KARACHI, Pakistan — On June 12, the world will be tuning into the much-awaited FIFA World Cup in Brazil, but Hassan Masood Khwaja will be focusing on just one thing: the balls.
After a 14,000-kilometer journey, the 32-year-old Pakistani man will be at the stadium in Sao Paolo, following the Adidas AG World Cup balls, some of which were made at the Forward Sports factory in Pakistan.
Like many of his 180 million fellow Pakistanis, his heart is in the game of cricket, not soccer, but he wants to see how the tournament’s official match ball “performs.”
The “Brazuca” ball, named for a term Brazilians use to describe national pride, were only supposed to be manufactured in China. When Adidas — which has supplied balls to the World Cup since 1970 — realized that Chinese manufacturers would not be able to meet demand, it outsourced some production to Forward Sports.
Forward Sports is located in the industrial city of Sialkot, Punjab province. It is the only factory in Pakistan that uses the thermal bonding technology to create seamless soccer balls, and it has already produced balls for German Bundesliga, French League and several other UEFA Champion League clubs.
After the factory’s first few samples were approved, Forward Sports picked up pace and produced over 50,000 balls.
“We had very little time. We started in November and the last shipment of balls left the factory in April,” Khwaja, the company’s director of new product development, told MintPress News.
Khwaja explained that on average, as many as 20 balls can be used in a single match and up to 200 can be used in one practice session. About 3,000 balls will be needed for the month-long tournament, but Forward Sports will produce over 2 million Brazuca balls in all. Some will be used during practice sessions, field testing, matches and promotional events, which means the factory has to produce balls of various grades.
Pakistani women workers and Brazucas
The match balls retail for about $160 — roughly the average monthly wages of a worker at Forward Sports.
Though official statistics point to a female labor participation force of just 26.33 percent in Pakistan, 95 of the people producing the Brazuca balls were women.
“We normally have 60:40 male-female ratio in our factory, but for this line, we specifically put more women because these balls required an eye for detail and needed very minute observation,” said Khwaja.
He added that the skilled workers’ take-home pay was anywhere between $130 to $150 per month, plus the “11 different benefits” that everyone who works at the factory is entitled to, “including a meal, transport, social security, health and life insurance, bonuses, paid leave, etc.” Unskilled laborers at the factory take home about $110 a month.
According to Dr. Sarfraz Bashir, president of the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce, there are craftsmen, especially those in the surgical industry, who earn between $300 to $500 a month.
“Wages are generally dependent on the cost of living and every city has its own dynamics. In Sialkot, people seem generally satisfied, otherwise we would see them on the streets,” he added.
“As the climate gets conducive for more investment, I am sure the workers’ wages will get better,” he said.
When Sialkot ruled the roost in soccer balls
This is not the first time that Sialkot has produced balls for the World Cup. In 1982, when hand-stitched balls were used in the tournament, some were made in Sialkot, Forward Sports’ Khawaja said.
As recently as 1999, Sialkot was known as the soccer ball production capital because it produced about 30 million balls a year, or about 75 percent of the world’s hand-stitched soccer balls.
After the industry was slammed for its use of child labor, Pakistan lost much of the international market to China, Khwaja said.
Now that Sialkot has successfully transitioned from producing hand-stitched balls to ones made by machines, and eliminated child labor from the industry, it seems to be back in business. The city currently has over 2,000 small and medium-sized industrial units manufacturing soccer balls.
“I would say we have captured anywhere between 32 to 40 percent of the international market and soon we will reclaim our position at the top,” Khwaja said.
For a country that seems to be making headlines for all the wrong reasons — bomb blasts, endemic polio, a terrorist haven where extremism is rife — Bashir, of the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce, sees the Brazuca balls asproviding a perfect opportunity to present Pakistan in another light.
“I wish at the inaugural — watched the world over by nearly 2 billion people, even if it’s for a snap of a minute — the world is informed that the balls these soccer legends will be playing with are made in Pakistan,” he said, adding that this will send a “hugely positive” message about the country.
And if Sialkot is on people’s minds, Bashir said, “It should not be seen as a city producing just soccer balls. We have been producing surgical instruments for the last hundred years and are the largest producer of the bagpipes in the world after Scotland.”
“We have the knowledge and we are full of ideas, and we are willing to put our money where our mouth is,” he told MintPress.
About nine years ago, some 365 factory owners decided to pool their money together to build an international airport, as the government was unable to. Just five years later, they had an international airport.
Since then, they’ve decided to depend less and less on the government. “We have built roads, carried out our own drainage, improved our traffic management,” Bashir said.
But more importantly, Bashir said, “We keep our labor force happy.”
He does not remember when the workers’ unions last staged a protest. “We are very cognizant of their needs, and try to meet them.”