sincerely hope that other Northeastern states also follow suit and promote football and sport the way you have done. It has been a pleasure speaking to you and we hope to hear of more achievements soon.

(By Jessica Passah)


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