Pakistan may surprise viewers at FIFA World Cup

KARACHI – One of the most important industries of Pakistan will join China as a key supplier of official footballs of the Adidas AG (ADS) for 2014 FIFA World Cup, such as those to be stroked around by stars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, a foreign media service reported on Tuesday.

The 20th international men’s football tournament is scheduled to take place in Brazil from June 12 to July 13, 2014. “More than 3,000 “Brazuca” balls will be used at the month long tournament. That compares with millions of Adidas and other brands of ball produced annually by factories such as Forward Sports (Pvt) Ltd in Sialkot,” the Bloomberg reported.

Child labour, which had led foreign companies to leave Pakistan, has been clamped down on. That’s reflected in a sign at the Forward Sports factory gate where workers wait in line at 8am 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 UK or US. “Now that China’s standard of living is going up day-by-day, their labour wage is also going up day-by-day,” said Mohammad Younus Sony, head of the Pakistan Sports Goods Manufacturers & Exporters Association. “We will have one less competitor. We have a lot of cheap labour, our products are good in price,” he said.

Pakistan is going to supply 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 lines make balls in various colours, 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 local women in numbers. Typically, employees work eight hours a day for six days a week. The country’s biggest manufacturer of footballs for Adidas makes hand-stitched, machine-made and thermo-bonded footballs for the world’s second-largest sporting goods manufacturer, based in Herzogenaurach, Germany.

Khawaja Hassan Masood, the company’s head of new product development, estimates his company would supply more than two million Brazuca balls of various grades. “Pakistan can regain much lost share of football manufacturing from China, Vietnam and Indonesia,” he said. “We get an edge with our labour wages as they are cheaper than in China.”

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.

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 (NKE) 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.”