Playing top football isn't just about training hard. You have to prepare better than the competition too. At Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, club chef Serdal Sel is constantly trying to improve player nutrition.
Ever wondered what it's like inside a Bundesliga kitchen? As a keen cook myself, I certainly have. The importance of diet and health has become more and more of a topic in the present day, and nowhere more so than in professional sport.
Meet Leverkusen's chef, Serdal Sel. Like many young men, Sel dreamed of being a footballer. But being chef for a football club is not a bad alternative, he says. Passionate, ambitious and educated, it's clear from the start not just how much Sel knows about food, but also how good he is at working with people.
"You have to recognize what mood the players are in. If they come out of a meeting or an interview and aren't smiling then you can't be all smiles. I just look to make them feel at ease, maybe offer them a smoothie and tell them it'll be ok."
No Hamburgers here
The avoidance of the three white ingredients - manufactured sugar, flour and salt - is no easy task but a necessary one in Sel's kitchen. He also adds how important Omega-3 oils are, how pumpkin and walnut oil are great to cook with and how pork is avoided because of how energy sapping its digestion process is (it takes about 70 hours for your digestion to work through apparently).
Both before and after the game, there is food available. In fact, after regular consultation with the fitness coach, dishes are available almost round the clock for the Leverkusen lads. Even right after the game in the depths of the stadium, Sel and his team are on hand. "The changing room is their living room. We always need to be there, but more like a part of the furniture than something they should be wary of."
The slow-release of carbohydrates is a must, but it is regularly accompanied by fish and meat. With no vegetarians in the team, protein is easy to come by, but Sel still likes to keep the menu variable and balanced. He reads up on new foods and nutrition on a daily basis he says, so as to keep the team as best replenished as possible. He's not the only one interested in the topic either. Players in rehab take even more of an active interest in what their body's requirements are, while Stefan Kiessling impressed Sel at an internal cooking competition. The striker even released a cookbook back in 2013. There's hope for all of us ambitious cooks, after all!
Sizzling strikers and sunshine smoothies
On the day of my visit, Leverkusen are scheduled for a late afternoon training session so there are cookies and cake available - with agave syrup of course - in the changing rooms. On days like this, Sel's very own Bundesliga smoothie takes center stage. A quick trip to the kitchen upstairs, and Sel shows me his concoction. Mixed berries, kiwis and raw ginger are mashed together, sieved (so as to avoid the drag of thicker smoothies) and then poured into bottles. I'm told every member of the Bayer Leverkusen squad is a fan.
I know it sounds like the usual health kick, but there's more to it than that, as Sel tells me. "Ginger aids the transport of oxygen around the blood, which is even more important for us because of Roger Schmidt's attacking pressing. I saw that much when he was at Salzburg."
When Leverkusen went to the US for their winter break training camp, Sel invested months of forward planning to avoid any issues in the kitchen. "The food out there says sugar-free and fat-free and that's enough for them, but there are so many different types of fructose you have to look at all the ingredients," said Sel, who admits he was impressed by the sheer range of products available in the US though.
It is perhaps this attention to detail that got Sel where he is today. Having been a long-standing chef for the company Bayer, Sel was invited along to the aforementioned cooking competition, and the 33-year-old made a lasting impression. Next year, he will be joining the team on their away trips in the Champions League, and he has hopes of joining up with the Germany team one day.
Before I know it, I'm out of the kitchen and into the sunshine. On my way back, I take another sip of the Bundesliga smoothie and it still tastes fantastic. Athough I won't be scoring from 30 yards out against Hannover this weekend, for a moment, it feels like I will be.