Whatever soccer legend Diego Maradona says, Pakistan will be a big presence at this year’s World Cup in Brazil -- although not because of its playing skills.
The nation, ranked 159th by ruling body FIFA, won’t 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 AG 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 monthlong tournament starting June 12. That compares with millions of Adidas and other brands of ball produced annually by factories such as Forward Sports (Pvt) Ltd. in Sialkot, Pakistan’s main sports manufacturing center. Businesses there say they’ve seen a resurgence of demand amid faster economic growth and as wages have become more competitive with China. Child labor, which had led foreign companies to leave the country, has been clamped down on.
That’s reflected in a sign at the Forward Sports factory gate where workers wait in line at 8 a.m. 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 ($102), less than the price of a top-line Brazuca ball in the U.K. or U.S.
“Now that China’s standard of living is going up day by day, their labor 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 labor, our products are good in price.”
Maradona, Argentina’s 1986 World Cup-winning captain, recently disparaged Pakistan’s footballing credentials, saying Argentine soccer 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’s shown by Pakistan’s return to supplying top-quality World Cup balls after a gap of more than 10 years.
At Forward Sports, there’s a din of machinery as about 1,800 workers on dozens of assembly lines make balls in various colors, 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 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 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,” Masood said. He added that it can raise its share of world soccer ball production, which was once 80 percent, to 50 percent from 18 percent in four years. “We get an edge with our labor 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 percent, 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 percent from 35 percent.
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, company spokeswoman Silvia Raccagni said in an e-mailed comment. The official Brazuca match ball retails on Adidas’s website at $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. Masood declined to reveal production costs or the value of the Adidas contract.
The International Labour Organization has established stitching centers in Pakistani villages to try to prevent under-age labor and stop children working at factories, small shops and in homes.
Sialkot, Pakistan’s main sports manufacturing center, boosted exports 20 percent 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 Inc. sports gloves and Slazenger hockey sticks.
“A lot of brands have shifted to Sialkot,” said Khawar Anwar Khawaja, chief executive officer of Grays of Cambridge (Pakistan) Ltd., a manufacturer of 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 soccer. 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,” Karachi United Football Club manager Adeel Rizki said by phone. “Regular coverage of European soccer has changed this. A lot more kids are liking football more than cricket now.”
Forward Sports’ Masood isn’t a soccer fan, though, so he won’t be glued to the World Cup exploits of Messi, Ronaldo & Co.
“A candy-maker never has a sweet tooth for his own product,” he said.