The unforeseen consequences of the desire for perfectly round footballs

FIFA strict guidelines on the roundness of balls have hit the traditional football producing industry in Pakistan.

Ten years ago the city of Sialkot produced 85 per cent of the world’s footballs employing 100,000 people as stitchers. Production has collapsed from over 40 million balls in 2007 to 22 million this year, while the workforce now comprises just 10,000.

The problems for the industry started in 2006 when FIFA introduced precise specifications which favoured uniform, machine-made products over traditional, hand-stitched balls. The latest rules introduced this year permit only a 1.3 per cent deviation from a perfect sphere, a tough target for traditional hand-stitched balls to meet.

China and Thailand have developed cheaper machine-stitched balls that, although of lower quality, have in a few years taken over half the global market. However, all Premier League matches still use Sialkot footballs made by a local company, Silver Star.

With nearly 3,000 stitches per ball, a good Pakistani stitcher can make 3-4 footballs a day, for which they receive about 67p a ball. A machine stitcher can produce 50 at just 4p a ball. Although the average stitcher earns a pittance relative to western incomes, the workers of Sialkot are relatively affluent compared to the rest of Pakistan, earning £840 a year, twice the national average.

According to legend, the success story of Sialkot as world capital of football production started with a man who repaired a leather ball for British colonial military officers about a century ago, and then began making his own balls. He was called Syed Sahib, and the city has named a street after him.