ROGER NARBETT and Giovanni di Vito will miss England's match against Germany tomorrow. Both will be busy preparing gourmet food for hotel diners. Had the game been staged in Eastern Europe rather than North America, they might well have been sitting down to watch after lining the stomachs and fuelling the energies of the nation's top footballers. They are the chefs for the England squad.
When the team set off for the US Cup, the chefs were left behind. American hotels were considered more than capable of catering for the needs of England's finest. The Land of the Free is, after all, the land of the burger and the ketchup bottle. Not to mention the big steaks that most footballers say is their favourite food.
But steak is no longer on the menu for England players on tour. Chips are off as well. Food is not so much ordered by them as prescribed for them.
'What footballers want and what they get are two different things,' says Mr Di Vito, a Brummie and a staunch England supporter. After training in London (at the Savoy) and in France, he is now head chef at the Birmingham's Plough and Harrow Hotel. On tour with England, he looks after the under-21s and occasionally helps out with the first team.
Mr Narbett is their chef. He went into catering after a spell playing for Aston Villa's youth team failed to come to fruition. Now he divides his time between London, where he is number three at the Dorchester, and his native Birmingham, where he is a partner in Sloane's Restaurant. In spite of the disappointment of his footballing career, he now finds himself closer to the England team than his brother, John, who plays for Oxford City.
The call from the Football Association came in 1989. England were travelling to Albania for a World Cup qualifier and hotel standards were not quite what the players were used to. Apart from anything else, food and water were in short supply.
'I went out shopping in Birmingham,' he recalls, 'and bought everything, right down to the salt and pepper and 300 litres of water.' He also bought substantial quantities of tomato sauce, one of the few indulgences allowed by the England doctor, John Crane.
The staff at the hotel in Tirana looked on in wonder as Mr Narbett opened huge tins of baked beans. They sampled his bread and butter pudding and, like the patrons of the Dorchester Grill Room, they found that it was good.
'We always leave anything we haven't used,' says Mr Narbett who sometimes needs diplomatic as well as culinary skills. As Mr Di Vito says, 'you're entering dangerous territory when you enter someone else's kitchen'.
There was a tense moment in Hungary in an argument over what constituted a cottage pie. The regular chef produced a veal terrine covered in pastry. Er . . . not quite, said the England chefs. A manager was called in to mediate and a diplomatic incident was avoided. 'We won him over in the end,' Mr Narbett recalls. Just as well. A 24-stone Hungarian chef with access to a cleaver is a fearsome sight when roused.
There have been interpretation problems elsewhere in the world. In Norway, for instance, rice pudding is served cold with whipped double cream. England players are prescribed low-fat dairy products and they wouldn't give you a thank you for rice pud that wasn't hot.
'They're like race horses,' says Mr Narbett. 'If you changed their diet, it might upset their stomachs. They'd be the first to tell you if the pasta was too cold or there was not enough seasoning in the cottage pie. It's simple food, but it has to be done well.'
Complaints are rare. The players' main grumble is that chips are no longer allowed.
The diet is low in fat and high in carbohydrates. On a match day with an evening kick-off, a typical buffet lunch includes at least one pasta dish (usually lasagne), chicken, white fish, boiled potatoes, peas, beans and brocoli. Tomato sauce is an optional extra and, in most cases, it's taken.
The most likely dessert is rice pudding. Fresh fruit and yoghurt is also available as well as Mars bars. There are cakes and scones for tea and some players like a bowl of cornflakes not long before the game. Which ones?
Neither Mr Narbett nor Mr Di Vito will say. Their diplomacy extends to refusing to discuss the foibles of individuals. Not even Gazza?
Definitely not Gazza. 'They all eat very sensibly,' says Mr Narbett, 'and room service is out of bounds.'
Mr Di Vito does admit to
being mildly surprised at some of the under-21s who pile everything on to the same plate, lace it with tomato sauce and eat it between gulps of soup. 'They're not gourmet eaters,' he says. 'They just want to fill their bellies and get plenty of energy.'
And after the game?
More pasta. The steak and chips can wait until they get home.
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