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Sunday, December 5, 2021

The canteen wars: Premier League enters new frontier of banning sauces, desserts and fizzy drinks

Premier League matches are not just won on the pitch, but in the canteen, too. Antonio Conte and Steven Gerrard have declared war on condiments and no foil sachet, glass jar or irritatingly inefficient squeezy bottle is safe.

Fresh from spending his first night in England sleeping at Tottenham’s training ground and possibly slightly crabby for it, Antonio Conte acted swiftly. No more ketchup or mayonnaise allowed for his players.

Steven Gerrard has gone even harder at Aston Villa. No fizzy pop, sauces, puddings or hot chocolate. No word on room-temperature chocolate, but perhaps that falls under puddings?

“There are a lot of ingredients to get into my starting XI and the players will find that out,” said Gerrard, presumably referring to ingredients like lean meats, kale and isotonic gruel.

This is nothing new from Conte, a sworn enemy of ketchup and the man who even banned pizza at Chelsea, which is not very patriotic. Whatever next – Olivio?

Arsene Wenger is the godfather of enlightened eating in English football, imposing a regime which grows more extreme with every re-telling. Round-the-clock pasta; on the hour, every hour and if you so much look at a bag of Frazzles you’re going to HMP London Colney. In fairness, Wenger was entering a culture in which, on a coach home from a game, Steve Bould once ate nine dinners. In more fairness, to Bould this time, it was part of an eating competition and dinners are delicious.

Italy has been the frequent source of footballing food bans. Fabio Capello hated butter and chips and Paolo Di Canio was another ketchup-denier at Sunderland, but sounded like an old wife on the subject of Coke: “If you have ice with Coke you can have indigestion,” he said. “I know players who’ve had ice with their Coke the night before a game and then couldn’t play.” Also – watching too much television will give you square eyes.

Such superstitious thinking is far from unusual, says Dr Nessan Costello, a nutritionist who has worked with several clubs. “Typically portioned sauces are very low calorie; a ketchup sachet at 11 grams contains 10 calories,” he says. “They’re having absolutely no effect on the physiology of players.”

Changing footballers’ eating habits is as much about education as Draconian rules. It is the work of nutritionists like Costello to explain to players that 5-2 is not just an exciting scoreline, but an eating plan which will make you feel miserable 28.57 per cent of the time.

Many clubs have personalised nutritional plans for each player tweaked to suit their own unique needs. These take into account things like muscle mass, position on the pitch and metabolic rate rather than considerations like Son Heung-min having a tantrum if he doesn’t follow training with seven chocolate Hob Nobs. Some clubs go as far as analysing stool samples. They don’t put that in the betting adverts.

But Dr Costello has a surprisingly relaxed attitude about some of the food now on banned lists. “There’s a benefit with Coke, it’s an absolutely brilliant item to use after games to enhance recovery,” he says. “Chocolate will have a higher fat content than sweets, so we always prioritise sweets so players still get the psychological benefit of eating something they enjoy that is also going to help their recovery or preparation for the game.”

There is a limit. Excess fat and deep-fried food is best swerved. Carbonara sauce might be made with thickened milk and cornflour rather than the traditional eight pints of double cream and two succulent pigs.

Ultimately, banning certain food and drinks can cause as many problems as solutions. “I’ve worked in organisations where absolutely everything is restricted and all that players do is stop eating with you and the team,” says Costello. “They’ll go and get those things themselves.”

Restricting foods tends to be seen as a potential marginal gain and who can blame clubs for chasing these when the difference between 15th and 16th in the Premier League is worth around £5m in prize money?

It may be wiser to see culinary reforms as a modern twist on a newly-appointed manager classic: “Well, the players weren’t fit when we got here.” Ceremonially burning the sauce station is a way to set an authoritative tone with a new squad and implicitly criticise your predecessor. It paints him as a standard-slipper, someone so permissive that some players once had cereal AND toast for breakfast. With jam.

The softer educational approach seems better suited to today’s footballers, who must nevertheless remain vigilant about the creep of managerial power. Who knows where it might end? First they came for my sticky toffee pudding but I did not speak up, because I’m more of a savoury man. It might be something they really care about banned next. Lock up your hair gel, tattoos and expensive leather washbags.

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