It’s hard to feel sorry for men paid £300,000 a week for prancing round a pitch, but even I pity the England football team, travelling 5,000 miles to eat scrambled eggs and pasta in a country that packs four continents into one cuisine.
Gone are the glory days of 1966, of Jimmy Greaves’s match-day feasts of “roast beef and Yorkshire with all the trimmings, or pie and mash, followed by blackcurrant crumble and custard”, or even the great Raich Carter’s rather simpler take on the energy bar in the 1930s: six sugar lumps.
Football sounds like it was more fun in those days; indeed, most players once had great faith in the medicinal power of a pre-game whisky. But the England team’s tournament boozing probably came to an end with Gordon Banks’s ignominious exit from the 1970 Mexico World Cup, after drinking what he claims was a “spiked beer”.
Instead, the ominously named current team chef, Tim De’Ath, has catered for a strict protein- and carb-heavy diet: rice, white meat, salad. I’d rather have had a place in the US squad, which scored the two-Michelin-starred chef Sergi Arola.
But the best spot of all has to be in the stands, eating beans sautéed in bacon fat and garnished with crackling and fried eggs, or great slabs of bolo de rolo, a huge Swiss roll filled with sweet guava jam – two of the local favourites on offer at stadiums in Brazil along with the usual hot dogs. Quite a step up from London 2012’s greatest gastronomic achievement, the world’s largest McDonald’s.
And though few England footballers play abroad, if their shopping list from the 2010 South African cup is anything to go by they, too, have cosmopolitan tastes: 24 bottles of piri-piri sauce, 12 tubes of wasabi, 25 bags of pine nuts and 30 packets of custard.
I reckon once they’d got over the lack of Bird’s, Rooney et al probably enjoyed a bit of Brazilian food. Certainly the country’s churrasco grills – where the cooks will stuff you with skewers of cow until you beg for mercy – would have proved popular with men so long starved of red meat.
You’d have thought a helping of the celebrated feijoada stew might have brought the striker a bit of luck: pre-match beans seemed to work for Alan Shearer, a prolific scorer, even if he famously preferred his own baked and served with chicken, rather than pigs’ tails and fried bananas. But this is all tame fare, the kind of stuff Steven Gerrard could find at a Brazilian grill in Liverpool, should he be so minded – definitely at the less interesting end of a cuisine that’s gobbled up European, African, Asian and Amerindian traditions, only to regurgitate them in a rainbow riot of tropical flavour.
Nigerian peanut sauces, Japanese pastries and German sausages, Portuguese salt cod and Italian pastas, and an Amazonian duck dish made with the cyanide-laced juice of the wild cassava root – Brazilian cuisine is the original fusion food.
And this country that stretches from the equator to the Uruguayan pampas offers cooks an impressive range of flora and fauna to play with. The Amazon region boasts an ancient armoured fish, the arapaima, that can grow up to 15 feet (though commercial fishing of it is banned in Brazil; the arapaima is farmed in neighbouring Peru). Then there are ants sweet enough to eat like candy, a mouth-numbing “toothache plant” and a dizzying array of rainforest fruits that make acai berries look pedestrian. Out of the running, despite the oatcakes and cottage cheese, perhaps the England team can take comfort from thinking that somewhere, deep in the jungle, there lurks a plant to dull its pain.