Caught off-site

Caught off-site

When the Fifa World Cup kicks off later this year, a strong Indian connection will show through, despite the absence of our national side.

Adidas’ Jabulani, the official ball to be used in South Africa this June, has a latex bladder, which has been exported by an Indian company (Adidas declined to reveal its name) in Jalandhar, Punjab. But that’s just the beginning of the story.

India languishes at No. 134 in football world rankings, and has never been part of any World Cup tournaments, but global economics has meant several major companies use Indian labour to manufacture footballs used at the highest level in international sport.

Meerut, about 50km north of New Delhi, has a thriving industry of sports goods companies and is home to some of the largest football manufacturers. Besides football equipment, the city also manufactures and exports cricket gear.

You may not find branded footballs, such as Adidas, Nike or Reebok, there. Yet the myriad companies in Meerut, which is the largest supplier of sports goods in South Asia, take pride in manufacturing footballs that can “compete with the best in the trade".

Khanna Sports Industries Pvt. Ltd in Meerut, for instance, has been manufacturing footballs for 20 years. It’s a regular supplier of footballs to some top academies and clubs in the country. “We don’t compromise with the quality. If you test our products, you will feel there is not much of a difference between us and top brands," says Puneet Khanna, owner and managing director of the company.

Samrat, Famex Super and Glorex are some of the brands Khanna Sports has supplied to clubs and schools in India, Bangladesh, Australia and Singapore. Apart from small clubs in Goa, Mumbai, Jammu and Kolkata, the company has loyal buyers in Mohun Bagan, Tata Football Academy (Jamshedpur) and the Sports Authority of India training centre in Mumbai.

Several state football associations use Cosco, another Indian football brand, for national tournaments. Tucked away near the Gurgaon railway station at Ashok Vihar, adjoining Delhi, the company factory produces 40 different brands, including Platina, which has been certified by Fifa.

Jalandhar is another strong belt that caters to the needs of millions of footballers. The Nivia football, manufactured by Freewill Sports Pvt. Ltd, is one such popular brand.

Despite technical innovations in football manufacturing, Cosco Pvt. Ltd still values the traditional method of hand-stitched balls. So do others. Even the Jabulani is hand-stitched to give it the required touch and durability.

“We believe that hand-stitched balls are the best in terms of swing and bounce. We give contracts to various people in India, under whom over 700 labourers work to provide us with the balls," says Amit Jain, production manager at Cosco. The company produces 2,200 stitched and 1,000 machine-moulded footballs, and 20,000 bladders every day, which are distributed through the world by 850 franchisees or dealers.

Khanna adds: “On an average, a person can stitch four balls per day. But if we expect him to stitch more than four, the quality will fall." This entrepreneur from Meerut too prefers hand-stitched balls to machine-made ones as they have “better bounce". “Making footballs requires loads of patience and specialized skills. Stitching balls by hand is hard work. These people use a wooden tool that holds the panels of the balls steady as they stitch them together," he says.

Cosco brands such as Milano, Atlanta and Delta Force are some of the popular balls already established in Indian markets. These balls cost much less (starting from Rs350) than a premium brand such as Nike, which comes at around Rs1,500.

Jain also maintains: “We do not compromise on our quality. We are an ISO 9000:2008 certified company and have excellent laboratory facilities where we scrutinize every material we use. It is our endeavour to give our customers all over the world the best product."

The around 1.2 million balls produced annually by Cosco fall into two broad categories: polyutherene (PU) balls and synthetic rubber balls. The two materials form the exterior of the balls. While the synthetic rubber is mainly produced in-house, the PU is being imported from Japan and Korea. The company uses various kinds of soft, hard and glossy rubber to meet customer demand.

The PU balls are used mainly for grass turf, synthetic rubber for hard and mud courts. PU balls are easy to control and have more flight and bounce since they have fewer grooves in them, which cause lesser friction.

So the next time you see Kaka or Cristiano Ronaldo unleash those powerful shots, in club league football now and in the World Cup later this year, just think of the labourer who probably stitched that ball in a remote factory in north India.

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