By Aamir Latif
KARACHI, Pakistan (AA) - When millions of football lovers cheer on their favorite teams in 2018 FIFA World Cup to be held in Russia this summer, Pakistanis will have a special reason to rejoice, although the 198th-ranked football nation will not be participating in the mega event.
Pakistan's famous soccer balls will be used in the World Cup matches, making over 200 million Pakistanis feel their presence in the event.
Russian Ambassador to Pakistan Alexey Dedov confirmed earlier in the week that his country was going to use Pakistan-made footballs for the World Cup matches.
Located on the outskirts of northeastern Sialkot city, workers at a local sports company -- which is a contracting manufacturer of global sports brand Adidas -- are working extra hours to ensure on-time delivery of the footballs.
The city, which borders India, has been famous for producing finest quality sports goods, and has been supplying footballs for mega events for a long time.
Forward Sports, which also makes footballs for German Bundesliga, French league and the Champions League, was the official footballs provider of 2014 World Cup in Brazil as well.
"This is an honor for us that we are going to provide footballs for the world cup once again. We are very excited to meet this challenge," Khawaja Masood, the chairman of the company, told Anadolu Agency.
Refusing to give the exact numbers of footballs the company is going to supply for the World cup alone due to restrictions from Adidas, Khawaja said his firm produced a total of 700,000 footballs per month.
The soccer ball to be used in the forthcoming tournament is technically termed as "thermo bonded", which was first introduced in 2014 World Cup.
Before that, Pakistan had supplied hand-stitched soccer balls for almost all the world cups from 1990s to 2010.
Other types of soccer balls produced by Sialkot are "glued", and "hand-stitched".
Thermo-bonded balls are made by attaching the panels through heat -- the latest technology adopted by Adidas and transferred to Forward Sports in 2013.
"Although Pakistan football team will not be participating in the forthcoming World Cup, its presence will be felt in all the matches [because of the balls]", Khawaja told Anadolu Agency.
According to Husnain Cheema, president of Pakistan Sports Goods Association, the country will export around 10 million footballs across the world this year.
-Child labor allegations
Pakistan annually earns $1 billion from sports goods exports, which includes $350-$500 million from footballs alone, Cheema added.
The country's thriving football industry first came under international scrutiny in the late '90s when it was accused of using children for handstitching footballs in some of the factories in Sialkot.
Famous sports company Nike had cancelled its orders of hand-stitched soccer balls in 2006 to one of its contracting manufacturers after it was accused of promoting child labor.
However, the local manufacturers claim the child labor issue was spiced up with exaggeration.
"There were complaints about child labor. Some small factories, mostly set up at homes, had employed children for handstitching footballs," Shaikh Jhangir Iqbal, chief executive of Silver Sports company -- a contracting manufacturer of Nike -- told Anadolu Agency.
"These home-based factories no longer exist now," Iqbal said adding that the international labor rights groups had been monitoring Sialkot's sports goods industry.
"There has been no major complaint vis-à-vis use of child labor [in sports industry] since 2006," he said.
Local manufacturers observe that the country’s sports goods industry has a potential to triple the existing earnings from exports.
"We are going to introduce football kits and other accessories apart from exporting footballs," Ijaz Khokhar, head of Pakistan Readymade Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told Anadolu Agency.
He said his association had a plan to set up a technical training institute in Sialkot to create trained manpower for production of other accessories, which could earn much more for Pakistan compared to exports of footballs and other sports goods.
"Huge football production business is being transferred from China to Pakistan because of the quality we are providing to the world," Khokhar said, adding that Pakistan had to makes use of this opportunity.
Iqbal defended Khokhar's view saying China was producing machine-stitched footballs, which were only used as "toys".
"These footballs cannot be used in professional matches. Our quality standards are way better than China's football production," he said.