The diet of Pirlo and his teammates

What does the Italian team eat to get ready? An interview to Elisabetta Orsi, the team’s nutritionist

by Gabriele Zanatta
Cesare Prandelli in a fragment from the

Cesare Prandelli in a fragment from the "Io Mangio italiano" spot, which was recorded with the objective of supporting Italian food. The head coach of the national team painstakingly takes care of the diet of the 23 footballers summoned in Brazil. Will this work? The first answer is expected on the night between Saturday and Sunday, during the debut against England (The interview was published in issue number 4 of Swedish magazine Fool,

The lean Gianni Rivera would wolf down a huge salami roll to regain his strength after a football game. After a gruelling training session, Zdenek Zeman’s players would devour the contents of the refrigerator. In a 2007 advert, the Italian football squad’s chef said: “And what do World Cup champions have for breakfast? Fruit, milk and bread and Nutella.” All this was just a few years ago, but in terms of sports food science it was back in the Mesozoic era. Nowadays the Italian squad relies on a team of nutritionists and dieticians driven by the following mantra: “The bid for the 2014 fifa World Cup starts at the table.” The team is led by Elisabetta Orsi, owner of Qi Studio and consultant to the Italian Football Federation. She has been involved in the field of sports nutrition for over 20 years, having worked with Arrigo Sacchi, one
 of the world’s best football coaches, who was also known for pushing his players to
eat for success.

Doctor Orsi, what is your main responsibility for 
the Italian team?

To develop a diet plan for the entire first squad and, where necessary, work with medical staff to create specific diet plans for individual members.

How has this job changed in the past 20 years?

The rules remain the same, but the approach is far more enlightened, thanks to a totally new awareness around food culture on all levels.

What have been the most common mistakes?
Timing and food choices: the when and what to eat haven’t always been seen as determining factors for successful performance.

Elisabetta Orsi, nutritionist of the Italian national team

Elisabetta Orsi, nutritionist of the Italian national team

How many people do you have on your team?
A lot. There is someone
for assessment tests, anthropometric tests, bioelectrical impedance analysis, oxidative stress tests, food intolerance tests. Sports doctors and biologists handle the data processing and training log books. We also have massage therapists, training coordinators, secretaries...

Do you see eye-to-eye with the Italy manager on nutritional strategies?
Certainly. He, more than anyone, is convinced that healthy eating habits can make all the difference. He is always careful about what he eats and generally goes for small portions.

What dietary rules apply the day before a game?

You should determine a suitable calorie intake and eat foods that are easily absorbed by the body.
 Avoid rich foods. Choose vegetable fats, especially uncooked ones. Eat plenty
of raw and cooked vegetables (all parts – roots, stems, flowers and fruits). It’s also highly recommended to cook dishes at low-temperatures. Just like the dishes of the world’s great chefs.

What about just before a game?
I always suggest beginning with a colourful raw vegetable medley mixed with a few seeds or nuts, such
as walnuts or almonds, which are rich in omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids
and possess excellent anti- inflammatory properties. Then slow-release carbo- hydrates: starchy foods like wholemeal pasta, rice and barley. To lower the glycaemic index, that is to say the absorption rate, I usually add fibre-rich vegetables.

Does diet influence the psychological approach?

I’m convinced that it does. A dish can conjure both pleasant and unpleasant memories, so that’s why I always try to include traditional Italian dishes to evoke a feeling of “home”. And I try to meet the tastes of the athletes halfway, without focusing too much on the “scientific” side.

Can proper diet 
prevent injury?
Sure it can. I believe that acidosis is the greatest cause of injury. A diet rich in mineral salts can help avert cramp, as can glycaemic-index testing to prevent a drop in energy levels during performance.

What about eating after
 the game?

Straight afterwards I’d recommend simple sugars for fast liver glycogen restoration. A few hours later something easily digestible, yet organically rich in protein, such as white meat, fish or eggs, again combined with vegetables liberally dressed with condiments rich in antioxidants to prevent oxidation of the animal fat.

The cover of Fool Magazine #4, completely dedicated to Italy. Published in English, the project is signed by Swedes Per-Anders and Lotta Jörgensen

The cover of Fool Magazine #4, completely dedicated to Italy. Published in English, the project is signed by Swedes Per-Anders and Lotta Jörgensen

Is it true that you’ve done away with the tradition of the post-game pizza?

Yes. As recovery is our top priority digestion cannot be
a complicated affair. There isn’t always the time to prepare a pizza so that the dough can rise properly.
 And cooked cheese isn’t exactly the best thing.
 Well, there’s a slap on the wrist for us mere mortals with our “footie and pizza” rituals.

Aren’t the younger footballers tempted by junk food? A while ago I read that Wayne Rooney had given his son his very own fast-food joint.
I assure you that the Italian squad are real pros: they are well aware of the damage that poor diet can cause. 

What dish do they find hardest to resist?

You’ll never believe it, the most popular dish is risotto venere with crunchy broccoli.

It is also rumoured that chef Claudio Silvestri bakes a wonderful cake as a reward.
I can confirm the rumour; but I can’t give you the recipe!

Have you made a shopping list for the Italian team at the Brazil World Cup?
Yes. Parmigiano, bresaola and prosciutto crudo are essential!

WILL WE RAISE IT AGAIN? Materazzi holding the Cup in 2006

WILL WE RAISE IT AGAIN? Materazzi holding the Cup in 2006

How will you deal with the humidity?
With a few sips of coconut! Joking aside, our “medicine” will be mineral salts and excellent local Brazilian fruit. We’ll have to get the sodium, potassium and magnesium levels right, without forgetting about antioxidants.

The World Cup lasts a month. If Italy make it through to the final week (touch wood), would you modify the diet for the final phase?
Essentially, no. We’ll just have to concentrate on hydration and on keeping fluid levels
 up and maintaining quick post-match recovery times.

One last curiosity: are you an habitué of haute cuisine restaurants in your free time? Do you have a favourite chef?
My favourite chef is my partner, Paolo. No one can rustle up a Milanese-style escalope like him, nutritionist’s honour!


Zanattamente buono

Gabriele Zanatta’s opinion: on establishments, chefs and trends in Italy and the world