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Pakistan's World Cup stitch-up

By Paula Newton, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pakistan is leading exporter of hand-stitched soccer balls
  • This year, Pakistan could produce 70 percent of the global supply
  • One Pakistani company is the prime supplier to Adidas
  • Each ball must comply with tough FIFA regulations

Sialkot, Pakistan (CNN) -- Through choking traffic and crude streets, pastoral scenes and fields of wheat, there is a journey to be made in the heart of the Punjab that will take you to the very soul of the beautiful game.

For a country some have come to see as the world's leading exporter of terror, it is a glimpse into all that is possible when you consider that for decades now Pakistan has also been a leading exporter of hand-stitched soccer balls.

This is no cottage industry, in a typical year Pakistan produces almost half of the world's hand-stitched gems. In a World Cup year like this one, as demand explodes, that portion edges up to almost 70 percent.

The craft here has been handed down for generations and now hundreds of stitching halls dot the agricultural landscape of this region.

"A good player will play with this ball, it makes me feel good, it brightens our country's reputation and that makes me feel proud," says one young man as he continues stitching about six to eight balls a day.

That will earn most of these workers anywhere from six to 10 dollars a day, as much as double Pakistan's minimum wage.

Khawaja Masood Akhtar is the owner of the aptly named Forward Sports. For almost two decades he has won big-brand contracts against the odds and is currently a prime supplier for Adidas.

"The ball stitched in Pakistan will definitely be of a higher quality," said Akhtar. He adds that he has great admiration for the stitchers that craft his perfectly rounded balls.

"It's hard work -- you need very strong upper body strength to do that, and this is not easy. They are doing the job by hand but it looks like some machine," adds Akhtar.

Video: Soccer is big business in Pakistan
RELATED TOPICS
  • Pakistan
  • FIFA World Cup
  • Soccer

For years now, Forward Sports has been binding the tradition of craftsmanship with the demands of research and development. Their goal here is to not just meet, but surpass FIFA standards.

Balls are poked repeatedly and pressed for hours to test water resistance. Then they are heat-tested to simulate how they will be after two years.

And then there is the shooter machine, where a ball is kicked repeatedly by a shooting machine more than 3,500 times. The stitching string is stressed, there is even a machine that simulates headers, all of it part of the struggle in keeping Chinese manufacturers from dominating the game.

"Without competing with China no one can stay nowadays in the industry. Things are very simple you have to exactly do what your customer needs," said Akhtar.

Akhtar chuckles when this reporter points out the official World Cup ball will come from China this year. He admits, it does bother him a bit.

In fact, China with its massive production scale and low currency is the threat here, not the Taliban. And yet the stigma of terror is one more thing to overcome.

"It hurts in a big way, because it stops a lot of people from abroad ... because especially from the U.S. people don't want to travel here. Many big brands have a travel ban," says Akhtar.

But Pakistan is still in the game. Forward Sports says it has worked hard to keep up with tougher quality standards and lower prices, and it says it has eradicated child labor from the production pipeline.

"We are not those kind of people, we are honest, we do good work here, the world knows our product. We make products not war," said one long-time employee.

This industry defies Pakistani stereotypes but there is no pretending the game sparks passion here. That is reserved for cricket; it's the business of the game that takes all the glory here.

 
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