''Manni'' is making his return. Sven Bender, who as a Borussia Dortmund player was a German title winner in 2011 and 2012, a DFB-Cup winner in 2012 and 2017 and a Champions League finalist in 2013, has been plying his trade for Bayer 04 Leverkusen since the summer of 2017. In his living room, wearing the garb of the opposition, he sat down to talk with us about where he came from and what's important to him.
Manni, it was a difficult start to the season, but now under the leadership of head coach Peter Bosz, Bayer Leverkusen have been grabbing the attention in 2019 with some sparkling offensive football and strong results. What was it about the winter break that helped you get back to winning ways?
A real combination of factors worked against us in the first half of the season. To start with, we were missing leaders like Aranguiz and Baumgartlinger - players whose voices carry a lot of weight in the dressing room. Our goalkeeper Hradecky, who's a real rock, was another absentee at the beginning of the season. We weren't getting the results we were hoping for, and the negative run continued throughout the first half of the season. I think just knowing that we could do so much better was motivation enough for every one of us going into the second round of fixtures. We were able to make a fresh start over the winter break. But we still have a long way to go. We've yet to achieve anything so far. Nonetheless, we've been able to work our way into contention for a place in Europe next season. That's what we're aiming for!
You left Borussia Dortmund at your own request back in 2017, just as Peter Bosz took charge of the squad. He's recently been appointed as your coach in Leverkusen. How does it feel knowing that professional football is such a small world?
That's right. I actually had a week of training under him back when he took charge at BVB. My decision to leave the club after so many years was one I had already decided on for a while. It had absolutely nothing to do with Peter Bosz. I really appreciated the way he got in touch with me and showed genuine interest in finding out how I was feeling back then. Now he's my coach once more, and I'm really happy about it. In life, it seems that you always end up crossing paths with people again.
You're gloriously down-to-earth compared to a lot of your fellow professional footballers. No Instagram, no Facebook, no trace of tattoos. Is it a conscious decision on your part to remain removed from it all?
You'll find this amusing: about a year and a half ago Lars (Sven's twin brother) and I decided to both give Instagram a go. We tried it out for about five months, and in the end the experience just served to consolidate the sense that it wasn't something we really needed.
To be honest, it would have surprised me if it had turned out any other way. What was your personal impression of this experience?
It showed me that I'm the kind of guy who just loves to be out there in the stadium. The kind of guy who often feels enraptured in that atmosphere. That's what I'm addicted to, that's the urge I need to quench. But outside of the stadium I'm just Sven, the family man, who just wants peace and quiet. People always say that social media is needed for absolutely everything these days. That's definitely not the case! I made a conscious decision to keep my private life to myself and remain focused on staying true to myself and where I came from. I'm convinced that this is what has allowed me to go about my everyday business in an entirely ordinary manner when I'm out in public. My circle of friends has remained more or less unchanged from when I was five years old. The only real difference is that the geographical distance between us has grown somewhat...
Do you sometimes wish that some of the players you've met over the course of your career were a bit more down-to-earth?
We're all different, and everyone has their own way of looking at life. In a lot of cases - as far as I can see - it's not even players that are actually making these public declarations. It's often the people around them that are feeding the high expectations. Some players are just so young and therefore have no real idea of where they stand in situations like that; they lose their bearings - and of course that can have an effect on their private lives. Maybe players from my generation had it a bit easier than the youngsters coming up these days. Back when we were their age, the spotlight and the distractions weren't as extreme as they are now. Nonetheless, from my experience, I would say that most players, as their careers progress, end up focusing on the things that are truly important. That's just how it goes.
In the build-up to Leverkusen's visit to Dortmund, there's been a lot of talk about whether or not this game is ''something special'' for you. More than anything else, we'd be interested to know how important the appreciation of the BVB support is for you after the many years you spent at the club and the long-lasting positive impression that you left?
I've already had the honour of standing in front of the Dortmund Südtribüne as a Leverkusen player. It was such a beautiful experience, and it had everything to do with the fact that the BVB fans have such a positive view of me. I'm incredibly grateful for that. I think that I'm appreciated in Dortmund because as a player I always gave absolutely everything for the club. Because that's the way I am. To perform to the best of my abilities for all those years - I never wanted anything more than that! So much heart, so much passion. Yes, of course I'm now happy to have the opportunity to play in Dortmund again.
You have a few years as a professional footballer ahead of you. But let's take a look beyond that. At some point in the future, you're a retired footballer and you're making your return to Signal Iduna Park, to the BayArena. What kind of welcome would you hope to get from the fans?
To be honest, in that situation I would just want to watch the match. There's no particular way I'd want people to treat me. At that point, it wouldn't be about me any more. I've had enough recognition as a player. It would be all about the new generation, about the young players out there on the pitch.
I assume that no matter how hard we try, we're not going to be able to make a North Rhine-Westphalian out of you?
(Bender laughs) No! Though I do feel extremely at home here. When I've retired from professional football, I'm always going to come back to visit the region and meet up with friends. But I've always been someone who's really connected to home, and that means that once I've hung up my boots, I'll move back to Bavaria. No question!
Interview: Sascha Fligge