Football is one of the most competitive games in the world, with several millions of fans wishing they could play the game professionally and the few thousand lucky professionals wishing they can push on and perform better than their contemporaries. With the stakes so high, it should come as no surprise that a number of professionals explore the options available to them to boost their performance and the longevity of their careers, hoping to reach peak fitness and achieve more in what is, ultimately, a relatively short career.
In some cases, this means turning to doping. While there have been few high-profile cases of doping in football in recent years, there have been claims by figures as senior in the game as Arsene Wenger that doping is rife in the professional game, and that there is significant evidence of doping against a number of legends of the game. German football has, over the years, had to contend with uncomfortable allegations that their national team has doped ahead of and during some of the most important games in its history, including their first World Cup win in 1954 and to a lesser extent the 1974 squad, with some proof in other tournaments too.
Whatever the truth of these allegations, there is another way. Some players spend longer in the gym, bulking up their strength in the hopes of making small gains in effectiveness on the pitch. Others turn to alternative diets and lifestyles to gain an advantage. It has long been known that it’s impossible for a top side to sustain itself on a diet of fast food and alcohol, so it should come as no surprise that players willing to make the extra step in their spare time will pay dividends.
One such player is Darmstadt’s Marco ‘Toni’ Sailer. Perhaps more famous for his long, gruff beard, the former Aalen, Wiesbaden and Heidenheim midfielder has turned to a vegan lifestyle, claiming that since last December he has lost five kilos and become a lot more healthy in general. Having played most of his career in the 3. Liga – a league for which he was signed by current club Darmstadt back in 2013 – Sailer’s commitment to a diet without animal products appears to be working out for himself and his club. While Sailer is largely a bit part player for die Lilien, he has bagged himself a goal in Germany’s top flight this season and performed well when called upon by manager Dirk Schuster, and a lot of this must be accredited to his new diet.
“I feel more energetic, more fit” explained Sailer to a German-language vegan magazine named “Kochen ohne Knochen” (cooking without bones). “Beforehand I had muscular problems, but nowadays I have none at all”. There is significant evidence to suggest that meat and other animal products such as milk and eggs are harmful to humans, but with these different types of food so integral to the everyday diet of many people, including athletes, it’s not surprising that they continue to be eaten frequently.
While examples of top-level athletes eating a vegan diet aren’t numerous, there are a number of high-profile sportspeople, including the women’s number one in tennis, Serena Williams (and her sister Venus), as well as American Football player David Carter and Olympic cycling gold medallist David Smith, who adhere to a vegan diet. Furthermore, there are a number of other athletes who have gone some way to removing animal products from their diet, or perhaps other harmful foodstuffs. Olympic runner Mo Farah’s exploits over the past few years have perhaps made him the greatest distance runner of all time, and he has attributed a lot of his success down to the fact he generally eats the meat substitute quorn instead of actual meat itself.
Less famously but also relevantly, former Millwall, Crystal Palace and Swindon Town centre back Darren Ward has also made strides in promoting alternative diets within football. Ward eats a paleo diet, made up of yams, sweet potatoes and lean fish and meat, while avoiding dairy and wheat products, and has credited taking up this diet with continuing his football career well into his thirties. While he began the diet to prolong his career, Ward told the Swindon Advertiser that “ex-footballers have issues all the time, weight-wise and health-wise”, highlighting that his diet change, and the change made by Sailer over in Germany, is actually a change for life outside of football as much as in it.
Will paleo, vegan and other alternative diets become commonplace in football (and other sports) as further success stories come to light? Perhaps not, given that for many – including many top players – it is difficult to eat such a different diet. However, it’s clear that for players wishing to get an edge in football these days, there’s a better alternative to underhand methods such as doping. Sailer, as well as the likes of Farah, the Williamses and Ward, could then ultimately prove handy role-models for a whole new generation of athletes trying to get the best out of their bodies.
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