Barista-brewed 'magic' coffee boosting Socceroos at World Cup

DOHA, Qatar -- Australia is a nation of coffee connoisseurs; coffee snobs, if you're being less charitable. Its major cities are dominated by thriving cafe cultures that, in turn, are populated by baristas who have descended from all parts of the world to feed Australians' voracious appetite for ground-up coffee beans mixed with boiling water and some form of milk -- be it cow, almond, oat, soy, or whatever is trendy this week.

It will likely come as little surprise, therefore, to learn that coffee has become one of Australia's "secret weapons" at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Of course it has; the Socceroos represent a country that ran Starbucks out of town the first time it tried to set up shop, and has exported the flat white around the world.

Tucked away in the depths of Australia's training base at the Aspire Academy, Alexia Ralevski goes to work every day preparing the various coffee orders of the Socceroos' playing group and staff as they go about their preparations for the World Cup. She estimates that she makes up to 80 coffees a day, ranging from highly complicated orders to straight shots of espresso before training.

Ralevski has a full cafe-style coffee-making setup at her disposal, with high-quality beans flown in by the team, and she's quickly become one of the most popular members of the travelling party. The team often jump behind the bar to help her with her brewing or to aid her with her dishes.

"I knew a few people that worked for the Socceroos," Ralevski told ESPN about her role with the team. "They knew that I loved making coffee and I was kind of good at it so they thought they'd throw this offer at me and, yeah, here we are."

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Mitchell Duke drinks the most coffee among the squad, apparently getting through four, five or sometimes six cups through the day. Fellow Socceroos striker Jamie Maclaren, from Melbourne -- which has either the best or most pretentious coffee scene in Australia depending on who you talk to -- has the most complicated order in the squad and, unfortunately for Ralevski (who is from western Sydney), he's spread it throughout the team.

"He hit me with a magic [order] the other day and got everyone hooked on them," she said. "It's the most popular drink so far. It's essentially a double ristretto, a three-quarter full latte. If you're from Melbourne, you'd know."

Coffee gets a good run in most of the Socceroos camps, of course, but it's usually of the capsule or instant variety. The presence of Ralevski, therefore, represents a bonus for the players and staff, as does the work of team chef Vinicius Capovilla -- "Vini"; despite the strict bounds of food security and nutritional requirements demanded by international football, he has been working since 2014 to use locally sourced ingredients and locally inspired dishes to keep the team engaged.

"This coffee is perfect," said defender Fran Karacic, who as an Italian-based player has an appreciation for good coffee. "I like to drink espresso. So we're enjoying the cafeteria here all together. The food is always perfect with Vini and with the guys."

Defender Bailey Wright says the chance to drink a proper coffee and enjoy a good meal doesn't just help the players' bodies but also helps to invigorate their minds: Providing them with a little reminder of home and engaging in the ancient tradition of bonding over a good meal. Coach Graham Arnold has placed extra importance on the latter, especially, banning televisions and other distractions during what the team calls "family meal times."

"Coffee, the coffee clubs are great," Wright told ESPN. "Aussies we all love a good coffee. I'm an oat flat white guy, but we're trying different oat milks now because we can't quite master which oat milk is the one.

"These are the things that, you know, people connect over coffee and food, and I think it's a real social spot. It sounds crazy, we've got coffee and a little cafe, and it sounds like we're spoiled. But we are spoiled, I'm not gonna lie.

"This is incredible representing the country and having facilities like this.

"The coffee shops are just a little highlight of that, everyday people and they're socialising together, and really get to know each other, and I think that's really important as a group."

The little extras would be much more difficult to maintain if the World Cup were being hosted in a country where the eight stadiums weren't a simple drive from each other; and almost certainly it wouldn't have been possible had the Socceroos not been able to secure themselves a spot at the Aspire Academy.

Founded in 2004, Aspire dominates the Al Waab district and has been at the heart of Qatar's attempts to develop its footballing capabilities -- among other sports -- and, by extension, seeks to bolster its international reputation on the sporting field.

The same state resources that helped Qatar secure the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and spend billions on preparations, were poured into the construction and development of Aspire, and the academy holds some of the best facilities to be found anywhere in the world.

The academy played a key role in Qatar's transitioning from a country that naturalised foreign players to fill its ranks to becoming an Asian power that won the 2019 Asian Cup with a squad more than two-thirds of which went through the academy. The Qatari national team is using the academy as its main base for the World Cup, and they've been joined by Australia in student accommodation that is much more advanced than what was originally reported as shoddy lodgings.

Australia's commute between their rooms and their training pitches consists of a leisurely walk of just a few metres, as opposed to a bus ride. The entrance hallway has been adorned with the lyrics to Men at Work's seminal song "Down Under," which Scottish-born striker Jason Cummings belts out every time he makes his way past them.

There is a recreation area designed with significant input from the players to host not just downtime but also table tennis, billiards (Martin Boyle is apparently the best player), and FIFA tournaments (Aziz Behich is quick to claim himself as the best, but Mathew Leckie is said to be the No. 1). There is a wall adorned with hand-drawn pictures and letters from the players' families wishing them and their teammates good luck in Qatar, and a giant banner displaying the name of every player to represent the team through its 100-year history.

There's an elite treatment room and gym, of course, and the players are accommodated in single or double rooms; the most senior players in the squad are given the right to private lodgings unless they, as is the case of Leckie and Boyle, opt into a double room. And unlike several other national teams in Qatar, the Socceroos' lodgings are devoted exclusively to their use, avoiding the security and logistical headaches of fans and teams being in the same venue.

"It's refreshing," Riley McGree said.

"I think those bus rides, especially after training when it's a little bit of a long one, aren't great. But being right on the training pitch you literally walk in, walk out, go back to your room, go to meals, go to physio and everything."