Ball made from sugar cane is behind the long-range goal frenzy at Euro 2024

Harry Kane smiling at a football
Kane is among the strikers delighted with the official Euros ball - AFP/Adrian Dennis

There will come a time in the life of Xherdan Shaqiri when he is no longer able to produce the required running for the world of professional football. A time when those enormous calves stop firing at last, and the desire to compete finally disappears.

Even when that time comes, though, and even after the Switzerland forward rides into the sunset, one suspects he will still retain the ability to curl a ball into the top corner of a net from the edge of the box. Some men are born to do certain things on a pitch and this particular move has seemingly always been Shaqiri’s calling.

His latest such effort, at the age of 32, was one of his most artful yet. Darting onto a poor back-pass in Switzerland’s 1-1 draw with Scotland, Shaqiri produced a gorgeous strike which arced inside the crossbar and post. “He lives and breathes for moments such as this,” said Murat Yakin, the Switzerland head coach.

It was Shaqiri’s 10th goal at a major tournament, and meant that he beat Cristiano Ronaldo in the race to become the first player to score at the last six major tournaments.

Shaqiri’s goal also continued one of the most striking trends of this tournament: the long-range belter is, suddenly and thrillingly, back in fashion.

Of the 42 goals now scored at the tournament, 12 have been struck from outside the 18-yard box. Euro 2024 has already surpassed 2008 and 2012 for goals from outside the box. In 2008, there were only six in the whole competition. In 2012, there were just eight.

Over the past nine major tournaments, dating back to the 2006 World Cup, around 13 per cent of goals have been scored from long range. After last night’s games, that same figure for Euro 2024 stood at 28.6 per cent. Clearly, something unusual is happening. But why?

The ball – ‘It stays hit’

It would not be a major tournament without a discussion about the quality of the official ball. Who could forget the infamous “Jabulani” of 2010, which was so despised by so many players?

At the 2022 World Cup, there were fears that the ball was too light. Kieran Trippier, the England defender, said: “If you put too much power on it, it will just fly away.”

This year’s edition, however, has so far prompted positive reviews - especially from strikers. Serbia’s Dusan Vlahovic described it as “strange”, but in a good way. “For now, it listens to me,” he said.

England captain Harry Kane, meanwhile, believes this year’s version works in the favour of goalscorers. “I like the ball,” he said. “It’s quick. When you strike it, it stays hit.

“I’ve had a bit of a different experience with a different ball in the Bundesliga, the Adidas ball we are used to in Europe and I have played with the Nike ball in the Premier League. For me personally, I think it is better for the strikers and goalscorers than it is for goalkeepers, so I’m not going to complain about that.”

What, then, is different about this year’s ball? Adidas say the Fussballliebe (meaning “love of football”) is “specially engineered for greater accuracy”, thanks in part to the technology within its core.

The core is made from a bladder containing rubber, and a double-patched polyester fabric. Within the ball there is also a suspension system which stabilises the motion sensor used by VAR officials.

In order to make the ball more sustainable, Adidas have used more bio-based substances than ever. Each layer includes materials such as corn fibres, sugar cane, wood pulp and rubber.

At the Qatar World Cup, only 2.2 per cent of long-range shots ended up in the net. Less than two years later, at a tournament featuring many of the same players who were in Qatar, that conversion rate has jumped to an astonishing 8.3 per cent.

Either the modern player has suddenly become significantly better at long-range shooting, or something else has changed. The evidence points towards the new ball having some sort of impact.

“It has been great to see the feedback from players during the first week of the tournament has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Sam Handy, senior vice-president of product and design at Adidas football. “The Fussballliebe ball design combines advanced technology backed by extensive research, which has already led to some memorable moments on the pitch.

“Key features include the CTR-Core for greater accuracy and consistency, and the Precisionshell for improved aerodynamics, enhancing stability and control over long distances. Rigorous testing in Adidas labs and blind testing with players ensure the ball meets the highest performance standards.”

The tactics – less rigidity, more freedom

In domestic football, the overarching trend has been for teams to move away from long-range shots, which are generally regarded as higher-risk and not conducive to the choreographed, patterned style of play which many coaches now look to impose.

Last season, only 33 per cent of shots in the Premier League were from outside the penalty box. This continued a steady decline since 2014/15, when 43 per cent of shots were taken from range.

Only 11.5 per cent of goals in the 2023/24 Premier League season were scored from outside the box, the lowest proportion in the past 10 years.

Why would international football be different? Well, national teams have far less time on the training field together, and generally do not have the established systems of play that the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal have built under Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta.

Compared to the well-drilled formations and controlled matches in the best domestic leagues, football in international tournaments can be much more loose.

The atmosphere at tournaments must also play its part in this. The colours, the weather, the festival feel: all of it surely contributes to the players feeling a little more reckless and emotional, and a little more willing to simply have a go when they see the goalposts.

Slovenia striker Benjamin Sesko, for example, appeared so excited in his team’s opening game against Denmark that he fired towards the posts at every opportunity. Twice, he went close to scoring potential contenders for goal of the tournament.

The reality check – luck

The other explanation, of course, is luck. Indeed, such an enormous swing towards long-range goals would suggest that this current rate of scoring is simply not sustainable. Euro 2024 is an anomaly, and the sample size remains small.

Consider this: in the first round of group games in Germany, 9.6 per cent of all shots from outside the penalty area were scored. Over the previous nine World Cups and European Championships, the average conversion rate of such shots was just 2.6 per cent.

Can it last? Probably not. But, for now, supporters are thoroughly enjoying the return of an art form that has been gradually slipping out of the professional game. All of a sudden, the long-range belter is back in fashion.

The 10 best long-range goals from the first round of matches

Florian Wirtz: Germany v Scotland

The opening goal of Euro 2024, Florian Wirtz set the tone, sparking a long-shot frenzy.

An exquisite switch of play by Toni Kroos, picking out Joshua Kimmich from a step inside the Scotland half, put Germany in a menacing stance. A couple of touches and a simple pass to the unmarked Wirtz later and the shot was on.

In mere seconds, Germany had split open the Scots. Wirtz’s first-touch strike was driven low and hard, taking Angus Gunn off guard and making his save attempt futile. A controlled strike with a high degree of difficulty showcasing the technique of one of the tournament’s most exciting young talents.

Emre Can: Germany v Scotland

Former Liverpool midfielder Emre Can laid the final dagger in Germany’s massacring of Scotland with a curling effort from range.

With a corner in the final minute, you can forgive Scotland for having one eye on the clock, desperate for the game to conclude. The corner was taken short and to the edge of the box with only three German players standing awaiting its delivery - seemingly the nightmare was over.

Using the inside of his boot, the midfielder, who was called up just 48 hours prior, placed the ball in the far right corner and out of reach of the stretching Gunn.

Michel Aebischer: Switzerland v Hungary

Michel Aebischer took his debut European Championship match by storm, capping off his performance with a cruel dipping effort on the stroke of half-time.

The Swiss defensive midfielder is a major tournament newbie, with his only previous experience being a 15 minute cameo in the 2022 World Cup.

Receiving the ball five yards outside the box, his rolled touch to get the ball out of his feet froze the defence, allowing him to bend one into the bottom-right-hand corner. The ball nose dived as it reached the Hungarian net giving the keeper no chance of catching it.

Nicolo Barella: Italy v Albania

After a frantic passage where the ball was bouncing everywhere in the Albanian box, a botched clearance by winger Jasir Asani gave Nicolo Barella no time to think. With the  ball coming rattling towards him he had just enough time to plant his left boot and swing with his right. Connecting with the outside of his foot, and a decent amount of shin, it rocketed past the Albanian keeper taking all by surprise.

Erik Janza: Slovenia v Denmark

Slovenia vs Denmark was a game filled with narrative; Eriksen’s return to the European Championships following the traumatic scenes of his collapse in Denmark’s opening fixture against Finland; Slovenia’s second appearance at the Euros following a 24 year absence.

Erik Janza, who stormed towards a cleared corner, slashing his boot towards the ball. His blasted effort ricocheted off Morten Hjulmand and past the helpless Kasper Schmeichel. Some good fortune earned by a relentless assault on Denmark’s goal.

Nicolae Stanciu: Romania v Ukraine

Many had written off Romania for this tournament - normally a fair estimation - but their arrival at Euro 2024 was loud and spectacular.

29 minutes in, after a mistake from Real Madrid goalkeeper Andriy Lunin saw his clearance intercepted by winger Dennis Man, Nicolae Stanciu arrived to prey on the chaos that ensued. Lining it up, he swung across his body, connecting perfectly with the ball which laser beamed into the top corner, shattering the roof of the net.

A ridiculous effort celebrated manically by the yellow wall behind the goal.

Razvan Marin: Romania v Ukraine

I told you Romania came to impress. In what can only be considered a bid to one-up teammate Nicolae Stanciu’s first-half wonderstrike, Razvan Marin scored an equally venomous strike from distance.

After a counter attack seemed to have fizzled out despite some more positive play from Dennis Man, Marin sprinted towards the loose ball with raging purpose. He sent the ball barrelling towards the bottom corner giving Lunin no chance.

What a start to Romania’s campaign in proving the doubters wrong.

Xherdan Shaqiri: Switzerland v Scotland

Shaqiri has built a career on scoring goals from range and this was one of his best yet. Racing onto a loose backpass, Shaqiri had only one option: immediately shooting towards goal.

His left-footed effort, from the left side, started outside the post and then curled beautifully into the top corner. Scotland goalkeeper Angus Gunn did not have a chance.

Lukas Provod: Czech Republic v Portugal

Another sweeping strike across the face of goal, Lukas Provod sent the Czech Republic ahead against one of the tournament favourites Portugal, firmly against the run of play.

With the Portuguese defence pinned back for perhaps the first time in this fixture, a cleared cross fell to West Ham’s Vladamír Coufal on the right-hand-side of the box. He then laid it off to Provod who stepped up and leathered it past Diogo Costa. A ferocious effort.

Arda Guler: Turkey v Georgia

Turkish wonderkid Arda Guler plays his football for Spanish giants Real Madrid, ironically earning him the nickname the “Turkish Messi.”

When the 19 year-old attacking midfielder stepped up, miles from the goal, the game tied one a piece. Picking out the top left corner, he struck the ball violently, allowing it to soar and curve towards its destination. A fantastic strike from a player with heaps of potential.