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World Cup: Pakistan football makers have a ball

By Igor G. Barbero, IANS/EFE,

Sialkot (Pakistan) : The replica of the ball of the World Cup in South Africa and most of the 40 million footballs that the big brands sell every year are from the Pakistani industrial city of Sialkot where thousands of workers struggle to make them.

Located in the northeast of Pakistan and with nearly half a million inhabitants, Sialkot is one of the most important economic centres of the country and is known for an industry dedicated to the export of surgical instruments and sports equipment, such as gloves and backpacks, but the football is its mark of identity.

“In Sialkot there is a long tradition of producing balls for soccer. There are companies established since four generations. Now we have many workers with the ability and experience to manufacture the footballs,” Bilal Jehangir, executive director of manufacturing company Silver Star, told EFE news agency.

Even though the manufacturing of the first sports articles had started in the beginning of the 20th century and the industry started gaining influence in the later decades, the real start for Sialkot came towards the end of the 1980s, when many of the current 2,000 factories opened.

These factories, with clients that do not need any introduction, such as Adidas, Nike, Lotto and Reebok, are today part of the geography of a big city that provides employment to 600,000 people and whose industry has an annual turnover of some $1.3 billion in exports, something that pushed the businessmen to construct their own international airport.

“It is a culture. If you ask your son what he wants to do when he grows up, he would certainly not tell you a doctor, rather he’d say an exporter,” affirmed a businessman from the area, Khurram Javaid, owner of a factory of leather products.

Javaid also leads a guided tour of these factories where thousands of professional automatons cut sheets of synthetic leather, cut the balls in hexagons or pentagons, mark them, dry the paint, divide the pieces and sew them with needles, thread and thimbles.

These hidden protagonists of the football world sew the ball by means of a traditional technique that starts with the exterior of the ball and ends with the difficult task of sewing on the last piece with the manipulation of a needle within the sphere.

Before arriving at the feet of Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, tens of thousands of specimens are subjected to daily tests of quality in laboratories to supervise pressure, bounce, impermeability and shape.

The replica of the controversial official ball of the South African World Cup, the Adidas Jabulani, comes out of the big factory in Sialkot, of which more than four million specimens have already been sold, even though the original was made in China.

The Adidas ball of the last European Champions league, which was a matter of controversy among the goal keepers for its effects, was also made in this Pakistani locality.

According to the businessmen of Sialkot – who denied the existence of child labour in the factories, a practice that was common decades ago – between 80 and 90 percent of the millions of good quality footballs that are sold annually are made in Pakistan, most of them in and around this city.

But during the last few years China has emerged as a possible competitor.

“Last year was bad, but the recovery has started and now by July we will reach the peak of our production. Some of the production has gone to China and we could have problems with balls of low quality. Even though labour is cheaper here, they beat us in productivity,” explains Khwaja Masood Akhtar, president of the company Forward Group.

Other businessmen think that China cannot compete with Pakistan in the field of better finished balls, the price of which is some $6 out of the factory, nearly seven times lower than its price in the Western markets.

“If we had political stability in this country, nobody could compete with us. We are sincere and we are still quite inexpensive, but what can we do if we don’t have electricity several hours a day?”, Javaid laments with a smile, referring to the continuous power cuts that Pakistan faces.