Sialkot, a part of Pakistan’s Golden Triangle of industrial cities, isn’t a familiar name but there’s one thing made in Sialkot that is admired around the world.
The global sport of Soccer, officially called Association Football, has 3.5 billion viewers. Sialkot is home to the industry producing the most important part of the sport, the ball, and it produces a lot of of them. Estimates put the share of Sialkot, the Soccer Ball Capital, between 40 to 60% of global soccer ball production.
The Colonial Roots
The beginning of football production in Sialkot has an interesting story behind it.
During the British Rule, the Britishers were eager to play their favourite games in India. To play soccer, they had to rely on balls being shipped to the Undivided India from UK.
Then in 1889, when a British seargent needed his punctured soccer ball repaired, he went to a Sialkot saddlemaker. To his astonishment, the man had done a great job.
The seargent went on to ask the saddlemaker to make some soccer balls himself.
That little incident marked the beginning of soccer ball production industry in Sialkot.
Hand-stitched Balls for World Cup
The balls made in Sialkot until recently were all stitched by workers by hand.
The city came to be known globally for the first time in 1982. FIFA, the world cup organizers, had selected Tango España by Adidas made in Sialkot to use in the world cup.
The Tango was hand-stitched by workers in Sialkot and FIFA then used to allow hand-stitched balls in World Cup.
That was also the last time a genuine leather ball was used in World Cup matches.
Modern Chinese Competition
Sialkot has 2000 factories manufacturing soccer balls for big brands like Nike, Adidas and others. They employ a large number of workers of the 650,000 population.
Many of these factories still rely on manual stitching when efficient machines are available. The workers resist the changes in manufacturing processes and fear becoming less productive. (The Atlantic)
FIFA decided to stop using hand-stitched balls as machine manufacturing became better. Around 2012, the industry saw changes in technology which impacted the dominance of Sialkot since it primarily relied on manual stitching.
Chinese producers took advantage of the change, and gained a huge share of soccer ball production in a short time after 2012. The machine produced Chinese balls are exported globally just like the Sialkot ones. Pakistan’s neighbour and ally became its competitor in soccer ball production.
Sialkot had received 70-80% of global orders during the 1998 and 2002 FIFA World Cups which dropped to 35% for 2018 edition even though Sialkot was supplying official World Cup Balls.
The machine stitching is slowly being adopted by Sialkot manufacturers but many still continue producing the hand stitched balls for regular use. They claim these balls last longer than machine stitched balls.
Pakistani manufacturers are now seeking cooperation from their Chinese counterparts to earn back their status as Soccer Ball Capital.