Sven Bender: All or nothing


He is the boss at the back and a leader in the group: Sven Bender is in his fourth and final season at the Werkself. In the summer, along with his twin brother Lars, he is bringing down the curtain after 15 years in professional football. He will leave a void and not only at Leverkusen. But until that point, Sven is still ambitious with Bayer 04....

The chosen point of departure, announced by the two brothers a few days before Christmas, is another facet of the direct approach taken on and off the pitch for years. The announcement of the impending retirement of Lars and Sven Bender at the end of the season had hardly been released before the flood of praise started to rain down on them. Including from their own ranks – Rudi Völler paid tribute to their "exceptional sporting life-time achievement" – but the twins also received acclaim across the rest of Germany. "Dented role models" is the view of the Süddeutsche Zeitung of them, "as they go into challenges fearlessly and headlong whether it's a European match or a morning training session." For the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, they are "model professionals and amongst the most respected Bundesliga players across all the clubs." Former DFB coach Horst Hrubesch had previously described them as "the best thing that ever happened to me in football."

"To be honest, I didn't really realise that," said Sven Bender, the younger of the two brothers by 14 minutes. "The main thing for us was to find a suitable time to make the announcement to avoid taking it into the New Year. But all this appreciation is obviously nice and shows we've done some things right." The Bayer 04 CEO Fernando Carro recently revealed in an interview with Sport1 that he hoped right to the end, "that perhaps only Lars would stop in the summer because he was more affected by injuries." Sven's reply: "I had two serious ankle injuries in my last season at Dortmund. Since then I've had problems with my foot again and again and it’s been painful every day. I've tolerated these chronic problems for four years and battled my way through to where we are now. But it's a heavy load I’m carrying round and the thought has became more and more pressing in recent months, which is the price of that at the end of the day. I still want to be able to make use of my body after my career's over."


Tight on his man, winning challenges: Sven Bender in duel with Gladbach's Breel Embolo.

That's why he's calling it quits in the summer at the age of 32. "Matches every three or four days are no longer possible in the long run. I won't be able to produce performances at that high level any more," declared Sven. And when it is no longer possible then he's gone. All or nothing, with complete conviction. There is no alternative for him as he always opts for the route one without any diversions and dodges. "55 injuries since 2007, flu-like infections excluded," was the total during the course of his professional career according to the 11Freunde magazine. In the end, it isn't the horrific, blood-soaked wounds such as broken noses and jaws that has brought the indomitable warrior to his knees but rather the unseen and much more gruelling signs of wear and tear that plague his body.

Mentally, I’ve felt liberated for the last six months and that has possibly even given me additional energy.

In the remaining months of his career, rich in sporting highlights and fitness lows, Sven Bender is determined to do all he can to leave the best possible sporting version of himself on the pitch. And perhaps even a bit more now that the end date has been given. Mentally, I’ve felt liberated for the last six months and that has possibly even give me additional energy." Bender will continue to aim to give the maximum every day as he has always done before. "When I've stopped, I can look in the mirror and know that I've given my all in every training session, in every match. But as long as I'm still playing, I’ll never be satisfied." Anybody talking like that is a long way from giving up.

There is no question for Sven Bender that the Werkself can continue to improve despite the departure of Kai Havertz and Kevin Volland last summer that made this season look very difficult. On principle too. His belief: "Anyone who doesn't think big cannot achieve big things because his horizon is limited." That has always served him well. And he tries to transfer this thinking and vision to his teammates in Black and Red.


Two dashing lads: Sven (right) and Lars Bender in their early days at 1860 Munich.

"Bayer 04 took a long time to get to a cup final again as in last season. We didn't have a bad game. But perhaps you just need more experience of the situation of being in big finals more often so that you can then win them. We also did well in Europe but we lacked that final belief that we could really do it against Inter Milan. I think anything is possible for us this time on the European stage."

However, he was also thoroughly surprised at how consistently successful the Werkself have been in the first third of the season. "The team was consistent last season too and we worked well together. But this season we've moved up a level because we don't allow ourselves to be put off by setbacks and we rigorously stick to our plan on the pitch," he said. And the boss at the back is even more pleased that the defence plays a crucial role in the functioning of the whole structure. And the leader is happy to share the praise. "I have sensational people alongside me. Edi Tapsoba arrived a year ago and he was thrown into the deep end where he produced incredibly impressive performances and he's been a huge plus for our group. But also all the others like Jona (Tah; ed.), Drago (Dragovic; ed.) or Tin (Jedvaj; ed.) have shown that they can be completely relied on. We've got people in the centre of defence that can play in any formation. A lot of people are envious of our situation."

The team comes first ahead of any competition for places and that makes us stand out.

Bender also sees himself obliged to support his teammates away from the pitch. Also and especially when they go through difficult times like Jonathan Tah who found himself in the unusual situation over recent months of not always being in the starting eleven. The old hand is then required to inspire confidence. "Earlier on, when I was at the start or middle of my 20s, I was also in situations like that where it would have been good to have had the support of teammates. It's essential for me: The team comes first ahead of any competition for places and that makes us stand out. The attitude that everybody is committed to do their best: Anybody playing should not relax – and anybody not playing should not give up."

That attitude makes a Bender, whether his first name is Sven or Lars, so valuable for the common good. At the same time, it is part of his understanding of himself and his considered response to clearly name general changes in football of the present day. "Lars and I were the champions of Germany with the 1860 Munich Under 17s. At that time there might have been a couple more talented youngsters who made the step up from the youth sides to the first team. But those that manage it today are in a completely different category as we were back then. They come into the Bundesliga and play with such self-belief as if they'd never done anything else. When I look at the lads here with us, whether that was Kai (Havertz; ed.) or now Flo (Wirtz; ed.), they are such awesome and outstanding exceptional players. Simply brilliant."


Good shout: Sven Bender is good for a goal from set pieces as in his derby strike in 2017.

Sven Bender has obviously thought about the time after he and Lars have hung up their boots. He's not somebody who can live without a plan. Will he go back to his native Bavaria? "Of course, definitely!" And he is also completely focused on his career after the career. "Lars and I have set up and driven forward projects on the side in recent years. I don't want to say what it is. Just this much: It definitely has nothing to do with football."

In the not-too-distant future, when he looks back at his time as a professional player there are one or two things he can be proud of. U19 European champion, twice champion of Germany with Borussia Dortmund, twice DFB Cup winner with BVB, Champions League finalist in 2013, seven full international caps, silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. The absolute highlight the Olympic Games in Brazil. "Of course, it hurt losing on penalties to Brazil in the final at the Maracana. But the special thing about the Olympics is something you don't normally see in football: "It's not just the winners who pick up the special medals. There are two other winners who don't go home empty-handed."

Sven Bender (right) with brother Lars and Max Meyer (l. to r.) at the medal ceremony in the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.

It was not the only time by a long way at Sven Bender ended up second in a hard-fought competition. Bundesliga, DFB Cup finals, Champions League – losing finals always hurts. "To be honest, I feel there are one or two titles to few," he said. But there is a good message: The last chapter in his career is only now being written.


04 Rankings

The biggest honour
"Nothing beats titles. The first league title win in 2011 with Dortmund was totally unexpected. The majority of us lads were in their early 20s, we were called a bunch of kids. I'd always dreams of winning a title like that when I was a child. Not only playing in big stadiums but also holding up a trophy."

The biggest disappointment
"When you succeed in getting through to the Champions League final and then lose it’s just a bitter blow. It was bearable to a certain extent in that you knew you'd given everything and had a good game as in the 2-1 defeat against Bayern in 2013. But when you give away a goal a minute before the final whistle then it's just bad."

The toughest opponent
"My brother, even if that sounds daft. I can't bear losing but it was particularly difficult against him. From when we were young. Regardless of what we're doing, whether that's playing table tennis today or ludo back in the day. That's why I'm glad he's been playing in my team for almost four years."

The best teammate
"I've learned and benefited from so many teammates in my career that I don't want to pick out one in particular. There’s always been fantastic lads all over. The one had incredible talent, the other was an all-out team player. I've definitely been blessed to have played alongside such great football players."

The story appeared in Werks11 Magazin number 29.