Whatever Voltaire’s wise Italian really meant by “the best is the enemy of the good,” his words may have found some resonance in northeastern Pakistan. There, in the industrial city of Sialkot, known for its textile and leather industries, lies the rump of what was once the epicenter of an industry whose products were to be found in every corner of the earth — but has been hit hard by a cadre of elite rule-makers in pursuit of perfection.
A decade ago, Sialkot produced seven out of eight of the world’s soccer balls, providing jobs for 100,000 stitchers across a city-wide network of small factories and home sewers. Soccer balls are constructed from 32 panels sewn together over an inflatable bladder (see video below). Today, we read in World Soccer, 90% of those workers have lost their jobs. Ball production volumes have fallen from a peak of 40 million a year in 2007 to 22 million.
The reason for this industrial collapse? In 2006, FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, changed its regulations on the shape of a soccer ball in its pursuit of perfect roundness. To get FIFA’s top quality rating a ball (like the one above; the decal towards the bottom is FIFA’s seal of approval) could deviate by no more than 1.5% from a perfect sphere, a standard that is being raised further to 1.3%. That is a degree of roundness all but the most skilled hand-stitchers struggle to meet consistently.
Into this new regulatory environment came machine-stitched balls from China and Thailand. A machine stitcher can produce 50 balls a day, compared to the three to four a day of a hand stitcher. Machines can also stitch thinner and thus cheaper (though less durable) material. Machine-stitched balls from those two countries now command more than half the global market and dominate the low end of sales.
Hand-stitched balls from Sialkot, however, remain the byword for quality, precisely because of that hand-stitching. They are used in the top professional leagues and tournaments. The Adidas-branded balls that will be used in next year’s FIFA World Cup Finals in Brazil will likely be made in Sialkot, as they were for the last one in South Africa.
It is big business for the sports equipment brands. Adidas sold 13 million of its official South Africa World Cup match balls, a significant slice of the estimated $7 billion soccer equipment market.