The FIFA World Cup 2022 is almost upon us and the eyes of the world will be on Qatar during the unusually scheduled event to be played between 20th November and 18th December. For one sportswear company, adidas, the starting gun for the tournament sounded back in March 2022 with the launch of their Qatar World Cup ball called Al Rihla.
Adidas have supplied footballs for FIFAs premier soccer tournament since 1970 when the World Cup was hosted by Mexico and they have developed over time a corporate story of the football. One strand of this story is the naming of World Cup tournament balls to evoke positive traits of the host countries. The 2010 South African World Cup ball, for example - the much-maligned swooping and swerving Jubalani – symbolized, with its eleven colours, the harmony of the eleven ethnic communities of South Africa; the 2014 World Cup ball, the Brazuca - an informal Brazilian term to describe ‘fellowship’ – reflected “goodwill to all comers to Brazil”. This time around the panelling of the Al Rihla (meaning ‘the journey’ in Arabic) reflects the dhow-shaped iconic boats and the flag of Qatar.
Soccer Balls: The Topsy-Turvey Journey of a Commodity
This theme of a 'journey' for the World Cup football though can be used in another sense: specifically, the journey of the ball as it metamorphoses from production to consumption. As with all commodities, the soccer ball has its own enigmatic journey as an object of history, interpreted only recently by and for the global companies such as adidas who mass-produce the soccer ball. Their marketing speak is an example of what Karl Marx called “commodity fetishism”. We often hear about people fetishising inanimate objects by treating them as larger than life and we usually take this to mean they are obsessing about them. But Marx meant something more than just obsession. He was talking about how people express their social relations indirectly through the objects they exchange in ways that obscure and fragment our awareness of the extent of human exploitation involved in their production.
Three thousand adidas Al Rihla footballs will be used during the World Cup in Qatar, with a replica sale target of eight million worldwide. The balls will be made in a number of firms in the Pakistani city of Sialkot – the hub of the world’s football making industry which exports in excess of 65 million footballs per year earning the Pakistan economy valuable foreign exchange.
A Labour Intensive Journey
The conditions that workers in the industry face in Sialkot have attracted a lot of criticism from western liberal orgnisations and also world labour organisations. Reacting to this criticism concerning exploitation, there have been claims of a cleaning up of the production process in recent years – that the use of child labour has been eradicated, and that capital expenditure on research and development have led to a workforce of expert workers in fully equipped factories using high end manufacturing machines to take the place of a labour-intensive workforce.[i] However, the reality is still one of super-exploitation.
The football manufacture industry is still labour-intensive outside of the factories where hand stitching is still prevalent in informal settings, such as ‘stitching centres’ or at home. And, according to the International Labour Rights Forum, although child exploitation has decreased, it still persists in such outsourced settings.[i] Contracts in this sector are short term, with unemployment a constant threat. Outsourced labour face low wages and are non-unionized with no formal rights in law, as the Pakistani legal system does not recognise them as workers. Even amongst the ‘more fortunate’ factory workers conditions are poor. They are often hired through subcontractors and work for piece rates, and with an informal ban on trade union organization.
To sell these balls – to turn them into a consumer fetish – manufacturers have to ‘throw a veil’ over the conditions of their production to imbue them with a status way beyond their basic value. They make them symbolise the things we are told to value, such as national identity, technological power and physical capacity. By doing this they transform the ball from a simple object to a subject in itself. The manufacturer’s story has to involve a fair amount of air-brushing. And the conditions of its production in the developing world offers a jarring note to the discourse of revolutionary ball technology driven by science and the quest for perfection.
We see this in the fetish around ‘the scientific and technological wonders’ of the World Cup ball that is a standard part of the polished pitch that accompanies the launch of all international football tournament balls now and also an attempt to break or obscure the exploitative working conditions in which the ball continues to be made (despite claims to the contrary that this issue has been addressed). The message deployed for western market consumption that the ball is a symbol of all that is 'good' and unifying about capitalism assists reasserts the geopolitical cycle or journey of the ball through production and consumption from Global South to Global North through the lens of coloniality. The claim that ‘science and technology are deeply entangled with a colonial way of seeing the world’, is clearly evident in the fetish around the science of the football.
Each new adidas World Cup ball launch is accompanied by a battery of information of the enhanced performance of their latest iteration in relation to what went before. This time around we are told that the Al Rihla is designed to travel faster in flight than any ball in the tournament’s history. Made with SPEEDSHELL – a textured polyurethane skin - it has improved the accuracy and flight stability of the new twenty-piece panel shape ball thanks to macro and microtextures, plus surface debossing. “The game is getting faster and, as it speeds up, accuracy and flight stability become critically important,” explains Franziska Löffelmann, the Design Director of Football Graphics & Hardwear at adidas. “The new design allows the ball to maintain a significantly higher speed as it journeys through the air. For the biggest global stage in all of sport, we set out to make the impossible possible with radical innovation by creating the fastest and most accurate FIFA World Cup ball to date.” With a nod to environmental concerns the Al Rihla is, apparently, also the most sustainable of World Cup balls produced thus far: using exclusively water based inks and glues on the ball’ surface. The language of science helps adidas in their marketing strategy to present their football as a larger-than-life object, the stuff of physics, an endlessly moving commodity that broadly hints at empowering players to go beyond their normal performance.
Business: The Inclusivity Trick
The fetish of ‘the socially responsible corporation’ offers a similar discourse in maintaining the colonial underpinnings of the direction of profit/exploitation flowing North to South, respectively. It promotes owners and managers of businesses as custodians with a duty of care to a range of stakeholders, including the society and communities in the Global South where manufacturers are located. Major global brands controlling the market for football manufacturing include household names such as Adidas, Nike, Wilson, Mitre, were quick to get in on the action, eager to convince all of their ‘genuine’ repulsion towards modern slavery, and to proclaim their determination to be a source of good in the world by setting up charitable and philanthropic community offshoots, civic project, health initiatives, promote sport and showcase their environmental development initiatives, human rights responsibilities and education programmes.
One typical example is the recent Adidas initiative, ‘breaking barriers’: a corporate social responsibility project laying claim to a commitment ‘to breaking down barriers for women and girls across Europe by working directly with non-profit sports organisations, empowering local leaders and coaches, and by providing the sports industry with the necessary tools to lead change’. Here the language of aspiration, commitment and inclusive civic/business partners delivering real changes for the benefit of workers and community, amount to partial truths glossing over durable harms in the world of the ‘socially responsible corporation’. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is an iconic case of partial truths behind endured suffering.
The ILO launched a top-down flagship programme to eliminate child labour in football manufacturing in the Sialkot district of Pakistan in two phases between 1997-99 (ILO, 2004) producing limited benefits, but net negatives. Their narrative was one of socially responsible partners - inclusive of local communities, the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI), the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) and the Soccer Industry Council of America (SICA); all ‘eager to solve the problem of child labour in the soccer ball industry’, and all ‘deeply convinced’ of the ‘social evil’ of child labour; and set firmly on a path to ‘eliminate this evil’ by all means at their disposal’ (ILO, 2004: 17). A narrative the ILO felt able to continue on the eve of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, with the ILO Country Director Francesco d’Ovidio happy to confirm that due to all the gains made ‘there will be no misery or exploitation of children in Sialkot to mar the joy of sport’. (The Express Tribune, 2013).
Partial Truths, Underlying Harm
The partial truths that are no doubt genuinely held by personnel in the ILO are the tangible improvements to child education, the regulation of formally employed labour in factories and some stitching Centres in Sialkot. However, they masked the enduring reality of the continuance of child labour through the informal mechanisms of the extensive putting out system, casting its net over men, women and children in families from surrounding villages. No sooner was the ink dry on the ILO’s 1997-99 programme, footballs manufactures expanded output in the India’s Meerut district in Uttar Pradesh, where they continued to exploit 1000s of children (BBA, 2008; Singh, 2014; 2018).
The equally enduring reality was to plunge families in Pakistan into even greater risk of poverty than before, as families with little social security safety net or job security struggled to pay for child education and women workers involved in football stitching bore the brunt of balancing long hours working in stitching centres and social reproduction in a society entrenched in traditional patriarchal values (Naz And Bogenhold, 2020). Here, the partial truth of a football industry of clearly bounded rule-based companies amenable to regulation is contradicted by the reality of labyrinthine networks of formal and informal workplaces, some regulated, some not, making governance Orwellian, making genuine attempts to eradicate exploitation a façade – enter corporate social responsibility, an attempt to square the circle of social responsibility while sustaining and expanding the corporations core responsibility to shareholders to maximise profits (Gawu and Inusah, 2019).
Football’s Fig Leaves
Whipping up a frenzy about advances in the science of the football, or fetishising about the potency of the ball as a symbol of national pride and/or refurbishing football manufacturers as a shining beacon of corporate social responsibility are partial truths, ideological fig leaves, given traction by the thinnest veneer of authenticity. Ultimately they fall short in their capacity to dress up the deep divisions between football manufacturers on the one hand seeking to maximise profits and workers and their communities on the other hand seeking to live humanly and not simply hand to mouth.
Such partial truths arise from and carry forward the fetishism of commodities, to obscure the exploitative conditions of production in which footballs are made and consumed. We know exploitation continues, but seduced by the veil of commodity fetishism, this knowledge becomes fragmented and pushed to the back of our minds. The fragmenting of consciousness, turning ‘knowns into unknowns’, is the real business of commodity fetishism, obscuring and ‘forgetting’ the consequences that follow inevitably from the real business of football manufacturing, namely the compulsive maximisation of profits through a range of exploitative labour practices. When the FIFA World Cup 2022 kicks off the eyes of the world will be on Qatar, many may be reminded of the balls journey from production to consumption in the build-up, just as they will be reminded of the toll of migrant workers killed in the construction process, many will then forget as the tournament progresses, when the people involved in producing the football and the stadia will once again become the ’known/unknowns’.
 ‘Al Rihla by Adidas Revealed as World Cup Qatar 2022 Official Match Ball.’ FIFA, March 30 2022. Al Rihla by adidas revealed as FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ Official Match Ball, (Accessed 22 October 2022).
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 Gawu, P. S., & Inusah, H, (2019). Corporate social responsibility: An old wine in a new gourd. Journal of Philosophy and Culture, 7(1), 1-6., https://academicjournals.org/journal/JPC/article-abstract/3D31BCF60505
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