“You are what you eat.” German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach first coined the phrase over 150 years ago, but it still rings true today.
We all love good food, and what we eat has a major bearing on how we perform in life. This is especially true for top-level athletes, and nowadays what an elite sportsman consumes is an important part of how he performs. It is therefore no surprise that many professional teams utilise the services of nutritional advisers, or in reigning world champions Germany’s case, world class chefs.
“The right diet doesn’t make an average footballer into a superstar, but no player – regardless of what level he plays at – can reach his full potential if he doesn’t eat well,” said FIFA’s Chief Medical Officer Prof. Jiri Novak to FIFA.com.
So what are the golden rules about eating that an athlete needs to observe in order to be successful? As the foremost medical voice of the game’s governing body, Dvorak takes care not to lay out general rules on the subject, instead pointing out that player nutrition requires constant adaptation to cultural and individual circumstances. “Nutrition is by no means an absolute science,” he explained.
Variety and taste key
Holger Stromberg, Michelin-starred chef and the man in charge of the German national team's food, takes a similarly individualist approach to the subject. His job is to ensure that the diets of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller and Co are in optimal condition so as to allow them to achieve the best performances. “If the fuel isn’t right, the motor won’t work properly,” he told FIFA.com, and he even drew some comparisons between football and cookery. “They’re both team sports. As an individual, you win nothing. Only the team counts.”
On his journeys with Germany, Stromberg must cook for a party of 23 players as well as a large number of coaching staff. With such a sizeable group, catering for individual needs is next to impossible. Instead, he makes sure to satisfy as many requirements as possible. “I always set up a buffet and I make it as varied as it can be,” he explained. “Soups, salads, vegetables, main courses and desserts – all freshly prepared by us, of course. The important thing to bear in mind when producing the buffet is to strike a balance between complex carbohydrates [usually with whole grain products], protein and healthy fats. I attach great importance to using food and energy that’s the most naturally produced and of the highest quality.”
The source of Stromberg’s ingredients is a key concern for the Munster native, but for the players to deliver the best performance on the pitch, one factor trumps all. “As well as being healthy, it obviously has to taste good as well. And it’s not a case of either/or - in fact it’s the opposite.”
Adapting to circumstances
Stromberg has been part of the German setup since 2007 and helped the team achieve various successes along the way, most notably in winning the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. He did have to contend with some problems during the tournament, however. “It wasn’t easy to source good-quality ingredients while we were there,” he recalled, and his predicament was made worse by the fact he and his staff were prohibited from bringing their own ingredients into the country. “For that reason, I worked predominantly with what was available there, such as pumpkins, carrots, avocado, beetroot, beef and fish.”
In order to maintain the players’ fluid balances, it was also necessary to observe Brazil’s climactic conditions, and dairy products were avoided almost completely. This could have caused some irritation in the team, since rice pudding had long been a squad favourite. Head chef Stromberg had the perfect solution, however. “They had to have rice pudding, so I just served it with rice and almond milk in the mixture.”
As results would show, Stromberg was worth his weight in gold. Germany were outstanding at the tournament, a cluster of memorable performances allowing them to sweep into the final. For every man and woman in the Germany setup, it was the biggest day of their career, and so the meals had to be just perfect. So what was on the menu? “Before the final against Argentina we had a buffet with heart of palm, avocado, carrots, beef, buffalo cheese and sweetcorn. Added to that, you also had pumpkin soup, chicken breast, pasta, rice and vegetables, and for dessert we had mango, rice pudding and semolina porridge.”
It set the players up perfectly to go out and deliver on the pitch, and they duly did so to claim Germany’s fourth FIFA World Cup™. One might have thought that after lifting the trophy, the players could gorge themselves on their favourite treats, but Stromberg’s healthy, performance-based meals did not stop there. Some 45 minutes after the game ended, the players were served “pasta and tomato sauce directly in the dressing room”.
An important piece of the puzzle
Stromberg no doubt made a significant contribution to Germany’s triumph that summer, but as FIFA man-in-the-know Dvorak explained, he was just one part of a collective working towards victory. “No game is won due to better nutrition alone, but it can definitely make you more able to perform, and at a tournament, it’s the little things that make the difference between success and failure. The right diet can give a team the necessary advantage.
“The most important thing,” Dvorak continued, “is that you feel good and make the right decision for you when deciding what you eat. In that way, vegetarians or vegans are not at a disadvantage – in fact it can even work the other way around. Many vegans actually make far better eating decisions than non-vegans, since they usually deal with the issue of what they should eat far more often.”
Stromberg has also observed the need for an athlete’s nutrition to be catered for individually. Since donning his apron at the DFB, he has made it his mission “to raise the importance of diet in football”, and he has done so by introducing some innovative approaches. “A goalkeeper isn’t required to do the same job as a striker, so we focus his nutrition on protein-rich foods. Outfield players who have to run a lot require more carbohydrates in their diet.
“The right way to do things is the way that best fits an individual,” Stromberg summarised. “You can try different things, but the main concern is that what you eat tastes good, and making sacrifices won’t allow you to consistently reach your target.”
Roughly summarised, then, good food means a good mood. Feuerbach’s observation remains as true as ever.