Workers 'fire' Brazuca ball

Brazuca (AFP)
Brazuca (AFP)

Cape Town - She has no idea who Lionel Messi is and her home country isn't even playing, but Pakistani mother-of-five Gulshan Bibi can't wait for the World Cup - because she helped make the balls.

When Brazil and Croatia kick off the tournament in Sao Paolo on 12 June there is a good chance they'll be using a ball made by Gulshan and her colleagues at the Forward Sports factory in Pakistan's eastern town of Sialkot.

"I'm really looking forward to the World Cup and Insh-Allah (God willing) we will watch the matches. The balls we make will be used and all the women who work here are very proud," Gulshan told AFP.

Cricket-mad Pakistan might not have much of a football team - 159th in FIFA's world rankings - but Sialkot has a long history of manufacturing top-class balls.

Forward Sports has been working with Adidas since 1995 and supplies match balls to some of the world's top football competitions, including the Champions League, the German Bundesliga - and now the World Cup.

It is believed that a cobbler was once asked to repair a punctured ball for colonial-era British soldiers, later studying how to make them.

So began a successful business venture that spawned an industry, but child labour scandals in the 1990s almost sank it.

Now international brands like Adidas work closely with factories and NGOs to enforce stringent checks to prevent any return to the dark days of children stitching balls in dingy backrooms.

At Forward Sports, workers must provide government ID to prove they are over 18.

And while the basic 10,000-rupee ($100) monthly salary might put a $160 FIFA-approved "Brazuca" ball beyond the reach of the workers, several spoken to by AFP privately said the company looked after them well.

In any case, assembling modern match balls is not simply a matter of sitting down with a needle and thread.

On the Brazuca production line, women in headscarves, some with their faces veiled, work briskly.

They start with flat white propeller-shaped pieces of polyurethane, add the Brazuca's distinctive bright colours and glue the panels to the ball's rubber bladder.

The seams are then treated with a special sealant and the ball is heated and compressed in a spherical clamp to give it the correct shape. The heat also activates the temperature-sensitive bonding compound that holds the ball securely together.

The whole process from flat panels to finished item takes 40 minutes - speed is crucial to prevent impurities getting into the ball - and the factory can produce up to 100 per hour.

It's a high-tech process for Pakistan, where much of the workforce is unskilled and poorly educated -- only around half the population can read and write.

"We take unskilled workers and train them - this is a job that is not available anywhere else. You have to get someone with good attitude and train them," said Forward Sports CEO Khawaja Masood Akhtar.

Ninety percent of those working on the Brazuca were women -- unusual in Pakistan, where they are largely expected to stay at home with families, but Akhtar said they were more diligent and meticulous than their male colleagues.

Making the Brazuca was no simple matter for Forward, as Adidas gave the order at short notice when they realised their main manufacturer in China was unable to meet demand.

In just over a month, Forward managed to have the equipment it needed to make the Brazuca from scratch.

"It was a matter of honour for us, we wanted to do it," Hassan Masood Khawaja, head of new product development, told AFP.

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