The Brazuca: A ballsy move by Sialkoti entrepreneurs

Published May 28, 2014
The success of Sialkot-based entrepreneurs is not because of government policy but despite it. -AP Photo
The success of Sialkot-based entrepreneurs is not because of government policy but despite it. -AP Photo

There is more to Pakistan than Bin Laden, polio, and terrorism. Pakistan is also the birthplace of the Brazuca, the official match ball for the 2014 FIFA world cup. Most Pakistanis, let alone the rest of the world, are unaware of the Brazuca’s Sialkoti origins.

This ignorance needs to be addressed, ASAP.

Manufacturing of world-class soccer balls has again returned to Pakistan. The industry reached its prime in 1982 when Tango, a ball also made in Sialkot, was embraced as the official match ball for the FIFA world cup. In the heydays, Pakistan supplied over 70 per cent of the soccer balls imported by the United States. However, by 2007, allegations of child labour, infrastructure handicaps, and Pakistan’s tarnished image saw its global market share decline to less than 18 per cent. The Brazuca, produced in Sialkot for Adidas, has brought Pakistan back into the game, thanks to the bold initiatives of Khawaja Akhtar, who had only 33 days to win over Adidas.

The entrepreneurs of Sialkot have done their job.

They have attracted global brands to Sialkot, and have produced a product that will capture the imagination of billions of soccer fans across the globe. If nothing is done, the Brazuca will be known as a ball from Brazil. Conversely, a carefully designed global marketing campaign, which highlights Sialkot’s entrepreneurial spirit, will do wonders for changing Pakistan’s image.

From June 12 to July 13, sports enthusiasts across the globe will be staring at something made in Pakistan. Satellites will live telecast the 2014 Soccer world cup from Brazil to billions of fans across the globe. There has never been a better opportunity to launch a softer image of Pakistan with a coordinated and sophisticated marketing campaign that puts the Brazuca and the Pakistani flag side by side for television viewers and newspaper readers.

Sialkot is to soccer balls what Detroit is to cars. For decades, soccer balls made in Sialkot have been regarded as the gold standard in quality. Pakistan exported 30 to 42 million balls a year to the rest of the world, generating billions in foreign exchange. The success of Sialkot’s sporting goods business was not lost on other export-oriented countries who were waiting in the wings for an opportunity lest the Sialkot-based industry faltered. And falter it did.

It was the other sporting goods giant, Nike, which pulled the rug under the Sialkot-based exporters by terminating its relationship with Saga Sports. Nike and Saga Sports first partnered to produce soccer balls in 1996. After nearly a decade of collaboration, Nike became concerned about the allegations of child labour used to stitch soccer balls at outsourced locations by Saga Sports. ILO had previously alleged in 1996 that 7,000 children between the ages of 5 and 14 were stitching soccer balls in Sialkot. Nike terminated the contract in March 2007, which left more than 8,000 workers unemployed. While Nike moved most of its orders to China and Thailand, the company returned to Sialkot months later to sign a deal with the Silver Star Group.The new venture generated employment for only 850 workers,whereas most who lost their livelihood earlier remained unemployed.

  Khawaja Masood Akhtar, CEO of Forward Sports. -Reuters Photo
Khawaja Masood Akhtar, CEO of Forward Sports. -Reuters Photo

Sialkot, while being overshadowed by its large industrial rival Karachi, is perhaps the entrepreneurial capital of Pakistan. Where else would one find a local chamber of commerce and industry self-finance the construction of an international airport to meet the growing export needs of the local exporters?

One such local entrepreneur is Khawaja Akhtar of the Forward Sports Private limited. He was previously supplying soccer balls for the German Bundesliga, the French League, and other prestigious tournaments. Khawaja Akhtar, however, was interested in the holy grail of Soccer, the FIFA world cup.

Speaking with Katharine Houreld of Rueters, Akhtar said;

It was when I felt the roar of the crowd at the 2006 World Cup that I dreamt of a goal of my own: to manufacture the ball for the biggest football tournament on the planet.

While he dreamt big, he also worked hard to realise his dreams. When Mr. Akhtar realised that Chinese contractors were facing difficulty in delivering the Brazuca, he sprang into action and invited the executives to Sialkot for a visit. The visitors, however, were not impressed by the stone-age production techniques used at Mr. Akhtar’s plants.

Realising the opportunity, Mr. Akhtar invested in technology and set up the high-tech operations in just 33 days, what would have taken more than six months to establish. The result was sweet success. Mr. Akhtar got the contract to produce 3,000 Brazuca balls for the 2014 FIFA world cup. His company and others will also manufacture millions more for Adidas, who plan to sell more than 13 million balls, a landmark Adidas reached with the sale of the Jabulani, the official match ball for the 2010 FIFA world cup.

Video | Pakistan makes footballs for World Cup 2014 - CNN/Reuters

The privately developed airport in Sialkot teaches an important lesson: if the State cannot deliver on its obligations, it should better step aside to let the innovators innovate. The success of Sialkot-based entrepreneurs is not because of government policy but despite it.

While the entrepreneurs are resourceful in innovation and enterprising spirit, they still need the government to provide infrastructure, affordable and reliable power supply, law and order, and a corruption free export facilitating regime.

Given the weak regulatory regime in Pakistan, it is incumbent upon the industry to self-police its operations and abide by the international regulations on labour rights and environmental protection. Mr. Akhtar’s factory proudly displays signs at its entrance that they do not employ children under the age of 15 and that their workers are free to form unions for collective bargaining. These steps are indeed laudable. Still, workers in Sialkot struggle to earn a living wage.

Independent interviews in Sialkot revealed that the monthly wage of a worker stitching soccer balls is less than half of the retail price of a single Brazuca ball being sold by Adidas for $160. These low wages must be raised to allow workers to reap reasonable benefits from the riches they generate for business owners. Karin Astrid Siegmann, writing in Economic and Political Weekly, documented the plight of sporting goods workers in Sialkot. She found that women earned half as much as men because women, on average, stitched fewer balls per day than men did. She also observed that men in 2008 earned on average 40 rupees per ball for stitching four to seven balls per day. At such wage rates, life is a struggle for workers, but luxury for business owners.

 An employee adjusts outer panels of a football inside the factory that produces official match balls for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, in Sialkot. -Reuters Photo
An employee adjusts outer panels of a football inside the factory that produces official match balls for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, in Sialkot. -Reuters Photo

It takes 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons stitched with care and bonded thermally to produce a soccer ball. It took one man, Khawaja Akhtar, only 33 days to set up a modern facility to produce world class soccer balls.

How long should it take the entire State machinery to develop a global marketing campaign in time for the soccer world cup, which begins on June 12?


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