Sprinting up and down a soccer pitch takes a lot of energy, let alone doing it for 90-plus minutes as you kick, pass, play, and defend for your team. Being physically fit is a top concern, but so is diet. To give aspiring players the nutritional edge, FIFA has a few general guidelines. Cautioning that only the highest-level competitors need a carbohydrate-laden diet in order to keep up on the pitch, soccer’s worldwide organizing body says a player ought to begin prepping with food about six hours before a match. For every kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of body weight, a player should aim to eat 1 to 4 grams of carbs.
Nice in theory, but what is it really like inside the dietary life of an international soccer player? In 2013, Neymar gave a bit of insight on this matter to Red Bull’s magazine, Red Bulletin. “I also wish I could eat what I like,” the Brazilian said. “But as we have matches almost every weekend, we must eat a balanced diet, with protein, carbs, and salads every single day.” That is a far cry from the soda and burgers that The Daily Mail reports Neymar once had weakness for.
As a member of the Brazilian national team, nutrition has become even more nuanced than just a balanced diet for Neymar. Sports met science when the team partnered with the Gatorade Sports Science Institute to optimize performance. As this video (featuring David Luiz and his exquisite hair) explains, each player was tested, and nutritional measurements were taken to determine what a player was losing after a training session. From those results, an individualized formula was created for every player on the team. Neymar isn’t the only athlete who allegedly has been forced to alter his eating habits, or who has been on the receiving end of the intersection of sports and science.
Consider another of the world’s top players in Lionel Messi and the club he plays for, Barcelona. During Messi’s early years at the club, under Pep Guardiola’s watch, Messi’s diet changed from being filled with Argentinian comfort foods to one centered on fish and vegetables, according to Goal. The alfajor cookies The New York Times reports that once rewarded Messi for scoring goals as youngster with Newell’s Old Boys were gone, and like other members of the team, he received a personalized set of vitamins to take in the mornings.
Brazil and Barcelona are not alone in nudging players to ditch the not-so-good for you foods in favor of better-quality choices. Managers have a significant impact on what the team eats, and they are paying attention to the health foods revolution too. When Arsene Wenger arrived in London at Arsenal in 1996, he found a team who loved their french fries, eggs, baked beans, and red meat. The Guardian credits Wenger and the team of French fitness and health consultants he brought in with revolutionizing how the club viewed nutrition.
“I always thought it was stupid to practice the whole weekend then destroy your game because you don’t eat well, or don’t sleep well, or you don’t prepare well,” Arsenal’s website reports Wenger saying at a question-and-answer session in 2011. “It happened to me when I was a player. It’s not understandable that a player practices every day, wants to be a star and then eats something that is not good for his performance.” So it was out with the Mars candy bars and in with pasta, vegetables, water, boiled chicken, and steamed fish.
Wenger isn’t alone in favoring pasta and nutrition these days. According to the Associated Press, the Italians brought their own boxes of the noodles to the World Cup so they would not be without their favored pre-match meals. “Pasta is our preferred fuel, and before matches we play with the tricolore: pasta (white), tomato (red) and extra virgin olive oil (green),” Italy team nutritionist Elisabetta Orsi said to the news service. Along with that pasta came prosciutto and Parmesan.
Italians weren’t the only ones being picky about food and nutrition in Brazil. In Wenger-worthy style, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann also stresses nutrition for his players. “He’s very involved,” team dietitian Danielle LaFata said to the Associated Press. “I think he’s more nutrition conscious than myself sometimes.”
Two cooked vegetables are on everyone’s plate at every meal, and the team is urged to add more from a fruit and salad bar. The U.S. men’s national team is going through a case of avocados every day, and if Klinsmann’s preferences are being adhered to, it’s all organic and pesticide free. Again, like the Italians, the U.S. made room in their suitcases for favorites from home, including oatmeal, A1 Steak Sauce, Cheerios, and peanut butter.
For midfielder Kyle Beckerman, the regimen is working. “It’s just been top notch,” Beckerman said, per the Associated Press. “I think Jurgen’s really taken the U.S. national team in terms of all of those things to another level. You just really trust in what you’re eating. You know that whatever you’re eating, it’s giving you the best thing to recover and to be at your top level come practice or game time.”
Like FIFA said, the average person isn’t going to need to eat the same quantities of food that a top-tier soccer player does. But that doesn’t mean more people can’t take a few lessons in nutrition from the best athletes and teams in the world. While you can’t guzzle a personalized Gatorade, you can make the best dietary choices for your lifestyle, paying attention to what you eat, how it makes you feel, and proceeding from there.