It’s remarkable what footballers used to consume, especially in Britain. Brian Clough, revered Nottingham Forest manager from 1975 to 1993, sometimes handed out beers in the team bus before the game.
Mick “Sumo” Quinn, feared Newcastle striker of the 1990s, inspired the fan chant, “He’s fat, he’s round, he’s worth a million pounds”, and titled his autobiography Who Ate All the Pies?
Until the mid-1990s Arsenal offered players a full English breakfast before training. On one postmatch bus journey, the team held an eating competition won by centre-back Steve Bould, who consumed nine dinners.
The game has changed. We know much more than just a decade ago about what footballers should eat. Many — though certainly not all — now actually eat those things. Meanwhile, their feeding support structures have burgeoned into a mini-industry.
One sunny day in Barcelona last October, nutritionists from 35 countries, “performance chefs” (a new job in football) and players’ private chefs gathered in an auditorium beside the Camp Nou stadium for FC Barcelona’s Sports Nutrition Conference.
The largest national delegation was British. During the breaks, these fit-looking young people served their fellow delegates the delicious “functional protein muffins” and non-alcoholic “Bloody Marys” that clubs now try to feed their players. Yet listening to the nutritionists, you realised: getting footballers to eat healthily is as hard as getting your children to eat healthily.
Even after Arsène Wenger became Arsenal manager in 1996 and led a reform of the English game’s most egregious refuelling habits, football nutrition remained unimaginative at best.
The standard prematch meal around Europe became plain pasta (for carbs) and chicken (for protein). For lunchtime kick-offs, players would have to force this down at breakfast. After the game, almost every changing-room took a pizza delivery.
Even innovative Arsenal only appointed their first, part-time, nutritionist in 2009. A year later, Barcelona’s then manager Pep Guardiola, a rail-thin health fanatic, appointed Antonia Lizárraga as club nutritionist, just the second person in that job in the whole Spanish first division. The game’s conventional wisdom then, she told me, was: “The most important thing is not nutrition, but that the ball goes in.”
But football has since become ever more professional. Studies show that the distance covered in sprints and high-intensity runs has risen for all positions, especially in the Champions League, so footballers need ever more reserves of muscle glycogen, FC Porto’s nutritionist Vitor Hugo Teixeira told the Barcelona conference.
“The demands are always getting greater,” AS Roma’s former England centre-back Chris Smalling told me. “We are playing more games, but also players are getting stronger, faster. Now it’s a case of trying to find those fine margins where you can improve.”
During nine years at Manchester United, Smalling watched the club build a department of multiple nutritionists from different countries, with one person specialised in postmatch protein shakes, another in injury recovery and so on.
All English Premier League clubs now employ nutritionists. In perhaps the ultimate sign of the game’s turnround, pizza and pasta were banned from Italy’s team camp during Euro 2016 (except if made from khorasan wheat).
Xavier Rousseau, chef to France’s winning team at last year’s World Cup, preached “the rule of three: three meals a day and three food groups. Carbohydrates for energy, proteins to repair the muscles, and fruit and vegetables to protect health.”
In fact, there is very little scientific evidence that nutrition affects football performance. That’s partly because there is not much medical research into the small population group of top-class footballers. Their bodies are too unusual to be relevant to most public-health issues.
Barcelona have discovered that their athletes carry several “paradoxical biomarkers” — ones that are unhealthy for ordinary mortals but beneficial to top-class athletes. For instance, during the season their players have high cholesterol. Footballers’ needs are unique too. If a player pulls his hamstring, he’ll miss crucial matches; if the average office worker pulls theirs, they’ll barely notice.
Nutrition is, however, one of the few factors in performance that can be controlled, so clubs are now doing their utmost to get footballers to eat the right foods at the right time. Here are some of the sport’s current best practices.
• Caffeine is football’s favourite prematch supplement. It improves physical, cognitive and technical performance (including passing accuracy), according to Sports Nutrition for Football, a booklet published by Barcelona’s “Innovation Hub”. The guide recommends tea or coffee at pre-training breakfast, and caffeinated sports drinks on match days.
• High-fibre vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts should be eaten twice a week but — given that they are gassy and take time to digest — not immediately before taking the field, Barça advise.
• Beetroot juice boosts nitrate levels, though not everyone likes it. The conference was shown a video of a Benfica player downing a shot, grimacing and washing the taste away with water.
• A player with a high workload needs lots of carbs. If he doesn’t have a high workload (perhaps because he’s injured), lots of carbs will make him fat. If teams insist on consuming their prematch carbs as pasta, they should eat it al dente, quite hard, as soft-cooked pasta will cause players’ sugar levels to surge and then fall; and don’t add butter or cheese. But sweet potato is preferable, says French sports nutritionist Thomas Rozé.
• Inflammation of body tissues tends to increase over the season. February to the end of May is the period Barcelona define as “high competition”, with lots of matches, travel and sleep loss. In this phase, players should ramp up anti-inflammatory foods such as broccoli, cherries and bone broth rather than taking football’s traditional painkilling drugs.
• The protein recovery shake after training, often personalised for each player, has become a football ritual.
• Within an hour of a match ending, players should eat proteins to help damaged muscle fibres recover. The body is most receptive to nutrients immediately after exercise. Importantly, too, postmatch is a time when the club have some control over what their players consume. That is why Juventus have a dining table in their home changing room, while away sides often depart the stadium in a team bus equipped with a quality kitchen complete with top-class chef.
It helps that many footballers have been infected by the new societal obsession with nutrition. They try to control their stress by managing their own intake and by following eating routines, rather than simply feeling like victims of injuries and luck, Lizárraga says. She helps Barça players find private chefs (almost every first-teamer has one), and talks to the cooks about personalised daily menus.
Some footballers are even becoming vegans. Smalling converted nearly two years ago, inspired by his wife Sam, who persuaded him to watch documentaries and read books on the topic. The ethics of meat-eating bothered him but his initial prompt was health, he says. Like many athletes, he suffered from tendinitis, the swelling of tendons after injury. Once he cut down on inflammatory red meats, he found his symptoms improved.
When Smalling eventually went fully vegan, he was anxious about confessing this but United’s chef was immediately receptive and even bought some vegan recipe books. Scepticism of veganism in sport began fading away decades ago, when Carl Lewis and Martina Navratilova triumphed with entirely or largely plant-based diets.
Straight after Smalling signed for Roma last summer, the club’s cook and nutritionist came up to him to say, “We know you are plant-based.” Nowadays he often finds fellow players quizzing him about veganism. “A lot of those guys are having the same questions that I had when I started transitioning.”
It’s no coincidence that Smalling converted in his late twenties: typically the age when players start taking nutrition seriously. “Only at 20 does your body function perfectly,” mused Alfredo di Stéfano, star of the 1950s, and younger footballers often feel, with some justification, indestructible. With age, they suffer more injuries, take longer to recover and start worrying about extending their careers.
Lionel Messi, long an aficionado of the Argentine breaded-steak-eggs-ham-parmesan-and-mozzarella dish la milanesa napolitana, realised by his late twenties that he was battling decline. Sometimes vomiting on the field, and exhausted throughout the 2014 World Cup, he turned to Italian nutritionist Giuliano Poser, who made him ditch his favourite postmatch pizza and warned him off sugars.
Messi adopted a vegan diet during the season, lost 3kg and now, at 32, remains pre-eminent. He says: “If you want to get better, you must train hard every day, but without the right nutrition it will not be possible.” His rival Cristiano Ronaldo adapted his already rigorous diet in 2016, dropping from 82kg to 79kg to regain some speed.
Yet for all the sport’s nutritional advances, most footballers still eat suboptimally. Graeme Close, professor of human physiology at Liverpool John Moores University, who has worked for the England rugby union team and for various English football clubs, says rugby players tend to take nutrition more seriously.
Every England rugby player has an individual performance plan with a nutritional component; footballers often don’t. Many footballers, especially younger ones, simply don’t know what to eat or are fed by someone who doesn’t understand sporting nutrition, says Close.
Some players eat fast food. Some will refuse the crucial restorative postmatch meal, saying they aren’t hungry. Some even balk at drinking a bottle of water at half-time, although a marathon runner might drink 11 bottles during a race. Managers can try prohibition (when Guardiola took over at Manchester City in 2016, he banned pizzas), but they cannot break into players’ mansions and force-feed them.
Even players who are interested in nutrition might favour foods that make their bodies look good rather than help performance. Female footballers have their own eating issues, says Nicky Keay, a sports and dance endocrinologist. Like most women, they experience social pressure to be thin — and possibly face financial pressure too if they are endorsing fashion brands.
Meanwhile, nutritionists have little power inside most clubs. The biggest influencer of footballers’ eating habits, says the Barça’s guide, is the head coach. Often he is a reactionary who disdains nutrition and who won’t let the club nutritionist sit in on team meals, even presuming he knows who the nutritionist is.
One nutritionist reports being given just four minutes to address the team about food and encountering a club owner who tried to ban salmon from the team menu because he’d heard it was fattening.
I asked Close why bad nutrition persisted in such a moneyed, competitive game. “Football is such a skill-based sport,” he replied. In rugby, improving body mass and fitness might compensate somewhat for a skill deficiency. The same applies in endurance sports.
But as the English football manager Harry Redknapp said in 2008: “If you can’t pass the ball properly, a bowl of pasta’s not going to make that much difference.” In this game, the talent rules and sometimes the talent can afford to eat whatever it wants — often without noticeable impact on performance.
Many younger players, in particular, still seem able to play world-class football on less than Spartan diets. After all, footballers use less energy per match than rugby players, not to mention cyclists riding a Tour de France.
Clubs and nutritionists can be left looking on in helpless horror. Mickael Naya, one of four private chefs fired by Barcelona’s forward Ousmane Dembélé, told the Le Parisien newspaper: “Ousmane is a nice boy but he doesn’t have his life under control. He’s always living with his uncle and best friend, who don’t dare tell him anything. It’s a bumpy life. I’ve never seen alcohol, but he doesn’t at all respect his times for rest, there is no high-level structure around him.”
Spanish newspapers have reported on Dembélé’s love of fast food. Messi publicly warned his teammate: “He must make the transition and become more professional. And I hope he has less bad luck with injuries.” But despite Messi’s obvious insinuation, Dembélé’s muscular injuries may really have been due to bad luck and body type, not bad food.
Most football nutritionists, powerless to dictate, try to educate players. Diogo Ferreira, a nutritionist who worked for Benfica, lists some promising methods: showing a player his blood-test results, pointing out deficiencies and then drawing up a diet plan with him; getting a full-time nutritionist to eat with the players and make “informal interventions” during meals; giving players supermarket tours and cooking classes; printing nutritional information on their food trays; instituting obligatory hydration breaks or group meals; banning phones during meals; putting a fruit basket in changing rooms before training.
Yet in the end, clubs often have to compromise on nutrition. Postmatch, many still serve the traditional cheesy pizza. It may be packed with saturated fat and salts, but compared with what some players are eating at home, it’s health food.
- Chop and blend all the ingredients together in a food processor. Form bonbons weighing approximately 40g and refrigerate.
Gatorade caipirinha mocktail
- Wash the fruit. Cut the limes into 24 pieces each and the apples into even cubes. Stir together the caipirinha mixer, citrus Gatorade and coconut sugar.
- Fill glasses with the ice and fruit pieces. Then fill with the caipirinha.
Recipes courtesy of the Barcelona Innovation Hub
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist and author of ‘Soccernomics’
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