Thursday was Thanksgiving, and even in Qatar it means turkey. The problem for Giulio Caccamo, the new head chef of the US soccer team, was where to find him.
It turns out you can’t, at least not in the quantity or quality that Caccamo wanted. So he had to fly birds from the US (you know turkeys can’t fly, right?)
“Today we will have turkey, sweet potato puree with marshmallows. So we have kept the traditions,” Caccamo said on the eve of the decisive match for the Americans. group stage showdown with England on Friday.
The dish was one of dozens that Caccamo would prepare for the national team and its staff during their stay in Qatar. However, cooking is the least of his problems, as it doesn’t matter how good the food is as long as no one eats it. When you’re dealing with 26 young people, including two teenagers, getting them to eat their vegetables isn’t easy.
This is where the artist from Caccamo comes in.
“It’s about being both creative and healthy at the same time,” he said. “You must give them healthy food [so] that they are good to work for 90 minutes. However, it should be fun and should be creative. I believe that the emotional part is important when it comes to food, so you have to touch it. They should feel happy when they come to the dining room and see what they are going to eat. What’s the news?
“Part of the excitement, it’s very important.”
Caccamo loves to eat. He lives it, breathes it and… well, eats it. This makes him exactly the kind of guy you want to feed your World Cup team because while the army can march on his stomach, the football team plays on him, which makes a good cook almost as important as a good goalkeeper.
“I take this very seriously,” Caccamo said of his work.
Players say it shows.
“Our chef,” midfielder Kellin Acosta said, “did an exceptional job.”
The job wasn’t the one Caccamo was looking for – and didn’t even exist – a little over a year ago when the US flew to El Salvador for the start of World Cup qualifiers.
Unlike Mexico, which has traveled with the team’s chef in the past, the US has chosen to work with the staff at whatever hotel the team resides. At the InterContinental in San Salvador, it was Caccamo, who quickly won over the American trainer and famous gourmet Gregg Berhalter not only with his cooking, but also with his diligence and meticulousness.
Considering that the World Cup is held in the same city, and the US team is hosting the tournament in the same hotel this year, the idea of inviting a chef to Qatar seemed like a good one. After several months of discussion, Berhalter offered the job to Caccamo, who at 39 thought his days at the World Championships were over for him.
“You know football is like a religion for us,” said the Italian-born chef. “Since childhood, you have always had a dream to play in the World Cup. So yes, even if Italy is not here, at least we will get one Italian for the World Cup.
“I am honored and blessed to be here. This is a once in a lifetime experience,” he continued. “I am very grateful. Not only to have the experience of being here, but also to be with them, because as soon as you enter the group, you can feel the atmosphere. It’s like a family.”
Caccamo, his sous chef, and 11 other local staff prepare three daily buffet meals for 70 people, and with the exception of turkey, very little of what they cook is imported. Instead, they scour local markets for fresh ingredients. Menus are planned with the help of the team’s nutritionists and the calendar, as what’s included in each meal – like protein or carbohydrates – depends on how close the next game is.
“We don’t prepare much ahead of time,” Caccamo said. “We don’t throw away food. This is a really important question for me.”
A personal chef is just one of the perks available to US players at the Marsa Malaz Kempinski Hotel, the team’s spacious five-star home on The Pearl, a 1.5-mile artificial island built in Doha’s West Bay. The hotel, in fact, is an independent advantage.
“It looks like you’ve hit the jackpot in a way that allows you to secure these places because it’s important to try and get it right,” Berhalter said. “We went to great lengths to make it comfortable, to create an environment that players are used to, realizing that we want to be here for a long time.”
This environment required the delivery of 15 tons of equipment and other support materials, as well as the installation of a players’ lounge in the hotel, which includes pool tables, large-screen TVs and a putting green.
“Nine whole yards,” Acosta said. US Soccer even brought a barber with them.
Perks are nothing new for the World Cup. For the 2010 tournament in South Africa, the late Diego Maradona, then manager of Argentina, demanded that his suite be redone to add an expensive toilet, a throne worthy of a football king. The Brazilians insisted that the water in their hotel pool be heated to exactly 90 degrees, and the New Zealanders asked for golf lessons.
All of these requests have been granted, and some sports psychologists say the cost is worth it. Creating the comfortable environment players are used to can pay off with better performance, they say.
Defenseman DeAndre Yedlin, the only team USA player at the last World Cup in 2014, said the fact that the players will share a bed throughout the tournament already matters. In Brazil, Team USA flew nearly 13,000 miles to play four games; his longest trip in Qatar will be the 52-mile bus ride to the edge of the Qatari desert for the England game.
“The first day we got here, Gregg told us, ‘Unpack your things. Put the books on the bookshelf, put the clothes in drawers, get comfortable,” Yedlin said. “It has a pretty positive effect because you can really calm down and feel at home.”
They even had a traditional Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday.