Meet Socceroos chef Vini, Australia's other secret weapon at the 2022 Men's FIFA World Cup
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Napoleon once said that an army marches on its stomach, and while the Qatar World Cup may not be Agincourt or Waterloo, the same can certainly be said of national football teams.
As the Socceroos prepare for their opening Group D match against France on Wednesday morning AEDT, chef Vini Capovilla is in their Aspire Academy training base kitchen making sure that each of their dietary, nutritional, and sometimes psychological needs are being met.
Among the rotating cast of players and staff, Capovilla is one of the Socceroos' — as well as the Matildas, Pararoos and youth national teams — longest-serving members.
Born in Brazil to Italian parents, he joined Football Australia after being scouted ahead of the 2014 Men's World Cup.
He was originally invited to do a trial by former head coach Holger Osieck before a friendly against Brazil, having been connected to the team through the mother of the hospitality manager for FIFA in the build-up to the World Cup.
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But a prior commitment to cook for the Brazilian ambassador in China meant Capovilla could not make it.
The Socceroos went on to lose heavily that day and Osieck was sacked soon afterwards, so Capovilla felt that the door had been closed before it had even opened.
However, when Ange Postecoglou was hired as coach later that year, Capovilla was invited back. His first trial was before a friendly against Ecuador.
"It was funny, because we were winning 3-0 in the first half, but ended up losing 4-3," Capovilla told ABC Sport.
"I still remember today, the football director at the time said, 'I don't know what you fed the guys in the first half, but please do that again!'."
So he did. After being invited back to feed the team at the 2015 Men's Asian Cup, which the Socceroos won, Capovilla has become one of Football Australia's most important — and most beloved — employees.
It's not quite the life path he envisioned for himself. His love of cooking started with his grandfather, whose brother also represented the Brazilian national team in the 1960s.
He would spend hours in the kitchen with him, helping and tasting and learning, but cooking was never something he thought he could turn into a career.
Instead, Capovilla went to university to study biology and had every intention of becoming a scientist. However, towards the end of his degree, a chance trip to South America to help a friend research scorpions made him realise that food was where his heart really was.
"I always really liked to travel but didn't have much budget to do it, so I always found other ways," he said.
"I knew a person who needed help studying scorpions, and when I got there and I saw the relationship Mexico has with food, I thought, 'That's what I need'.
"We were driving around the streets of Mexico, and seeing the passion they had for their food, and the culture and the history of it, that's what made me want to be a chef."
Capovilla returned home and immediately enrolled in culinary school, but realised quite quickly that the regular chef life – long, exhausting hours in hot, stressful kitchens – didn't appeal to him.
What else could he do? That's when the second sliding-door moment happened.
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"I entered a cooking contest in Brazil, which was sponsored by a school in Switzerland. They wanted to find the best up-and-coming chefs to bring to Switzerland for more study," he said.
"And I won first prize. So I moved to Switzerland to do my apprenticeship, did a little bit of work in hotels, and that was a key thing on my CV to come over to the Socceroos in 2014.
"They were not just looking for a chef who could grill a chicken or a fish in a safe way, but also a chef who could relate better with the team on the nutritional and medical side as well.
"So nowadays, my relationship is strong with the medical team, the sports scientists, the nutritionist as well. The gap that normally we have between those guys on the science side and the players side, I can fill this gap that not all teams think is important, but it's very important."
Capovilla is now at his third men's World Cup and has become the beating heart of the team off the field; one of the key members of the family that head coach Graham Arnold speaks so fondly of.
When the Socceroos trickled into Doha from around the world over the past two weeks, it was Capovilla who was most warmly embraced.
The feeling is mutual. While the players and staff adore him, he also adores them. Why else would he travel for almost 200 days every year, spending so much time away from family and friends and a place to call home?
Despite the winding road he took to get here, Capovilla's background in biology has made him the perfect fit for Football Australia's head chef role. Cooking for a sports team is a science as much as it is an art, and as nutrition has become an increasingly important factor in high-performance sport, his previous studies have come in handy.
So what does his job look like during a tournament like a World Cup? How do you feed an army of professional athletes in a national team?
"It's different [than] a club, where you're there with the same players over a whole season," he said.
"You can cater individually for them, you have your own staff, you know your infrastructure. Everything is better.
"But in our case, it's different. We're travelling to a new place every 10 days, I have a new staff every 10 days, and normally I have a different team every 10 days. And they change diets. The players choose different diets sometimes, experimental. So you have to reinvent yourself regularly.
"When we talk about nutrition with players, it's very complicated. I have to have a huge buffet to have enough for everyone, but then inside you can control individually. I can't cater individually, but I can control inside of it.
"Then I come to the players and discuss with them, talk to the medical team to understand the nutritional needs of each player, and go back to the players and say, 'Hey, I heard you have these difficulties or are missing these micro-nutrients, let's talk about it'.
"So it's a relationship as well. You can understand players don't come to you saying they have an iron deficiency or whatever. You have to go to them and they have to be comfortable to share this.
"There's one more key. Different from a European or South American or African tournament, we're the most western culture – on a food basis – playing in Asia. If you go to the Middle East, they have their specific Mediterranean diet, but every country in Asia is different.
"It changes every place, and we also cannot always adapt to them because we are a football team and we have certain requirements for the players. So the challenge is even higher.
"What I've learned over the years is I'll grab their ingredients and try to make it as much comfort food for the players – with their ingredients, not with ours."
It's safe to say that Capovilla's cooking skills have expanded exponentially since joining the federation, having to find ways to use unusual ingredients in ways that the players can not only benefit from, but also enjoy.
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He's also had to constantly update his menu to reflect the evolving dietary desires of the players, some of whom have become vegan, gluten-free, lactose intolerant, or who have developed allergies in the time that he's known them.
Capovilla calculated that he orders about half as many kilograms of meat as what he used to as more players have turned to plant-heavy diets, and now serves a vegan protein option in every buffet.
Sustainability is another key aspect of their approach to cooking. He and his team try to reduce plastic, excess food and spoilage as much as possible, while also sourcing local ingredients as much as they can instead of importing.
Leftovers are shared around as much as possible so nothing goes to waste.
So what are some of the dishes you'll most often see in the Socceroos and Matildas' meal-rooms?
Before games, it's about simple, digestible carbohydrates. The Matildas love their spaghetti Bolognese, while the Socceroos tend to go for a toasted sandwich or two.
"Live stations" are common after games, too, allowing players and staff to build their own meals – kebabs, pho, fajitas, burgers. For special occasions like birthdays, there is always cake.
Outside of that, Capovilla tries to bring a bit of local flavour into the menu, like Brazilian bean stew or Lebanese shish tawook.
This week, he served two whole fish filled with herbs and baked, beef ribs, Tunisian tagines, mixed grill barbecues, Arabic mezzes, and a huge dish of Middle Eastern casa rice with slow-roasted lamb sliced on top. After the Socceroos' opening game against France, they'll be served shawarma.
The food doesn't just nourish the bodies of the players, but also their minds. While Capovilla's job is to meet particular nutritional needs, a bigger and arguably more important aspect is to cater to them as people; to be a kind of emotional and psychological support service, an active listener, someone who makes them feel comfortable and cared for.
"We have a very good relationship," Capovilla said.
"They will be comfortable to tell me a challenge or a need and how we could overcome that.
"Players aside, I have the same number – sometimes even more – staff. Especially in a long competition, if the staff is not happy, they are not performing as well. They also get homesick, they also miss their families, their routines, they're stuck in a Groundhog Day [situation].
"So some dishes I make, the players won't come close to it, but this is made specifically for the staff."
That psychological piece is something he learned under former head coach Bert van Marwijk, who took the Socceroos to the 2018 Men's World Cup in Russia.
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It's something that Arnold has carried through as the team prepare to face France, Tunisia, and Denmark, and has formed a crucial part of Football Australia's larger mission in Qatar to create an environment where the players and staff feel as comfortable, calm, and prepared as possible as this stressful, bizarre World Cup kicks off.
"On the pitch, that is the coaches' space; they have control over that," Capovilla said.
"When the players are in their own rooms, they are in their own space and can do whatever they want.
"But in the meal-room, this is where we are family and they have to feel as comfortable as they can. This involves not only food but the atmosphere created: the natural lights, the plants around the buffet, the display of the dishes.
"All these impact not only their mood inside the camp, but also how much they eat and how well they eat.
"In my mind, I want to be invisible because I want them to just focus on the football. They don't have to worry about the food.
"But at the same time, I'm there for them for anything they need in nutrition or any other support. I can be a point of reference for them in a different area.
"Inside the meal-room, of course I respect the coach, I respect the directors. But that's my area.
"That's my pitch. I don't go inside their pitch; I invite them to come inside mine. And I think the players understand that.
"The coach's job is to talk with you about winning and losing and what to do better. On my side, I'll make sure that your soul, your spirit, is always in the same space."
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