There can be little doubt that eating more healthily and doing more exercise will have featured prominently among many people’s New Year’s resolutions, particularly given the excesses that the festive period almost inevitably brings. Nor are professional footballers the exception to the rule, with the odd player sure to report back after the holiday period with a few unwanted kilos. Mindful of that risk, a number of clubs around the globe have taken steps to ensure their time off had as minor an impact as possible on players' weight and fitness.
Brazilian outfit Corinthians, for example, brought their squad together prior to the off-season break in order to distribute a personalised dietary plan tailored to each player's needs and body type. A common theme was advising them not to take in too many carbohydrates, especially late at night, while O Timão’s fitness coach also suggested squad members try to take part in friendlies or charity games to keep their match fitness topped up. Will Ronaldo and Co have stuck faithfully to these guidelines, one wonders?
Paying the penalty
Other clubs have gone for the stick rather than the carrot approach, opting to punish players with fines should they let their weight slip out of control. Eintracht Frankfurt have given their entire squad the freedom to put on up to half a kilogram without sanctions, yet every additional 100 grams will see their wallets lightened by €100. And for those who return two kilos or more overweight, they can expect to lose the less-than-palatable sum of €3000.
Yet it is not just during the festive season that professional footballers must battle to remain in tip-top condition. A number of big-name performers have found the often lengthy summer break a minefield of temptation. One such example was former South Africa hitman Benni McCarthy who, after missing deadlines set for him to achieve his ideal weight, was fined around £80,000 by club side West Ham United at the start of the 2010/11 campaign.
Fellow Hammers front-runner Carlton Cole is another sinner, albeit to a lesser degree, after admitting to have flouted Italian coach Fabio Capello’s ban on English staples such as fish and chips and tomato sauce. “I was dying. I needed to put something on my pasta, so on one of the trips I took a packet of ketchup,” said the former Chelsea man, on his act of rebellion while on England duty. “But I won’t do it again.”
Less rigid in his requirements was ex-Germany boss Jurgen Klinsmann while in charge of the host nation at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™. Preferring instead to teach his troops the importance of healthy eating but without laying down strict guidelines, Klinsmann’s approach certainly worked on flying forward Lukas Podolski. Indeed, the odd bag of crisps did not stop ‘Prince Poldi’ from bagging the Gillette Best Young Player award in his country’s charge to third place.
Spain’s recipe for success
Nor do the coaching staff of the reigning world and European champions seem overly strict as regards their players’ diet, with captain Iker Casillas somehow convincing Spain’s team doctors that enjoying hamburgers on their days off would not affect La Roja’s lofty standards. What's more, Spanish internationals for the past 20 years have found themselves in the enviable position of being catered for by noted Navarre chef Xabier Arbizu at every competition.
“You have to teach footballers what to eat from a young age,” said Arbizu, who uses only the finest ingredients and works hand-in-hand with La Selección’s medical staff to ensure all the players’ nutritional requirements are met. “There’s a lot of pasta and roasted vegetables. Footballers prefer meat and chicken so you end up repeating a lot of recipes. We also put on plenty of desserts and fruit, which is always peeled. For special celebrations when they’re at home, I recommend they have a nice fish, griddled or steamed,” added the chef, who has also worked extensively with his country’s U-17 and U-20 squads.
With the science of football growing ever more advanced, little is left to chance, particularly at the very highest level. Experts from a host of fields analyse and plan every aspect of footballers’ performances, and it is now commonplace to find specialists such as psychologists and nutritionists coordinating closely with clubs’ coaching staff.
Spain supremo Vicente del Bosque, a professional back in the 1970s, is well placed to give an insight on how times have changed. “Habits have evolved. We used to eat pretty much anything, but now footballers rarely stray from what’s good for them: they’re more aware of how important it is.
“It (a good diet) is absolutely vital to meet the demands of modern football and players know how crucial it is to their performance,” continued the man who guided his country to victory at South Africa 2010. “We have to consider nutrition as just another facet of training. The right eating habits enable players to train with greater intensity and perform better.”
However, on the evidence of the buoyant morale in the Spanish camp over recent years, there remains plenty to be said for allowing a little wriggle room, depending on each player’s taste. “Pepe Reina likes his meat practically raw, while Gerard Pique prefers his really well-done,” said Arbizu. “But we don’t do anything strange, because the doctor sets the guidelines and those are what we have to follow.”