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Bouncing Back in Sao Paulo

‘Known for its love for the game of cricket and notoriously (in)famous for its political discord, bigotry and siege of terror, Pakistan is also home to the most recognized sports equipment in present times – the Brazuca! An innovative, thermo-laminated ball exported from the North Eastern city of Sialkot.’

Known for its love for the game of cricket and notoriously (in)famous for its political discord, bigotry and siege of terror, Pakistan is also home to the most recognized sports equipment in present times – the Brazuca! An innovative, thermo-laminated ball exported from the North Eastern city of Sialkot.

Isn’t it ironic that a country placed 164 in the FIFA ranking is recognized for manufacturing the super ball which is now kicking of a storm at Sao Paulo, Brazil. According to media reports: “Over 42 million soccer balls worth Rs17.473 million have been exported from Sialkot.” It is quite an achievement for the company Forward Sports as well as a matter of immense pride for the nation; suffering chronically from the crippling inflation and other socio-economic afflictions.

Sialkot had initially catapulted into limelight in 1982 when the FIFA World Cup showcased Tango, the ball. The city’s fame was however short-lived. Factories which now supply between 40 to 60 million balls in a year worldwide suffered a huge setback due to a number of reasons including its dependence on child labor, emergence of China and India as aggressive competitors in the market as well as lack of technology and modernization.

Pakistan’s Textile Industry: On a downhill ride

Another big industry in Pakistan is textile, experiencing a major blow in recent times. Case in point is a ban imposed by Walt Disney – one of the sector’s biggest clients and resulting in a loss of exports worth some $200 million.

Poor governance in terms of non-compliance to ILO regulations and standard international practices have always been a sticking point as far as these sectors are concerned. A CEO of a leading clothing company in the Middle East had lamented about the fact that even though the country boasts products of the finest quality, it direly lacked good governance in operations, labor management and environment safety. During an interview, he had commented: “Today’s consumer is becoming more and more conscientious and is concerned about best practices. For companies in the Gulf or even international brands such as H&M etc., it is critical to keep a tab on what is going on in factories to retain customers and keep them happy. Our reputation actually depends on it!”

The Secret Ingredient to Success

What Pakistan’s textile industry has failed to recognize, has actually been the secret ingredient of the country’s sports goods sector. The latter has been relatively quick in agreeing to abolish child labor (ironically though these children belonging to poor families are now forced to toil in brickworks). According to an article in SPIEGEL Online International: “The Pakistani suppliers have had a good reputation among global sports firms ever since child labor was officially banned here. Children as young as 10 years old used to stitch footballs until there was an international outcry about it. The sports companies, accustomed to nurturing their image with huge sums of money, got worried about their reputation. So they sided with human rights campaigners and exerted pressure. In 1997, Pakistani suppliers and representatives of UNICEF and the International Labor Organization signed the Atlanta Agreement in which the industry agreed to stop the use of child labor.”

That combined with taking measures to modernizing the local industry has played a crucial part in highlighting the country as a viable source of high quality export products.

Striking when the iron is hot

That is exactly how Forward Sport nabbed this major deal. When news broke that China would not be able to fully deliver the Brazuca, the CEO of the company Khwaja Masood Akthar grabbed the opportunity. It was perhaps the biggest challenge the company had faced. In an interview with Al Jazeera, the CEO commented: “We were asked to do some work on this ball in the last week of August. We managed to get the new machinery set up and running in just 33 days. The first shipment for Brazuca was made in November and the last one left our premises in April.”

Bottomline is: Sialkot has reclaimed its status as one of the biggest exporters of sports goods mainly because of it actually learnt from its mistakes. Success and sustainability is possible only if key players are willing to look beyond the immediate to envision a brighter and more promising future.

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