IT is a matter of great pride for Pakistan that footballs made in Sialkot will again be used, although after a gap of several years, in the World Cup that kicks off in Brazil on June 12. Pakistan is not a football-playing nation. Still, the balls hand-stitched in Sialkot are famous wherever the game is played because of their unbeatable quality. Ever since the Tango ball made in this border city was first used in the 1982 World Cup in Madrid, Pakistan has supplied footballs for every major tournament played anywhere across the globe. The football producers were, nonetheless, facing difficulties in maintaining their position as the top global suppliers in the sport ever since the world began switching over from hand-stitched to thermally bonded, machine-made balls in the early 2000s. The government did not help them to switch to the new technology. Why would it? The industry didn’t have the kind of political clout that big business does. But the good news is that many producers continued their efforts to bring in the new technology to compete with rivals like China and Thailand. These efforts seem to have now borne fruit as Adidas has returned to the city to buy the balls for the world’s largest and most popular tournament.

Football exports comprise only a fraction of the country’s total exports. And they’ll remain so even if Sialkot regains its position as the world’s top football supplier, which the producers say it soon will. So why should the government be worried when football exports dip? It should be worried because the use of Sialkot’s footballs in international tournaments helps to create a ‘softer’ image of Pakistan and counter the negative media perception of it being a country where only extremists live. The street children from Karachi, who recently won the third position in the Street Child World Cup in Brazil, achieved for Pakistan what successive governments could not even after years of spending large sums on image-building.

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2014

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