From once being a scrawny lad, Rowllin Borges has come a long way. The Goan midfielder still maintains a lean physique given his tall frame but packs on muscle mass. Veiny arms, huge quads and a chiselled core are a testament to his peak fitness.
For a defensive midfielder of his type who indulges in a lot of dirty work and winning the ball, Borges’ needed a physique that aided him. But, this transformation only began after he started to keep a tab of his food intake a few years ago. During the early stages of his professional football career, as Borges reveals, there were no restrictions on what he would consume.
When asked about what was his diet back then consisted of, Borges blushes in embarrassment. “Sheet kodi (Rice and curry),” he said to Scroll.in.
Back then, he wouldn’t think twice before he ate ros omelette (his favourite cheat meal) but now he doesn’t remember when he last had one.
“I would eat anything when I had started out. But now, I am more aware of my diet and still learning. At the end of the day we are humans only, so I have a cheat meal, usually after a match or after an intense training session. But when there is a match, there is seriousness in diet,” Borges added.
It kind of sums up the change that has come about in Indian football over the past few years. His Mumbai City FC teammate, goalkeeper Amrinder Singh found it completely normal to consume Indian meals with thick gravy and rich oils early on during his career, not anymore.
“Initially, we [Indians] were not aware of the proper diet, what we should intake and what is good for the body. That has changed. All players have different body structure so their diet intake is accordingly,” Singh said.
With the growing demands of modern football, the game can be separated by fine margins. Players now have a better understanding that proper nutrition not only provides nourishment but also enhances performance and recovery. This has brought about a vast change when it comes to diet routines.
“Nutrition, sleep and training are very important for a footballer. If you don’t follow even one properly, the other two are a complete waste. We [The Indian team] were not very disciplined previously but now have our meals on time, go to bed early. I’ve learnt now that spending more time training does not matter what does is how you use that time,” said Singh.
You are what you eat
The ideal body fat percentage need to maintain at the Indian national camp is around 8-10%, leaving no room for junk and unwanted foods.
“If you are not in your best [shape], someone else is then maybe this 2-3% more [of body fat] can make you sit on the bench and make the other one play,” FC Goa strength and conditioning coach Manu Sayabera told Scroll.in.
Sayabera keeps a constant tab of what FC Goa players consume every day during their meals but doesn’t need to tell them anything when it comes to diet.
“In our buffet, we always have a large section reserved for desserts. I regularly keep checking what players are eating every day but when I go to see, they never indulge in sweets. They always take fruits, maximum little quantities of sweets but they try to keep their bodies in best conditions,” he stated.
But when did these changes begin to take place? Pradhyum Reddy, who managed Shillong Lajong and was an assistant coach of Bengaluru FC says the changes in fitness coincided with the advent of the ISL though the practices were in place during the I-League.
“The ISL clubs have that in their budget now, where they provide pre and post-match supplements. But back in the I-League, it wasn’t there, so it was personally up to the players. Also, meals were regular ones but not football-specific at times. The food would be rich with oils and there was a lack of options. There wouldn’t be enough portions of vegetables or fruits,” Reddy told Scroll.in.
Perhaps, for him, Reddy noticed a stark difference in diet standards when Ashley Westwood took over at Bengaluru FC in 2013. Westwood inherited the best practices and methods from professional clubs in England and tried adopting them in India. One of the many changes he brought was introducing a new kitchen at the club instead of providing players hotel-based meals.
Soon, players began following their diet so strictly that they started hiring personalised cooks. Sweets were completely swept off the menu. White bread, kulchas and naans were replaced with whole wheat rotis and brown bread. Building up to the match, players consumed loaded with antioxidants whereas a typical pre-match meal would consist of brown rice and chicken breast. For many Indian players, it was quite a culture shock.
“The North Eastern boys they loved their mountain of white rice, so it was difficult for different players. It was tough for them to adapt since they would usually not eat rotis. Unlike North Indian guys who’d usually skip the brown rice and opt for rotis,” Reddy revealed.
He recalls an incident from 2014 when Bengaluru were lodged in a hotel and CK Vineeth, who had joined the club during mid-season, had no idea that he wasn’t allowed to take meals reserved for hotel guests.
“CK [Vineeth] just went and helped himself to a couple of appalams [papads] and he got his meal. Ashley made some comment to him and he looked around. There was not a single person that had got anything apart from what was a club-prescribed food.”
He added, “Indian players started noticing the difference to look after what you eat by looking at these top professional players who had the choice of eating anything. The foreigners would eat certain things only and insist on certain meals for pre and post-match. So that’s where the initial realisation kicked in with the Indians players. Biryani wasn’t a great pre-meal either. Fast forward to where the ISL became a bit longer, teams started having personalised meals for each player.”
Mumbai City’s strength and conditioning coach Marco Leite maintains any number above 12% of body fat isn’t ideal for a footballer. An Indian diet wouldn’t be ideal to maintain that but for the Portuguese, balance is the key.
“I cannot cut certain foods because it’s part of the culture. I love Indian food, but eating sauces [masalas], is not good for a professional level. In India, they don’t cook all meals with olive oil as used in Mediterranean food. So we usually develop a mix of normal food. Like chicken, pasta and try to add some Indian flavour during the match days,” said Leite.
The introduction of supplements has ensured that players know how to maintain their required protein intake. Sunil Chhetri, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and few others have already given up meat.
While the Indian team may not getting the desired results at the moment, these practices are a sign they are heading in the right direction. Unlike the seniors who have undergone a trial-and-error process, the new batch of young players is growing aware of what their body needs for them to be at their best during a game.
Times have changed, and so has nutrition, which bodes well for the future of Indian football.