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Can alcohol help a football team's performance?

A refreshing lager

WHO, WHAT, WHY?
The Magazine answers...

After two lacklustre performances, finally a win for England's footballers. The secret? A pre-match beer, says the manager. Could it really have helped?

Until Tuesday night, England manager Fabio Capello imposed a regime of abstemiousness on his players, with no booze and no Wags allowed. The players responded with two unresounding draws.

But on the eve of Wednesday's third crucial match, Capello abandoned his spartan tactics and offered the boys a refreshing lager. The next day England charged onto the pitch a team transformed... well, transformed enough to make the final 16.

THE ANSWER
A beer can help team bonding
But too many beers - and the resulting hangovers - may hinder on-pitch performance

It is not the only example of a coach taking his players out the night before a big game, and then seeing them go on to victory.

When Gianluca Vialli was made Chelsea manager in 1998, before his first game in charge - a League Cup semi-final against Arsenal - he treated each player to half a glass of champagne "to celebrate the start of a new adventure". Chelsea won 3-1.

Brian Clough, while manager of Nottingham Forest, not so much offered his team a drink as demanded they get drunk. "The night before the League Cup final against Southampton in 1979 we were blotto," recalls one team member. They won 3-2.

So can having a beer before a match actually improve your game? The answer, it seems, is yes. And no.

Brian Clough in 1980
There's the Capello way. And then there's the Clough way...

A single glass the night before can calm nerves and help with vital team building, and by kick-off the following afternoon, the alcohol will have left the players' bodies.

But a heavy night out is likely to be a disaster - dehydration and a hangover are of no benefit. Or put another way, it is better to follow the example of Gianluca Vialli than Brian Clough.

Matt Todman, a Harley Street physiotherapist who has treated a number of premiership football players, says quantity is key.

"What is meant by 'a beer'? If you have one beer before a match, it makes no difference at all. If you start pushing to two or three or four, it does, due to dehydration effect.

"It's all down to unit volume. The plus for beer over wine and spirits is its volume - you have more water in a glass of beer than in a glass of wine. What is actually in beer - carbohydrates and sugar through the alcohol - means a shandy after a game is quite a good way to hydrate."

Once you start...

So why ban drinking if a cheeky half might actually help, rather than hinder? Managers worry their players won't be able to resist temptation, says Mr Todman. "One glass goes to two, and two goes to three. By having a blanket rule you mitigate all those potential disastrous outcomes. That's the real reason why, rather than some biophysical no-no."

If you have one beer before a match it makes no difference at all
Matt Todman, Harley Street physiotherapist

Dr Jamie Barker, senior lecturer on sport and exercise psychology at Staffordshire University, says a pre-match beer could help with the team building that is crucial to performance, particularly at international level.

"National teams are very different from clubs. You're bringing people together from different clubs with different cultures and the emphasis is to get them all singing from the same hymn sheet. Team-building interventions are really about getting people up to speed with their roles: What is my role? What are the consequences of my actions?"

Treating the England team to a beer is a way to gather them together after a difficult week and say "let's just relax" - no team talks, no performance post-mortems.

WHO, WHAT, WHY?
Question mark floor plan of BBC Television Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

"It's hard to ascertain cause and effect. It's a difficult one, because the biggest predictor of cohesion is success - so the more I win, the more cohesive I get. Obvious. But if I'm not winning I have to develop group confidence and also develop the cohesiveness of the group."

So it seems one way to encourage togetherness is to treat your underlings to free beer. But just the one each.



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