Sialkot ball maker to fulfil World Cup dream

Published: May 21, 2014
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An employee adjusts outer panels on a soccer ball inside the soccer ball factory that produces official match balls for 2014 World Cup in Brazil, in Sialkot May 16, 2014. PHOTO: REUTERS

An employee adjusts outer panels on a soccer ball inside the soccer ball factory that produces official match balls for 2014 World Cup in Brazil, in Sialkot May 16, 2014. PHOTO: REUTERS

SIALKOT: It was when he felt the roar of the crowd at the 2006 World Cup in Germany that Pakistani factory owner Khawaja Akhtar first dreamt up a goal of his own: to manufacture the ball for the biggest football tournament on the planet.

“The people were chanting all around me. I just thought, ‘This is the real thing’,” Akhtar told Reuters. “I was part of the crowd. I never had that kind of feeling before.”

His factory in Sialkot had made balls for the German Bundesliga, French league and Champions League, but he had never snagged a World Cup contract.

Last year he finally got his chance – but only 33 days to make it happen.

When Akhtar heard last autumn that Adidas’ Chinese supplier for the World Cup couldn’t keep up with demand, he immediately invited executives to his plant.

Their first visit was not a success.

“They said ‘You have Stone Age equipment,” said his oldest son, Hassan Masood Khawaja, laughing. “After they left, my father called a meeting and said: ‘This is our only chance. If we show them we can’t do it, we’ll never get another chance again.'”

It usually takes six months to set up a production line, but the factory only had a month – Adidas, the German sports equipment maker, was in a hurry. So Khawaja designed, made and moved the equipment into place within 33 days. Everything had to be done from scratch.

“It was hard, maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said over the noise of the hot, hissing machines.

But it was a success, and the firm’s previous investment in thermal bonding technology paid off. Only thermally bonded balls – made using a glue that reacts with heat – are round enough for the World Cup’s strict standards.

Cobblers to the British

A leading force in world cricket, Pakistan is a mere also-ran in football, where it ranks just 159th in the world. But Akhtar’s factory, where men and women in bright, flowing robes move plastic ball panels from machine to precision machine, is part of a long tradition of Sialkot football makers.

Local legend tells of a poor cobbler who made his fortune by repairing the punctured footballs of colonial-era British soldiers, then studying how to make them himself.

He was so successful that soldiers all over the region started buying from him. Business blossomed – but so did child labour.

A series of scandals, and changing technology, forced many factories to close. Others had to clean up their acts.

These days foreign brands frequently inspect Sialkot factories that make their footballs. Large signs on Akhtar’s factory walls sternly proclaim that child labour is forbidden and unions are allowed.

Workers that Reuters spoke to privately confirmed that conditions were good – the salary was mostly minimum wage, around $100 a month, but social security, life insurance and transport were extra benefits. A small government hospital sits on the premises.

In the past 40 years, Akhtar’s own family business, called Forward, has grown from 50 men to 1,400 employees – nearly a quarter of them are women.

Some wear the niqab. Others flaunt bright sandals with imitation jewels and wear robes the colour of tropical birds.

Almost all say they are the first woman in their family to work.

Shakila Ashrafi, a 38-year-old mother whose long beige coat reached down to her ankles, said one of her first purchases was a television.

When the World Cup kicks off in Brazil on June 12, they plan to invite their neighbours – all avid cricket supporters – to come and watch the strange foreign game being played half a world away.

“We will bring everyone together to see the match,” she said, her busy hands pausing for a moment. “I want them to see what we make and where the balls go.”

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Reader Comments (25)

  • Realist
    May 21, 2014 - 5:09PM

    Inspiring success story!

    Recommend

  • Safeer
    May 21, 2014 - 6:29PM

    So, Pakistan being 159th in the ranking, is participating in the World Cup this year :)

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  • Someone
    May 21, 2014 - 6:55PM

    Sialkot rep :)

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  • up
    May 21, 2014 - 7:23PM

    It’s ok for our stage of development but it’s really not far from the very bottom of the food chain. It would be nice if we moved up into branding and selling under our own label.

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  • Muhammad Mubeen
    May 21, 2014 - 7:47PM

    At least We are “The Best” in this industry and it is indeed a great achievement considering the current conditions of Pakistan. I hope you will deliver and meet their expectations!

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  • Moiz Omar
    May 21, 2014 - 7:53PM

    This is great! Good luck to Akthar and I hope his company prospers more.

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  • Adpran
    May 21, 2014 - 7:55PM

    I hope I will not reduce Pakistani pride if I say the truth. The balls that produced in Sialkot are not the balls that will be used in official games in World Cup 2014, but the balls that are for sale to public as FIFA World Cup 2014 official ball.

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  • Saeed Spicher
    May 21, 2014 - 10:05PM

    One day Pakistan will play FIFA Worlcup its not far.

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  • sensible
    May 21, 2014 - 10:41PM

    proud to be pakistani and sialkoti

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  • sterry
    May 21, 2014 - 10:43PM

    Keep it up Sialkot! That’s why your people and the city are so well respected all over the world ! Sialkot Zindabad!

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  • Baba Ji
    May 21, 2014 - 10:48PM

    Inspiring … Pakistan Zindabad

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  • Faisal
    May 21, 2014 - 11:49PM

    @sensible: Assalam Alaekum, no offence but this is the same city where two brother was lynch by mob

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  • sterry
    May 22, 2014 - 12:18AM

    @Muhammad Mubeen: You are talking Sialkot man! Not only will they meet expectations but they will exceed them ! I guess you haven’t traveled to see the conditions of Sialkot city or its surrounding area which having been doing very well the last decade.

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  • Fawad
    May 22, 2014 - 12:28AM

    Since my childhood that Sialkot makes some world best footballs, cricket bats and hockeys.
    Sialkot Rocks!Recommend

  • Khan
    May 22, 2014 - 12:31AM
  • Shoaib
    May 22, 2014 - 1:13AM

    @Adpran: all balls being supplied under this contact are actually match balls.

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  • May 22, 2014 - 9:39AM

    Completely moved!

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  • Amna Khan
    May 22, 2014 - 1:02PM

    Efforts, commitments and determination at each and every level is much appreciated.

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  • Amna Khan
    May 22, 2014 - 1:05PM

    Efforts, commitments and determination at each and every level is much appreciated.Recommend

  • Arslan
    May 23, 2014 - 11:29AM

    PMLN invests $1.27 Billion usd Orange train in lahore.

    And Ignore these people who are the real hope of Pakistan.

    Shame on Punjab Govt.

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  • PeaceMonger
    May 23, 2014 - 11:57AM

    Great story ! Well done.

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  • Aaron Upright
    May 23, 2014 - 2:04PM

    “Strange foreign game”? Keep it classy Reuters.

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  • Imran
    May 23, 2014 - 2:46PM

    thats what should be called achievement

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  • Shoaib
    May 23, 2014 - 10:46PM
  • Babar ali
    May 27, 2014 - 9:28AM

    I’m a very small part of the team that produced ‘Brazuca’ the soccer ball for the June-14 World cup. We all render thanks to Allah SWT for bestowing upon us the opportunity and strength to do the job and earn respect for our dear country.

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