With 80 minutes on the clock in Germany’s UEFA EURO 2012 group match against Denmark, Lars Bender won the ball in his own penalty area in the Arena Lviv and initiated the game’s decisive counter-attack. Miroslav Klose, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil were all involved in the move before Bender received the ball once more after an 80-metre sprint.
The 23-year-old left goalkeeper Stephan Andersen with no chance and netted the winner in a 2-1 victory, securing Germany’s progress into the quarter-finals. All of a sudden, everybody in world football knew who Lars Bender was.
“Being in the starting XI and scoring the winner was a special experience,” Bender said at the time. The defensive midfielder, who played as right-back that game, may not have made a further appearance at the continental showdown, but he had already made his mark by then. It whetted his appetite for more, with the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ next in his sights.
Brazil on the horizon
Several months down the line and the sensation has not waned. “Once you’ve experienced what it’s like at a big tournament, you want more,” Bender told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “The World Cup is as big as it gets for a footballer and I want to experience it first-hand.”
Just over half a year on from his dazzling display, the 2008 U-19 European champion is a fixture in national coach Joachim Low’s squad. The versatile defensive specialist featured in his country’s 3-1 defeat to Argentina, a goalless draw with the Netherlands and most recently the historic 2-1 triumph in France. Nevertheless, there is no sign of Bender resting on his laurels. “Up until the World Cup I need to play well for my club in order to even be considered for the national team. I’ve still got a long way to go, which is why I’m focusing fully on tasks that lie ahead.”
Bender’s next opportunity to demonstrate his ability comes on Thursday, when Bayer Leverkusen play Benfica in the UEFA Europa League. “We know all about Benfica’s strengths,” he said. “They’re far from being a no-name team. But we’re Bayer Leverkusen and we have no reason to be afraid. We can overcome this obstacle. I’m sure Benfica would have liked a different draw. If we play to our strengths we’ll be able to handle this tough assignment.”
It should come as little surprise that Bender and Co are full of confidence ahead of their encounter with the Portuguese outfit. “We’ve shown for a long time what we’re capable of doing. We have a squad that can fight for titles,” Bender said. Furthermore, Leverkusen sit third in the Bundesliga, behind only league leaders Bayern Munich and defending champions Borussia Dortmund, for whom his twin brother Sven plays.
While Lars is still waiting to get his hands on some silverware, his sibling has already tasted success with Dortmund, winning back-to-back titles and the DFB-Pokal. Yet conversely, when it comes to the Germany team, Lars is higher up the pecking order. However, in the Bender household all triumphs are celebrated together.
“I don’t care if Sven wins more titles than me by the end of our careers. We’re happy for each other when it comes to the national side too. Of course we’d rather play together, but if only one of us can make the step up into the team, then that’s ok too,” the 12-time international said.
With just under 500 days to go until the next FIFA World Cup kicks off, recent displays have shown Bender is well on the way to cementing his place in the Germany squad. His ability to perform in several positions appears to be playing to his advantage. “There are different opinions about the issue of flexibility,” Bender said. “I know that I’m best in defensive midfield and that’s where I can perform to the highest level. But if I have the chance to play for my country, I don’t mind which position I’m in.”
Bender has already sampled a FIFA World Cup atmosphere after reaching the quarter-finals at the U-20 version in Egypt four years ago. He is on course for a taste of the main event and stands a good chance of being called up to the senior squad again at the end of March for Germany’s Brazil 2014 qualifying double-header against Kazakhstan.
“We’re in a good position," he said. "We need to win our next two games, that’s a must. If we continue to be as focused and dominant as we have been until now then I’ve no doubt we’ll qualify for the World Cup." That would leave him just a call-up from Joachim Low away from fulfilling his dream of a first-hand FIFA World Cup experience.