U’s teenager meets Messi, Ronaldo and co

COLCHESTER United’s teenage defender Tom Bender is still pinching himself having met a plethora of global football icons past and present after proving he knows how to pick the perfect team.

The shocked 17-year-old was flown out to Zurich, on Monday and given VIP treatment by FIFPro at the glitzy Ballon d’Or awards in a trip of a lifetime that included:

– Flying out of London alongside former England boss Terry Venables;

– Meeting every single one of the ‘World XI’ in a private hotel room, including Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo;

– Watching the star-studded ceremony from the front row just a few seats away from FIFA president Sepp Blater and Archbishop Desmond Tutu;

– Dining on the same table as Dutch great Marco van Basten before mingling among footballing royalty.

So how come Harlow-born Bender, a gifted left-footed defender who is Colchester’s second youngest-ever debutant and who has already represented Wales at Under-21?

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Well the story began in September when more than 50,000 professional footballers from across the world were asked to pick a ‘World XI’ from a nominations list.

Tom filled in the form like everyone else and then forgot all about it, however when the winning team (listed below) was chosen via votes from national team captains and international media representatives at the start of this year it transpired the U’s teenager had been the only one worldwide to have predicted the exact line-up.

So impressed were FIFPro that they decided to make him their special guest for the awards.

“I keep having to look at the pictures to check that it actually happened,” said Bender, who flew home on Tuesday before returning to training with the rest of the U’s squad yesterday.

Reflecting on how it all came about, he recalled: “I vaguely remember Paul Allen (east region PFA representative) coming to club last year and handing out some ballot forms and I just picked a team in a five minute rush.

“I forgot all about it and then I got a phone call from my mum last Tuesday saying she’d taken a strange call about me picking a team or something and getting taken to Zurich.

“To be honest my first thought was that it was a wind-up, but sure enough I got a phone call soon afterwards confirming that it was true. The manager and chairman (John Ward and Robbie Cowling) already knew about it and were really excited for me.”

Less than a week after hearing the news, Bender caught a midday flight out of London City Airport and upon landing was whisked to a secret hotel where he was told to quickly change before returning to the lobby. The U’s defender was then taken to a room where, one-by-one, each of the ‘World XI’ he had selected were ushered in to be introduced to him before they undertook a media interview.

“I was just looking at these players thinking it can’t really be them – your first thought is that it must be someone that looks like them!” said Bender. “The whole time I was getting photographs all that was going through my mind was what I am doing here stood next to Cristiano Ronaldo!

“There was someone introducing me to the players and explaining why I was there and they were all really good to me. I had a little chat with the ones that could speak English; I asked Iker Casillas what it was like to lift the World Cup and he joked that I should give him the lottery numbers after picking the team!

“A lot of them just told me to keep working hard and that, who knows, maybe one day I could be the one winning an award.”

He added: “When I was waiting to meet them I was worried that a few might be a bit arrogant, but they were honestly all really down to earth.

“After that it was all a bit of a blur. When we got to the awards venue I couldn’t believe it when they said my ticket was on the front row and then when I sat down to dinner Marco van Basten was on the same table. The whole day was mental and one I’ll never forget.”

Ballon d’Or FIFPro ‘World XI’

Iker Casillas

Carlos Puyol

Gerard Pique

Lucio

Maicon

Wesley Sneijder

Xavi

Andres Iniesta

Cristiano Ronaldo

Lionel Messi

David Villa

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