Forty percent of the soccer balls used around the world are produced in a small town in Pakistan called Sialkot. About 1,000 factories in the city make the leather-covered orbs, and the region produces 30 million balls a year, some of them for big global brands like Adidas. For the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the Sialkot factories exported approximately 37 million balls.
The natural questions are how and why? The simple answer: British colonialism.
Charles Goodyear introduced the first modern soccer ball in 1855. Made of vulcanized rubber, the ball offered considerable advantages over earlier options, which included human skulls and stuffed pig bladders, but it was also flawed: it bounced unpredictably. The Goodyear ball dominated for less than a decade, before the English Football Association published common standards that required a perfectly spherical ball with a leather outer cover.
A British Army officer stationed in Pakistan had one of those leather-wrapped footballs in need of repair. “He got tired of waiting and asked a local saddle maker to fix it, and Sialkot’s production of balls grew from there,” said Eric Verhoogen, professor of economics at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, who has consulted with Sialkot companies on production. efficiency.
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,” Verhoogen said. “The soccer ball industry essentially grew to serve the British colonists, but it also served other colonies, not just Pakistan.”
The largest company in Sialkot is Forward Sports, which manufactures the balls for Adidas, the official licensee of FIFA World Cup balls since 1982. “Forward sports is the largest company in Sialkot; From 3 to 4,000 people work for Forward Sports,” said Waleed Tariq, business development manager at Bola Gema, a soccer ball factory in the city, which produces about 160,000 balls a month for international retailers like Decathlon and Stadium. Sports. “They make match balls, but they also make [balls of varying sophistication] for the public.”
Qatar’s World Cup ball, Al Rihla, is as sophisticated as it gets. It is the fastest ball in World Cup history and is the first official ball made by heat-sealing rather than hand-stitching, Adidas said in an email. It is also the first ball made with water-based inks and glues, a new standard that increases sustainability.
Official match balls have been produced in Pakistan and China, Adidas said, adding that there are 20 balls for each of the tournament’s 64 matches.
The official match ball will not be available in retail stores, but consumers can purchase Al Rihla replicas for $40 to $165, depending on the technology incorporated.
“Match points are expensive,” Tariq said. “These new technologies will be available, but probably for a very high level of matches. In our experience, the biggest challenge is that customers are not willing to pay the price.”
It always comes back to the money. Sialkot’s market share in the sector is declining in part because there are cheaper balls. Those made in Pakistan can cost between $3 and $6 depending on the technology used, but more brands are turning to less expensive machine-sewn balls made in China. Meanwhile, splicing and other technologies present a different kind of competition. “High-end balls are no longer hand-sewn,” Verhoogen said. “Pakistani growers have been pushed out of both the top and bottom end.”
That may be a harbinger for the future, but right now Al Rihla, the 14th ball made for the World Cup, is flying high.