If you are a football fan you’ve probably heard of Sialkot, Pakistan – about 70 percent of the world’s hand-sewn footballs are made there.
In the 1980s, Sialkot gained international celebrity status when it produced the Tango ball used in the 1982 FIFA World Cup. Today Sialkot’s hand-stitched balls face competition from the machine-made and machine-glued balls produced in China. The balls that will be used in World Cup matches this summer, made by hand in Sialkot in previous years, are now being produced in China by machine.
A Sialkot-produced soccer ball has 32 panels that are stitched together, while the machine-made Jabulani World Cup ball has eight thermally bonded pieces. The hand-made ball retails for about $150; the hand-stitched replica can sell for as little as $25.
Despite this, the football industry in Sialkot is going strong. Forty million soccer balls (up to 60 million in World or European Cup years) worth about $210 million are produced there annually.
Rumor has it that Sialkot’s sports industry was born when a tourist’s football fell apart while visiting the city. Unable to find a replacement, he asked a local craftsman to fix it. The craftsman fixed the ball so well that, according to the story, it spawned an entire industry. The craftsman’s name was Syed Sahib, and whether he is fictional or not, there is a street in the city that bears his name.
Adidas made the decision to switch to the thermally bonded balls for the 2006 World Cup. The goal was to make the balls perform more consistently when players kicked them. With a hand-stitched ball the seams occasionally produce dead spots.
Two years ago, Adidas transferred its proprietary technology to the Sialkot-based company Forward Sports, which has started to make small quantities of thermally bonded balls. Recently, the company successfully lobbied Adidas to use the thermal-bonding technology and produced balls for the UEFA Champions League final in Madrid, one of the biggest events on the global soccer calendar.
At the moment however, the city is gripped by football fever with business activity at its peak. A rush of cargo agents can be seen at the Sialkot dry port waiting for clearance, and the customs’ offices has extended their hours to smooth the export process.