Forty percent of the soccer balls used around the world are produced in Sialkot, a small city in Pakistan. About 1,000 factories in the city make leather-covered jewellery, and the sector produces 30 million balls a year, some of them for big global brands such as Adidas. For the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the Sialkot factories exported around 37 million balls.
The natural questions are how and why? Simple answer: British colonialism.
Charles Goodyear introduced the first modern soccer ball in 1855. Made of vulcanized rubber, the ball offered considerable advantages over previous alternatives, which included human skulls and stuffed pig bladders, but was also imperfect—it bounced unpredictably. The Goodyear ball dominated for less than a decade, before the English Football Association published general standards that called for a perfectly spherical ball with an outer leather covering.
A British Army officer stationed in Pakistan had a leather-bound ball that needed repair. “He got tired of waiting and asked a local saddle maker to fix it, and Sialkot ball production was born from there,” said Eric Verhogen, professor of economics at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Happened.” ability.
What started as a small family business soon became the main economic activity of Sialkot. “But the interesting part of the story is that Pakistanis don’t play football,” Verhugen said. “The soccer ball industry grew up to essentially serve the British colonialists, but it also served other colonies, not just those in Pakistan.”
The largest company in Sialkot is Forward Sports, which manufactures balls for Adidas, the official licensee of FIFA World Cup balls since 1982. “Forward Sports is the biggest company in Sialkot; 3- to 4,000 people work for Forward Sports,” said Waleed Tariq, business development manager at Bola Djemaa, a soccer ball factory in the city that produces about 160,000 balls a month for international retailers such as Decathlon and Stadium Sports. does.” They make match balls, but they also make [balls of varying sophistication] for the people.
Qatar’s World Cup ball, the Al Rihla, is as sophisticated as it gets. It is the fastest ball in World Cup history, and the first official match ball made with thermo bonding rather than hand-stitching, Adidas said in an email. It is also the first ball made with water-based ink and glue, a new standard that increases stability.
Adidas said the official match balls have been produced in Pakistan and China, adding that there are 20 balls for each of the tournament’s 64 matches.
The official match ball will not be available at retail, but consumers can buy replicas of Al Rihla for $40 to $165, depending on the technology involved.
Tariq said, ‘Match balls are expensive. “These new technologies will be available, but probably for very high level matches. The biggest challenge in our experience is that customers are not willing to pay the price.
It always comes back to money. Sialkot’s market share in this sector is declining partly because there are cheaper balls. Balls made in Pakistan can cost from $3 to $6, depending on the technology used, but more brands are opting for less expensive machine-sewn balls made in China. Meanwhile, thermo bonding and other technologies present competition of another kind. “High-end balls are no longer hand-stitched,” Verhogen said. “Pakistani producers have been squeezed out of both the high and low end.”
It may be a foreshadowing for the future, but for now, Al Rihla’s 14th World Cup ball is flying high.