FIFA 2022 World Cup was arguably the best-ever tournament in history with a final match between Argentina and France that culminated the essence of the event; spectacular and special. Just like the event itself, Al Rihla, the high-tech ball used during the world cup, was also special. The fact it was made in Sialkot makes the city’s football industry anomalous among other handful manufacturing industries in Pakistan.
The link between the sport and Pakistan has never really transpired beyond being the producer of 70% of footballs in the world. But the fact that the industry in Sialkot has remained competitive, winning bids to be the primary supplier for yet another world cup speaks about country’s economic future and policy in more than one way.
The Connected Ball Technology
In the 54th minute of the Group H match between Portugal and Uruguay, something unusual happened. Portugal’s Bruno Fernandes made a cross toward the goal and Cristiano Ronaldo jumped to make contact with the ball. As soon as the ball crossed the goal line, Ronaldo began celebrating it as his goal, claiming that the ball had made the faintest of touches with his head. After multiple replays and eventually, through the technology that the WC 2022 ball was equipped with, the goal was awarded to Fernandes.
The statement released by FIFA in this regard read: “In the match between Portugal and Uruguay, using the Connected Ball Technology housed in adidas’s Al Rihla Official Match Ball, we are able to definitively show no contact on the ball from Cristiano Ronaldo for the opening goal in the game. No external force on the ball could be measured as shown by the lack of ‘heartbeat’ in our measurements. The 500Hz IMU sensor inside the ball allows us to be highly accurate in our analysis.”
Connect Ball Technology is what makes Al Rihla stand out of all the balls used in the global football competitions before this world cup. There are two sensors inside it that track and transmit its precise position and slightest of movements in real-time. The positioning data is provided by Ultra-wideband (UWB) sensor, superior to the GPS and Bluetooth technology whereas for movement tracking the inertial measurement unit or IMU sensor, the one which eventually awarded the goal in Portugal Vs Uruguay match, is housed inside Al Rihla. Every time the ball moves even a centimeter, or a faint contact is made, the system picks and transmits it instantly through a network of antennas installed around the field constituting the local positioning system (LPS).
The monumental innovation is part of FIFA’s “semi-automated offside” program converging real-time sensor and optical Hawk-Eye data, artificial intelligence, and human confirmation to assist the match officials make quick and accurate offside decisions. In the constantly evolving arena of sports tech, the technology is certainly going to have profound impact on football itself and its adaptations are likely to be seen in other sports in the future as well.
Sialkot – A Stand-Out Industrial Hub
Sialkot-made footballs have previously featured in FIFA World Cup 2014, 2018 and Champions League 2022 final, and given the city’s extensive history in football manufacturing, that does not come as a surprise. However, the fact that it bagged another order for a world cup where the ball had to be incorporated with sophisticated technology is certainly an achievement. The technical system and the assembly that holds it together inside the ball, were not designed in Sialkot rather it was Adidas that came up with the innovation.
Al Rihla has undergone rigorous testing, in the labs, wind tunnels and in actual matches, before being given the go ahead for the 2022 World Cup. After it was approved, Forward Sports, a Sialkot company founded in 1991 and a long-term partner of Adidas, began its production for the most-watched sporting event on the planet. The way the industry has adapted to the fast-track changes in the sport and maintained competitiveness is truly a remarkable feat, something which has detrimentally lacked in the rest of the country’s industrial sector.
Pakistan’s economic growth has been plagued with inconsistent and at times regressive policies at the government’s end. The obsession of the executive finance wizards with a strong currency and mindless subsidies worth billions of dollars has been a death blow to the export sector which is already limited to cotton and its derivative products.
In the past 2 decades, the country’s currency has depreciated the most compared to its neighbors India and Bangladesh which as per the economics should have resulted in an upward export trajectory, but it has been the worst-performing economy in the region in terms of exports, between 2002-2019, which have risen to 136% as compared to 517% and 558% in Bangladesh and India, respectively. The solution to the problem sounds simple, diversification of export products and services to new destinations, but the supporting policy, and institutional and infrastructural mechanisms are as archaic as it could get.
The industrial elite of the country, like its other variants, is ambitionless and extractive, competing with one another over the domestic consumer base in a handful of saturated industrial or financial sectors. They do not even give so much as an impression of a desire to become global players like Ambani and Adani next door. Resultantly every now and then the country finds itself dollar strapped for imports or fulfilling its debt obligations.
With the integrated global economies, there is always going to be a country ready to sell the garments, the cornerstone of Pakistan’s export strategy forever, at perhaps half the price, because they have a better production mechanism supported by enabling policies to cuts the cost. The fact that Bangladesh’s garment exports were more than double of Pakistan’s numbers last year, despite Pakistan being 4.3 times larger than Bangladesh, is a good enough reason to think of diversification and competitiveness in other industries as well.
As China opened up its Special Economic Zones (SEZs), it only had the capacity to manufacture low-quality, low-value goods. But over the years, the country had enough forex reserves to invest in research and development, eventually entering the elite club of high-end producers. That precisely is the nature of the global economy where either you’re good enough to make it yourself or you incentivize others to come and make it in your backyard. At the moment Pakistan is neither of the two, making it a part of an infamous cluster of countries that, courtesy of elite capture, are disassociated with global trade. Of course, there are no short-term fixes to the convoluted, layered problems infesting Pakistan’s economy but the real problem is that no one is even bothering to take the first step in the thousand-mile-long journey.
The writer is a Research Associate at Strategic Vision Institute (SVI).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.