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And the World Cup prima donna award goes to ...

Brazil might take the prize with its demands for bidets, ice cream and a specially heated pool. But other nations also aim to create an environment of comfort that may replicate home-field advantage.

June 15, 2010|By Kevin Baxter

Johannesburg, South Africa — The Brazilians demanded the water in their hotel pool be heated to exactly 90 degrees. And while coffee and cookies were fine, chocolate was banned.

Slovakia asked for a dartboard — electronic, please — and two ping-pong tables. The New Zealanders want golf lessons.

The North Koreans, frustrated in their attempts to order duck before an exhibition in Mexico earlier this year, needed a private floor at their four-star hotel outside Johannesburg, while Argentina Coach Diego Maradona required his suite undergo remodeling to add expensive toilets and bidets.

Welcome to the World Cup, where teams try to outdo one another not only on the field but also in a wacky competition to see who can make the most ridiculous off-the-field demands of the host country.

Yet sports psychologists say there is often a method to this madness. Creating an environment of comfort that replicates what you are used to can help relax athletes who are having to perform under high pressure a long way from home.

"The soccer teams at the World Cup are attempting to create an atmosphere in which all players feel comfortable," says sports psychologist Patrick J. Cohn, president and founder of Peak Performance Sports in Orlando, Fla.

"Ideally coaches want players to feel at home — like they have the home-field advantage. If the players feel like they are playing at home — versus away — this brings a sense of confidence."

Some teams do that by bringing their own stuff, the soccer equivalent of taking your favorite pillow on vacation.

Italy, the defending champions, imported their own pasta and special gym equipment. The U.S. team brought video games, a DVD collection, a selection of dried fruit and case upon case of Gatorade.

And Mexico brought its own food and a team of chefs to prepare it.

"There's a container that we sent from Mexico with all our equipment, the utensils and the food," said chef Marlene Netzahuatl. "Dehydrated beans, cans of tuna, cajeta, salsas, canned chiles and whatever we think we won't be able to find in South Africa."

But back to Maradona and his Argentine squad, which only narrowly qualified for the World Cup but easily won the diva award once it got here.

Aside from demanding that Maradona be built a pair of thrones fit for a former soccer king, South Africa's Sunday Times said the team also needed:

• 10 hot dishes every day, to be accompanied by no fewer than 14 varieties of salad

• Every dinner to include at least three pasta sauces and three desserts. And South African barbecue must be served at least once every three days

• Ice cream to be available at all times

• Rooms at their Pretoria training base to be painted white

• No fewer than six PlayStation consoles installed

Of course, these kinds of perks can also become a distraction. Brazil entered the 2006 World Cup favored to win, only to bow out in the quarterfinals. And afterward much of the blame fell on the team's star, Ronaldinho, who apparently spent much of his time at the team hotel playing video games.

And at least one expert finds it difficult to defend these kinds of requests.

"For many there is a fine line between routines, which are rational, and rituals, which are irrational," says Ian Maynard, a professor of sports psychology at Sheffield Hallam University in England.

"Fundamentally the team management will be trying to replicate things that happen at home to reduce the anxiety levels that can be elevated by new things, fear of the unknown.

"Sometimes this is rational — eat similar foods to what we usually eat at home. But often this is irrational or totally unnecessary, such as painting rooms or heating swimming pools because this will seldom improve performance outcomes. The big decisions involve making the players feel comfortable, at ease, relaxed and ready to play."

Yet even Maynard, a fan of the English team, admits to adopting his own irrational ritual to bring luck to his team in this World Cup — he's keeping his fingers crossed. For the coaching and administrative staffs for the 32 teams in South Africa, however, it's a little more complicated than that.

"The less conflicts for a team leading up the tournament, the better for keeping team unity," Cohn says. "If you sent up an environment where the athletes feel safe and at home, the coach can reduce team conflicts over small things such as sleeping arrangements."

Which is why the Mexican coaches threw a surprise party Sunday for their team — one complete with strolling mariachis. In Mexico, Sunday is traditionally a family day so to replicate that the coaches bused in family members who are in South Africa for the World Cup, something a Mexican soccer federation official said was done in an effort to help the players relax.

There are few things more relaxing than comfort food, though. So the U.S. team travels with a trunk full of familiar snacks such as trail mix and candy.

The World Cup, after all, is not the place to experiment with exotic cuisine — especially if you have a delicate constitution. For the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, the English team worried so much about the local fare they had frozen meals flown in from home.

In this World Cup the Mexican kitchen staff is following the orders of a dietician.

"We're been working with the menu the doctor gave us," said Felix Canto, another of the Mexican chefs. "It's not demanding but they like things made well with nothing that's irritating. They prefer chicken, meat and fish for their nutrition."

Along with refried beans, of course.

"If there are no beans, it's not Mexican food," one member of the Mexican delegation insisted.

But just in case the food's not enough, the Mexicans have brought one other thing with them: a Catholic priest.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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