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Jul 29, 2011

The science behind victory

"England is the most physical, Spain the most technical and Italy the most tactical."

Clarence Seedorf makes his comparison of footballing cultures while enjoying a rare dry spell of an unseasonably wet summer's day at AC Milan's pre-season training camp.

Seedorf is reclining on the veranda of the pioneering Milanello training complex, the place where Italian football's reputation as the most scientific was formed. Here, the club's MilanLab of scientists, doctors and specialist coaches is world famous for an ability to extend the top-level career of players beyond the usual thresholds of fading legs and ambitions. Seedorf, at 35, bears little sign of the wear and tear of ageing or a lack of motivation.

He is a model pupil for the MilanLab's devotion to personalised nutrition for each player, and is happy to spell out his interpretation of their ideas on the subject.

"With top sports, it's like you have a car, a Ferrari Formula 1," Seedorf says. "Those engineers need to make a difference on a car that's already perfect. We are very healthy people already and to make the difference you have to search deep and look to find what can add value.

"For anybody in life, they should focus on nutrition. Listening to my body, making sure you don't do strange things with it. Drinking alcohol? I don't use alcohol. Smoking? I don't smoke.

"The most important thing is to personalise your diet. We all have our own system that reacts in a certain way." On Milan's doctors' practice of constantly monitoring the nutritional levels of their players, he says: "That's why they test."

Milanello, hidden away in Varese's hilly countryside, was the progenitor for the futuristic training complexes that every wannabe superclub must possess. It was first built in 1963, the year the Rossoneri won their first of seven European Cups. Its clubhouse walls are bedecked with photos of glory years which continue until the present day - Milan celebrated their 18th Serie A title in May.

Of six pitches, one allows up to 4,500 people to watch a public training session. Up a flight of stairs, the MilanLab itself lies between a hi-tech gym and a swimming pool, opposite a set of outdoor punchbags where Rino Gattuso can no doubt take out his aggression. A now rarely-used walled pitch was once a vital tool in instilling the "pressing" game that Arrigo Sacchi used to power the team of Gullit, Baresi and Van Basten to European titles in 1989 and 1990 - a philosophy still followed to this day by England boss Fabio Capello.

The Lab was established in 2002 as a reaction to the ill-fated signing of Fernando Redondo from Real Madrid in 2000. Redondo, key to Real's Champions League wins in 1998 and 2000, played just 16 games in four years at Milan. By the time he arrived at Milanello, his physiology had failed him and Milan vowed to increase their scientific ability to prevent such expensive flops. Since then, the extension of the careers of Paolo Maldini and Billy Costacurta into their 40s and the longevity of players at San Siro has made the Lab's reputation. Of the players who lifted the Champions League at Old Trafford in 2003, five of the squad remain in the first-team reckoning, with Andrea Pirlo a very recent departure.

"The opportunity to have use of the MilanLab is great because it gives a player who is old an opportunity to extend their career," French midfielder Matthieu Flamini says. "These players, they are legends but you want to follow their step."

During the first of his two loan spells at AC Milan, David Beckham found himself having a hole in a tooth fixed to cure a back problem that was ailing his running ability. He also shed half his body fat in rapid succession.

"On the basis of data we make interventions and we see if this has any effect, and we have been working like that for ten years, since the MilanLab was founded, " Daniele Tognaccini, project leader of the MilanLab, says at a press event held jointly with Nutrilite, the club's official nutrition supplements provider. "We have a really huge database of dietary habits.

"We deal with three elements - biochemical, physical and psychological. This is like the ID of a player. If a player has physical or psychological stresses, all these are included in their assessment."

Tognaccini then fields a number of questions on two players against whom questions of physical fitness persist. "Ibrahimovic arrived on July 1 and he was fit. Antonio Cassano was not so fit," he says.

Despite winning eight titles in eight years, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is still to convince that he has the robustness to last a full season but AC Milan think they may have found a solution. "Ibrahimovic was not having breakfast, and since he started having breakfast, his performance has improved," Tognaccini says. "Breakfast for an athlete is important, especially when they have several training sessions.

"He's an extraordinary athlete, he's a top performer, but then his weight is 100 kilos and he moves as quick as someone with 60 kilos, and this requires a high energy consumption. You see this quite often at the end of the match: he's exhausted. He vomited once. At the end of a season, he arrives at similar condition to that, so he won't play as much this season."

Later, Cassano, who once admitted that his time at Real Madrid heavily featured a hotel waiter bringing him "three or four pastries after I had sex", looks leaner than in those years and contents himself with a strong coffee or two ahead of training as Flamini tucks into a healthy bowl of fruit, eschewing the homemade ice-cream on offer.

Alessandro Nesta, meanwhile, reveals himself as a barista of some note behind the Milanello coffee counter, a skill perhaps gained during the long injury absences that look to be over when many had predicted the end of his career.

Like many a predecessor, Nesta, a veteran at 35, has signed on for one more season at the top. "A champion is a champion," Seedorf suggests. "The thing that will die is his motivation, but winning adds motivation."

And Tognaccini spells out the ultimate aim of the deep science of the MilanLab: "Our objective is to make the team win."

• Thanks to Amway, makers of Nutrilite, provider of Official Nutrition Supplements of AC Milan.
• Follow John on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN

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