Nick Worth, the Al Jazira medical services director, is trying to 'just chip away' at his players' eating habits.
Football trainer advises players: give up KFC and shisha
It might sound partway to outlandish, but the professional league outcomes of future seasons could hinge upon questions of KFC, pasta and shisha.
Which elite side can minimise most successfully the number of meals taken at KFC? Which can integrate most successfully the prudent pre-match meal? Who can shelve the shisha?
From his post as the medical services director at Al Jazira, Nick Worth sits at a unique window upon the UAE footballing culture and, upon arrival last November, he saw something stirring. In filling out diet sheets, players often listed an affinity for the Kentucky-fried American export with alluring concoctions you might describe as, well ...
"Not conducive to performance," Worth said.
From 17 years at six upper-tier English clubs, Worth came upon footballers "thinking that having KFC and eating chicken and potatoes rather than chicken and chips" constituted "nutritious meals". He understands, for he has seen near his home the mini-phenomenon known as the KFC traffic jam.
"If you go through there in the evenings, the place is absolutely packed," he said, citing Thursdays and Fridays in particular. "They queue down the road to get in the drive-in section. It's actually difficult to drive past because there's so many cars there. KFC is a real institution here, far more than other outlets."
Now, most anyone who gives up KFC, McDonald's, Burger King, all of it, then tries it again post-hiatus, notices the food seems as if caroming around the digestive tract ransacking organs with polo mallets. That said, ousting it altogether can be a big ask, so Worth isn't asking.
His realistic approach with Jazira's players - after Ramadan, of course - entails mixing the odd KFC stop amid weeks of overall culinary reason.
"I know I'm not going to change their ways," he said. "I'm not going to try and revolutionise things. What you're trying to do is just chip away a little bit."
In chats with similarly employed professional league colleagues, he has learned the mix of nutritional cultures poses challenges at other clubs as well. Take the pre-match meal.
Ideally, an elite athlete three-and-a-quarter hours before kick-off would eat a hefty meal of high-carbohydrate, high-energy foods such as grilled chicken, pasta, rice, spaghetti bolognese. Jazira provided such meals last year, but only the South American players - and the staff! - tended to eat them.
Emirati players, he said, would tell of a big lunch at 1pm, then skip along with scant intake for seven hours toward a major exertion come evening.
Come October, he would rather see a feast at 4.45pm and a recovery shake post-match, which are common routines in the Premier League and Championship where Worth worked for Bolton Wanderers, Fulham and Manchester City, among others.
"Quite often you get players who either forget to eat or certainly don't drink enough water," he said. "You're actually trying to almost force them into eating and drinking. You're fighting against habits."
And he knows the upwards arc of such fights, so as he aims to tweak the very eating cycle, he knows it's wrong to go all drastic. To one player who has burgers cooked for him at home, Worth has suggested leaner meat, cutting the chips (and maybe half the bun) and adding a salad.
"You have to make these little inroads," he said, so you "alter things with an Arabic slant on it, adjust the Arab menu for performance, rather than just a Western diet."
One possibility: take a familiar stew and slip in more vegetables.
The best possibility with shisha, for ultimate athletic performance, would be quitting, but Worth aims at least to convince players to minimise. In lung-function tests, some had the shockingly low score of 300. "Yes, it's not cigarettes, but it's still smoke going into your lungs," he said. "It's making your lungs work less well."
If he can push that case plus the case against soda and the one against sugar in tea and coffee and supplements drinks already sugar heavy, maybe Jazira can dominate the league ... oh, wait.
"We're going to have a challenge this year because we won everything," he said. "So it's almost, 'What we did last year was right.'" Even though with sport, "You've got to make sure you stay ahead of the game all the time."
Some players have responded. Some have consulted Worth saying they'd like more muscle or a tad less weight. If Jazira do win the league by even more, it might be amusing to wonder if it stemmed partly from the fine art of KFC avoidance.