Footballers at Liverpool FC are regularly cut down to size by a German. Her name is Mona Nemmer and she’s widely considered one of manager Jürgen Klopp’s best transfers ever: As Head of Nutrition at Anfield since 2016, she also takes some of the credit for the club’s greatest achievement in its recent history – the 2019 Champions League title.
In the first minute of the Champions League final – an all-English affair between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur – in June 2019, a long, high ball was hit forward. Liverpool winger Sadio Mané reacted faster than anyone else: with a powerful sprint, he got to the ball before the opposing defenders, controlled it, looked up, and his chipped cross struck the hand of a Spurs defender, who could actually do very little about it. The ref pointed to the penalty spot: 1:0 to Liverpool.
In football, victory or defeat can often depend on a tiny detail. Sometimes it is a question of luck: the ball hits the post, but does it end up in the net or go out for a goal-kick? Or does a minimal difference in preparation for a game mean that a player is marginally fitter and faster than an opponent when challenging for a 50:50 ball? The “Reds” from Liverpool, in the capable hands of their German manager Jürgen Klopp, are renowned as hard, meticulous workers on and off the pitch. But the current holders of the Champions League trophy don’t start their preparations for the next match with an outdoor training session or an evening watching videos of their next opponents, but at the breakfast table. To get the recipe right, the Reds have a real nutrition expert in their team: Mona Nemmer.
“Healthy eating doesn’t just improve your performance – it enhances your well-being, too. It’s hard to give percentages, but any sportsman or –woman can achieve better results by eating healthily,” says Mona Nemmer, Head of Nutrition at Liverpool FC. Four meals are prepared for Liverpool’s pro footballers at the training ground every day, and Nemmer keeps a close watch on what goes onto the table for the players. Liverpool’s manager Jürgen Klopp agrees: “The right food at the right time can make a small difference and have a huge impact.” He cannot praise Nemmer highly enough: “We are a good team in many areas, but Mona is our only really world-class player,” said Klopp in a documentary made by German public TV station ZDF. International sport media took up the baton and dubbed the acquisition of Mona Nemmer from Bayern Munich “Klopp’s best ever transfer”. And she’s been working as Liverpool’s Head of Nutrition for three years now.
Liverpool FC are currently the top act in European football. Jürgen Klopp and his team won the Champions League in June of this year, and he was recently named “The Best FIFA Football Coach 2019”, but there is nobody Klopp is more enthusiastic about than his nutrition consultant. “She has created a completely new field of work that didn’t exist in this form before,” he says. There is evidence of this at Liverpool FC’s home, the stadium at Anfield, where Nemmer was even allowed to furnish a special-purpose dining room underneath the main stand. The walls are decorated with quotes by famous players past and present, group photos and motivational messages. Media representatives and even VIPs are not allowed in. The players eat here after every home game, with a choice of dishes including roast cauliflower, chicken, lamb, steamed broccoli or mashed sweet potatoes with pumpkin. “Our focus is always on the next game, and we want to ensure that the players are fully regenerated as quickly and directly as possible,” said Nemmer in the TV program. So nutrition is a means of regeneration? “We try to accentuate certain aspects of nutrition, such as boosting the immune system or supporting regeneration,” says Nemmer. “Eating properly is a kind of legal doping.”
Liverpool FC works closely with various UK universities to stay abreast of the latest developments in the field of nutrition. Nemmer says that a lot of current research focuses on antioxidants, substances that protect against what are known as free radicals, metabolic by-products which can increase the risk of illness. Blueberries and morello cherries, for example, contain antioxidants. “We aim to put the research findings into practice,” says Nemmer. She adds blueberries to the players’ breakfast-time porridge, or serves up fruit juice, for example. None of this is a secret, though: there is a little sign with a list of ingredients next to everything on the table, to give the players an idea of what healthy eating is about. Nobody is forced – or forbidden – to eat anything. Instead of banning certain foods, the 35-year-old’s principle is to serve up a wide selection. “By offering a wide and above all generous range I think we can dispense with any controls on who eats what,” says Nemmer. The more healthy food there is on offer, the less likely the pros are to miss unhealthy fast food. Mona Nemmer has even got together with Chris Marshall, Liverpool’s executive head chef, and created Liverpool FC’s own recipe for sourdough bread, which also appears on the breakfast menu.
This goes down well with the players, including midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri, who has known Nemmer for much longer than his Liverpool teammates. Like her, Shaqiri was with Bayern Munich before moving to the UK. Nemmer worked for the German club from 2013 to 2016, as part of star chef Alfons Schuhbeck’s team. Schuhbeck has been in charge of nutrition at Bayern for many years. Pep Guardiola and Matthias Sammer, the club’s Sports Director at the time, added Nemmer to their squad, and by that time she’d already qualified as a nutrition consultant, specialist nutrition coach and cook. She signed for Liverpool FC in 2016 – at the request of Jürgen Klopp, who had called her in advance (as he does with players he is keen to sign) to convince her to move to Merseyside. Through the transfer, Mona Nemmer effectively stepped up from the reserves to the first team, because today she manages a squad of 26 cooks. “I don’t think Bayern fully realized how important Mona is,” says Klopp.
The facts speak in Nemmer’s favor. Since she took over the reins in Klopp’s team, the Reds have appeared in two Champions League finals. And while this may not be entirely due to the blueberries in the players’ porridge, they are definitely part of the picture. The last time that Bayern reached the final of the Champions League was in 2013 − when Mona Nemmer was still on their books. Nemmer is also active for the DFB, the German Football Association. Since the autumn she has been the nutrition expert in the “Goal-hungry. Eat right. Play better” initiative, set up by the DFB and its partner, supermarket chain Rewe. The main aim of the initiative is to get the healthy eating message across to up-and-coming young footballers. Incidentally, Mona isn’t a football fan herself. Which is perhaps just as well, because although she is in the stadium for every match, she hardly sees any of the action. A quarter of an hour into the first half at the latest, she has to leave her seat and make her way to the catacombs under the stands to see that small snacks are ready at half-time, so that the players can recharge their batteries for the next 45 minutes. Then Mona Nemmer spends the entire second half behind the scenes preparing the post-match meal. In the philosophical words of legendary German trainer Sepp Herberger: “After the game is before the game”, and in Liverpool’s case you could add, in the words of another German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach: “Du bist, was du isst!” – “You are what you eat!”