Pakistan plays perfect through-ball for Messi and Ronaldo at Fifa World Cup 2014

Diego Maradona once famously pointed out Pakistan's lack of footballing credentials. While it certainly won’t be represented by a team in Brazil, thousands of the official ‘Brazuca’ match balls were manufactured there.
An employee hand-stitches the panels of an Adidas AG "Brazuca Replica Glider" football on the production line at the Forward Sports (Pvt.) Ltd factory in Sialkot, Punjab, Pakistan. Asad Zaidi / Bloomberg
An employee hand-stitches the panels of an Adidas AG "Brazuca Replica Glider" football on the production line at the Forward Sports (Pvt.) Ltd factory in Sialkot, Punjab, Pakistan. Asad Zaidi / Bloomberg

Pakistan will be a big presence at next month’s Fifa World Cup in Brazil, although not because of the country’s football skills.

The nation, ranked 159th by Fifa, will not be among the 32 teams at sport’s most watched event. Yet its industry has recovered to join China as a key supplier of official adidas World Cup balls, such as those to be stroked around by stars such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

More than 3,000 “Brazuca” balls will be used at the month-long tournament starting on June 12. That is a small but symbolically important part of the millions of adidas and other brands of ball produced annually by factories such as Forward Sports in Sialkot, Pakistan’s main sports manufacturing centre. Businesses there say they have noticed a resurgence of demand amid faster economic growth and as wages have become more competitive with China. Child labour, which had led foreign companies to leave the country, has been clamped down on.

That is reflected in a sign at the Forward Sports factory gate, where workers wait in line at 8am to show their employee card. “We don’t employ people under 15,” it reads. Another sign says not to drop litter, while an open sewer flows on one side of the gate. Many of the workers are on a minimum monthly wage of 10,000 rupees (Dh370), less than the price of a top-line Brazuca ball in the UK or US.

“Now that China’s standard of living is going up day by day, their labour wage is going up day by day,” said Mohammad Younus Sony, head of the Pakistan Sports Goods Manufacturers & Exporters Association, in an interview in Sialkot. “We will have one less competitor. We have a lot of cheap labour, our products are good in price.”

Diego Maradona, Argentina’s 1986 World Cup-winning captain, recently disparaged Pakistan’s footballing credentials, saying Argentine football chiefs knew even less about the sport than the people of the south Asian country. “I’m sure people in Pakistan are good at a lot of things, but I never saw Pakistan play in the World Cup finals,” he said.

He was right about the nation’s tournament record – or lack of one – and also that it has other skills. That is shown by Pakistan’s return to supplying top-quality World Cup balls after a gap of more than 10 years.

At Forward Sports, there is a din of machinery as about 1,800 workers on dozens of assembly lines make balls in various colours, sewing patches of synthetic material together and flipping the ball inside out as stitching is done from the inner side. The ball is filled with air, inspected and put in a circular-shaped machine that improves roundness. Some workers use sewing machines, while others do it the old-fashioned way, stitching patches together using two needles. The workforce includes women wearing the traditional Pakistani long tunic and baggy pants, some displaying nail polish, and others with burqas showing just the face. Typically, employees work eight hours a day for six days a week.

Forward Sports, the country’s biggest manufacturer of match balls for adidas, makes hand-stitched, machine-made and thermo-bonded footballs for the world’s second-largest sporting goods manufacturer, based in Herzogenaurach, Germany. Thermo-bonded balls are of elite tournament quality, while the other categories are of lower standard.

Khawaja Hassan Masood, the Pakistani company’s head of new product development, estimates that his company will supply more than 2 million Brazuca balls of various grades. Most World Cup balls come from China, he said in an interview at the factory.

“Pakistan can regain much lost share of football manufacturing from China, Vietnam and Indonesia,” Mr Masood said. He added that it can raise its share of world football production, which was once 80 per cent, to 50 per cent from 18 per cent in four years. “We get an edge with our labour wages as they are cheaper than China.”

The world’s leading ball manufacturer until the 1990s, Pakistan lost business to China in 2006-09, dropping almost half its global share to 13 per cent, according to research by senior lecturer Khalid Nadvi of the University of Manchester, Peter Lund-Thomsen, associate professor at Copenhagen Business School, and others. China’s rose to 50 per cent from 35 per cent.

Adidas sold 13 million balls in a campaign based on the Jabulani ball in the 2010 World Cup and is confident it will exceed this with the Brazuca, said the company spokeswoman Silvia Raccagni. The official Brazuca match ball retails on adidas’s website at US$160, with lower-quality balls available at cheaper prices.

Adidas, sole supplier of the World Cup ball, declined to give a breakdown of geographical sourcing or details of commercial agreements. Mr Masood declined to reveal production costs or the value of the adidas contract.

Pakistan’s minimum wage of 10,000 rupees a month compares with the lowest minimum in China of 1,010 yuan (Dh594) in Anhui province last year. Overall, Chinese wages have tripled in a decade.

The International Labour Organization has established stitching centres in Pakistani villages to try to prevent under-age labour and stop children working at factories, small shops and in homes.

Sialkot boosted exports 20 per cent to a record $1.05 billion in the year to June 2013, the manufacturers and exporters’ association said. Located in the central province of Punjab, the city also produces Nike sports gloves and Slazenger field hockey sticks.

“A lot of brands have shifted to Sialkot,” said Khawar Anwar Khawaja, chief executive of Grays of Cambridge (Pakistan), a manufacturer of field hockey and cricket products who says he wants to tap the cricket ball export market. “Our exports are very tiny if you compare them to the world. We can double or triple Sialkot’s exports if the government supports us.”

Pakistan has an eager audience for European football. People put up large public screens for Champions League finals, World Cup matches and other big games, while fans wear jerseys of top clubs such as Manchester United and Real Madrid.

“Cricket has been the sport of choice for many years, but the trend has changed in the past 10 years,” said the Karachi United Football Club manager Adeel Rizki. “Regular coverage of European soccer has changed this. A lot more kids are liking football more than cricket now.”

Forward Sports’ Mr Masood isn’t a football fan, so he won’t be glued to the World Cup exploits of Messi, Ronaldo and company.

“A candy maker never has a sweet tooth for his own product,” he said.

business@thenational.ae

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Published: May 21, 2014 04:00 AM

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