England coach Gareth Southgate prefers that his team has its meals together and so far it seems to be working for them.
World Cup teams need food not just to fuel the bodies of players, but also to create unity between them. Food is vital to the idea of team, especially at events like the World Cup.
Cricketers mostly play for the national team. It is only some weeks every year that they play for their state or franchise.
In football, it is the opposite.
Most players play a greater number of matches for their clubs than their countries. Cristiano Ronaldo has played over 600 matches for his clubs, and 191 for Portugal. Club football is players’ bread and caviar. International games are for legacy and duty towards the nation.
So when a country’s players gather once every four years at the World Cup, bonding becomes necessary.
In Diego Maradona’s account of Argentina’s victorious 1986 World Cup campaign in Mexico, there is a picture of the team eating together at a long, laden table by the training pitch.
Maradona’s language was as full of personality as his game and his whole self. He writes of the picture, “Now everyone talks about players’ diets… I didn’t worry much about my diet. I liked the pastas Carmando, my masseuse, would make, and the meats my old man (father) would grill. It was a ritual: we would eat right next to the training fields.”
Another habit of that team, shaped more by superstition, was to visit a particular mall the day before a game and have ice cream at a shop called Helen’s.
Closer home, a team dinner was crucial in upping the Indian team’s confidence before their FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifier against Qatar in 2019. (Qatar qualified directly as hosts, but had to play the zonal qualifying rounds, as they also served as qualification matches for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup).
Just a few days before the dinner, India had suffered a narrow 2-1 loss to Oman. The mood in the camp was down.
In Doha for the next game against Qatar, coach Igor Stimac took the team out for a meal.
The gesture had the desired effect. India held Qatar to a goalless draw in their own den. It is regarded as one of the country’s best performances.
Later, defender Sandesh Jhingan spoke about the importance of the team dinner. “When we got on to the bus to go to the restaurant, our frame of mind was still 50-50 – on our 1-2 loss to Oman. It was still playing on our minds. But when we got on the bus to go back to the hotel, everyone had a smile on their face and the determination to succeed against Qatar. There was a complete mood change after the dinner.”
Adil Khan, another defender, said, “The result against Oman was pinching everyone. But the team dinner helped us refresh ourselves. Most importantly the bond between the players grew even stronger.”
England coach Gareth Southgate understands how beneficial it can be for players to break bread together.
Former England team chef Tim De’ath told a UK paper, “If there was a chance to win a World Cup, it’s this one. Gareth Southgate is the best in the business at getting a team to come together at a tournament and food plays a huge part in that. A football army marches on its stomach.”
De’ath said that when he started at England in 2006, players would tend to eat with their club teammates at separate tables. There would be a corner with Chelsea boys, another table with Arsenal players, and so on. That was replaced by one common table for the entire team. And no phones were allowed, so that players spoke with each other instead of being lost in their own worlds or groups
For players to have a happy tummy it is necessary for them to get the food that they are used to. Australia, known for their spectacular coffee, have sent a barista named Alexia Ravelski to Qatar for the team’s caffeine needs. Her most popular concoction is called ‘Magic’.
“It’s essentially a double ristretto, three-quarter-full latte,” Ralevski said in an interview. “If you’re from Melbourne, you’d know. Everyone’s hooked on them now.”
Meats from their homeland are a non-negotiable requirement for South American nations, who pride themselves on the quality of their protein. Even at a time when nearly everything is available everywhere, and global standards of cooking have risen, teams like Argentina and Uruguay insist on their own beef and pork.
For every World Cup, they haul shiploads of staples to the host country. This time, Argentina and Uruguay have reportedly carried 900 kilos of meat to Qatar.
Argentine coach Lionel Scaloni recently said, “My favourite food is the asado (Argentine barbecue), but it’s more than that. It’s part of our culture, of the Argentine idiosyncrasy. It’s during that time that we get to talk, to laugh, relax and connect. It’s not necessarily about the meat, although we love it. It’s to be part of a group and the connection that it generates.”
It is another matter that following their insipid defeat against Saudi Arabia, Argentina need much more than good steak to have a chance in the tournament.