40% of the footballs used in the world are produced in a small Pakistani town called Sialkot. There are nearly 1,000 factories in town that make the leather-covered spheres, and the region produces 30 million balls a year, some for big global brands like Adidas. For the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the Sialkot factory exported about 37 million balls.
The natural question is how and why? Simple answer: British colonialism.
Charles Goodyear introduced the first modern football in 1855. Made of vulcanized rubber, the soccer ball has considerable advantages over previous options, including a human skull and a stuffed pig bladder, but it also has drawbacks — it bounces unpredictable. Goodyear footballs reigned for less than a decade before the English Football Association issued a general standard requiring a spherical covering to be perfectly spherical.
A British officer stationed in Pakistan had one of these leather bound balls in need of repair. “He got tired of waiting, so he asked a local saddle maker to fix it, and that’s where Sialkot’s ball production was born,” said Eric Verhoogen, an economics professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Efficiency.
What started as a small family business soon became the main economic activity in Sialkot. “But the interesting part of the story is that Pakistanis don’t play football,” Verhoogen said. “The development of the football industry essentially served the British colonists, but it also served other colonies, not just the Pakistani colony.”
The largest company in Sialkot is Forward Sports, which manufactures balls for Adidas, the official licensor of FIFA World Cup balls since 1982. Between 3 and 4,000 people work for Forward Sports,” said Waleed Tariq, business development manager at Bola Gema, a football factory in town that produces monthly balls for international retailers such as Decathlon and Stadium Sports. About 160,000 balls.”They make game balls, but they also make [balls of varying sophistication] for the public. “
Qatar’s World Cup ball, the Al Rihla, is exquisite. It is the fastest ball in World Cup history and the first official match ball to be heat-bonded rather than hand-sewn, Adidas said in an email. It’s also the first ball to be made using water-based ink and glue, a new standard for raising sustainability.
The official match balls have been produced in Pakistan and China, Adidas said, adding that 20 balls will be used in each of the tournament’s 64 matches.
The official game ball won’t be sold at retail stores, but consumers can buy replicas of Al Rihla for $40 to $165, depending on the technology used.
“Game balls are expensive,” Tariq said. “These new technologies will be available, but probably for a very high level of racing. In our experience, the biggest challenge is that customers are not ready to pay for it.”
It always comes back to money. Sialkot’s market share in the industry is declining, partly because balls have become cheaper. Prices for Pakistani-made balls range from $3 to $6, depending on the technology used, but more brands opt for cheaper machine-sewn balls made in China. Meanwhile, thermal bonding and other technologies present another kind of competition. “Nowadays high-end balls are no longer hand-stitched,” Verhoogen said. “Pakistan producers are being squeezed out of the market at both the high and low end.”
It may be an ominous sign for the future, but for now, Al Rihla, making his 14th ball for the World Cup, is flying high.