Football is the most popular sport in the world, loved by 5 billion fans across the globe. In Europe, the football market grew 7% to €29.5 billion in the 2021/22 season alone, thanks to record matchday and commercial revenues. And this growth shows no sign of slowing down, particularly given the rising popularity of the women’s game, which saw record-breaking match attendance and worldwide television viewership in 2022.
A sport traditionally dominated by Europe – closely followed by Latin America and Africa – the beautiful game is now experiencing a renaissance in Asia, growing in popularity in countries like China and Japan. In fact, it’s estimated that around 250 million people across 200 countries now play football.
But what football fans and players alike don’t get to see is the complex logistical network that powers each and every game. Afterall, there would be no football match without the football itself. Behind each game is a booming manufacturing and logistics industry spanning the entire globe, which employs hundreds of thousands of people and generates millions of dollars in revenue each year.
The anatomy of a football
70% of balls come from one place: Sialkot, a city in northeast Pakistan, where approximately 60,000 people are employed across 1,000 factories. More than 43 million balls were made in Sialkot in the 2021/22 financial year. In fact, it was here that the official FIFA World Cup 2022 balls were produced. One of the biggest manufacturers, Bola Gema, actually produces 160,000 balls a month. But the town isn’t only known for its football production. It is the capital of Pakistan’s entire sporting goods industry, which exceeded $50 million in 2021 and has become a major source of income for thousands of people.
Manufacturing a football is a surprisingly complex process as each ball is made from materials sourced from all over the world. The bladder – the inflatable middle of the ball – is typically made from butyl. ExxonMobil is the biggest producer of butyl in the world, with a plant in Singapore that can produce up to 400,000 metric tonnes of rubber a year, but Saudi Arabia, the US and Belgium are also all big exporters. Alternatively, the bladder can be made from latex or synthetic rubber, which is usually exported from Asian countries such as China, South Korea or Thailand. The raw materials for polyurethane, which is used to create the outer cover of the ball, is often exported from Germany, the United States, Italy or China. When all added together, the total distance each individual component of a ball has travelled can total up to 10,000 miles before it has even been assembled.
Factory workers in Sialkot use special machines to carefully cut sheets of hot synthetic rubber into round shapes to form the inner lining of the ball. These are then inflated with air before being placed into a steam machine to bake until the rubber has hardened. Meanwhile, other workers cut 20 hexagonal patches and 12 pentagons – usually made from polyurethane or PVC – to form the ball’s outer shell. These pieces can be sewn together or thermobonded, a process which requires no stitching. Finally, each ball is weighed to ensure it falls between the FIFA-approved 420-440 grams and is shot from a special machine as many as 2,000 times to test its durability. Afterwards, balls are shipped from our port in Karachi to pitches all over the world.
Logistics is a team effort
Getting footballs and other sporting equipment where they need to be, on time, is far from straightforward. Hosting major sporting events of any kind takes a huge, coordinated effort from multiple different vendors and suppliers. Once the balls have left the factory in Sialkot, they will embark on a long journey across the globe, transported by land, air or sea, before passing through import customs. Once delivered to their destination country the balls will be shipped the final mile to arrive at the pitch. Along the way, each step must run like clockwork. Major sporting events usually involve multiple contracts and subcontracts, meaning any delays anywhere in the supply chain can have a domino effect further down the line, impacting a tournament’s schedule and often incurring eye-watering costs.
Beyond just the production and delivery of the footballs themselves, a huge collaborative effort between vendors, suppliers and venue organisers must take place before kick-off to ensure the pitch and stadium are game-ready. For the Qatar World Cup in 2022, for example, 400 aluminium goalposts had to be manufactured and shipped across the globe in 15 40-foot containers. Even the pitches themselves required special turf shipped into the country all the way from the United States.
No one size fits all
From the loading bay to the last mile, our relationships with the world’s top carriers gives sports equipment providers truly global coverage. We understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to transporting this valuable cargo. That’s why we offer multimodal and intermodal solutions reach across borders and are backed by cutting-edge technology that lets customers track shipments door to door. We also operate non-vessel operating common carrier (NVOCC) services around the world, bringing flexibility to thousands of customers with tailor-made transport solutions.
As football continues to grow in popularity all over the world, drawing ever larger crowds of fans, the behind-the-scenes logistics required to host major tournaments will only grow in complexity. It will take the continued coordination of multiple suppliers and partners to ensure no one drops the ball.