APPRECIATING TONI KROOS
In 1941, Alan Turing managed to crack the German cryptic code, an advantage for the Allied powers, a see through in the Axis tactics. Decades later, as the footballing war raged in Europe, the Germans acted and threw in an enigma of their own, an unbreakable genius in the centre of the pitch, who would lead his nation into World Cup glory. If there is any answer to Alan Turing on the pitch that would probably end the German’s domination in midfield, he hasn’t surfaced yet. Or maybe the maze of Toni Kroos just doesn’t have a solution.
Going back to the summer of 2014, riding on the back of that World Cup campaign in Brazil, Florentino Pérez wooed Kroos towards joining the Galacticos and as it almost always does, he had his way. The club from the Spanish capital has a history of importing German stars, going back to the 70s, names such as Gunter Netzer, Paul Breitner and Uli Stielike spring to mind. The club’s nickname, as a result of sourcing tall, blonde men from the north, became ‘The Vikings’ for a time.
‘Los Vikingos’, as they are referred to in Atlético Madrid circles had just added another blonde German to their ranks and that too, a World Cup winner.
“Steal of the century!”
Volker Struth, Kroos’ agent was quoted saying after his client put pen to paper in Madrid. Cut to 6 years later and after billions exchanged in the transfer market, splurged pan-Europe on midfielders, on the Pogba’s of world football, Struth’s assertion on the German’s deal makes so much sense in context.
Real Madrid might be the biggest club in world football but their man in No.8 still glides along the pitch, dictating the tempo as he must have 20 years ago in his hometown of Greifswald. Facing a crowd as daunting and demanding as Real’s, it might just get overwhelming but not for someone with the mental fortitude and ice-cold nerves as Toni Kroos.
For someone like the former Bayern man who has made a living out of setting the tone for the midfield orchestra, one could argue that some of his best symphonies in the centre of the park have come in games where the stakes couldn’t be higher. “I’m blessed with the gift of not getting nervous, ever”, Toni told The Athletic and it shows.
You could dig up footage of him donning the Leverkusen colours or just tune in to Madrid’s next game, the German seems to somehow be resistant to the opposition press, knocking the ball dead with a touch, shifting it a few yards and then spraying a 70-yard diagonal, inch-perfect, all of this with immaculate poise and a surgeon’s precision while making it seem as easy as gulping a pint of Krombacher.
At Madrid, Kroos plays like what he seems: professional and low-key. It makes him difficult to write about. Sure, there aren’t any videos of him on the internet, beating men at will like Luka Modrić. He isn’t controversial like his other partner in the middle of the park in Casemiro. But this isn’t about everything Toni Kroos isn’t but about what Toni Kroos is.
Say what you want about the man, from his recent spat with Aubameyang to making constant comparisons with the likes of Modrić; Kroos will go down as a player who defined and drove a golden age at the biggest club in the world, when they dominated club football’s most elite competition. He wasn’t a bystander in the process; he set the platform for greatness with his subtle brand of genius.
Under the tutelage of Heynckes, Löw, Guardiola, Ancelotti and Zidane under his belt, it comes as no surprise that the 30-year-old has the medal collection that he does, but it is a little shocking that so many people don’t give him the credit he most definitely deserves.
From the parts of Germany lesser known for football, Kroos, as opposed to the widespread stereotype, was neither a tank in midfield nor a showman with the ball like some of the predecessors that represented Die Mannschaft. But there’s just something otherworldly about this generation of midfielders from the country- from Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil or even a prime Mario Götze for that matter- for what they lacked in brute strength and lightning speed, they more than made up for it with their eye for a pass, incredible vision and an almost idiosyncratic interpretation of the game. Kroos fits the bill of the unconventional.
For a generation that grew up with midfielders that would chase and strike the ball like there was a war in motion, Kroos’ patient but calculated demeanour in the ground’s neutral territory made certain such sections discount his abilities. Regardless, he was considered a Jahrhunderttalent – “a talent of the century” when he broke into the Bayern ranks for the very first time.
Strutting his way into first-team action, the-then young sensation impressed in the red of Bavaria and then in the black and white of Germany’s national colours. But his biggest break came when Bayern found themselves in a spot, down 2-1 to Red Star Belgrade. The man in question was thrust into the action and so Kroos, at 17 years and 256 days became the youngest player to feature in a competitive match in Bayern’s history. Tasked with free-kick duty, he came on and as if on cue, turned the game on its head, on his own.
A couple of free-kicks was all it took for the now-midfield maestro to make his mark on the European stage. He sent a floater, targeted for Miroslav Klose’s forehead and with the abilities the striker possessed, the ball obviously found the net. The second however, made its way through everyone and lodged itself into the bottom corner. There he was, grinning ear to ear by the corner flag as his teammates bombarded him with hugs. An arrival, of sorts, on the big stage and the prelude of what was perhaps to come.
Soon, given the iconic names Bayern boasted of in their rooster, the youngster was shunted out on loan to Bayer Leverkusen, a move that seemed to kill the dream start Kroos had had in Munich. That is of course until Jupp Heynckes took the reins at Leverkusen. And just like that, Toni was flying again.
There were bending free-kicks, arching strikes and pinpoint volleys, but also composed finishes from inside the 18-yard box; an entertaining variety that attracted the attention of his parent club and international boss. Without being known for his efficiency in front of goal, the German quickly built a reputation of being a specialist at scoring from range and in style too.
An outstanding 2nd season in red and black saw everyone in Germany sit up and take notice. Kroos’ displays were full of technical and tenacious brilliance as he quickly became one of the in-form players in the Bundesliga and was a treat for the Leverkusen faithful. It was only a matter of time before the world would notice and sooner rather than later, we all did.
Löw decided to put Kroos on a plane to the World Cup in South Africa. Germany were cruising until they hit a roadblock in Puyol’s high-flying Spain. Kroos rendered ineffective to the genius of Iniesta, Xavi and Alonso. Although this was a lesson learned, there was something telling about the way a 19-year-old kid came on and took control at set-pieces as if he had done it for years. A happier World Cup semi-final was waiting on the horizon.
For time spanning decades, Germany as a nation wasn’t as invested in the midfield as it was in the two ends. Who cared what happened near the centre circle when all the drama was concentrated in the ends of the field? Then Guardiola arrived. A Spanish manager had come to Munich in 2013 and dared to radically redraw the map. The drama was still infused in the two boxes, but now players controlling the midfield were considered prized possessions. Where the magic actually happened.
His system of a three-man midfield meant Kroos had to drop his No.10 tag and adapt to become a more well-rounded central midfielder alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger and now with Lahm sitting behind them and boy did he! That was how Germany lined up in Brazil the following summer, with the spine of the team very much in the Munich mould. The World Cup, as a Die Mannschaft fan myself was a Kroos masterclass and more. That night in Belo Horizonte is arguably recalled as the single most shocking 90 minutes in the last ten years – and the nerveless midfielder was at the heart of it.
Germany’s third came off his own retro Adidas boots, letting fly from the edge of the area to beat a desperately diving Julius César. Kroos took home with him the game’s most coveted trophy and a nickname the Brazilians has bestowed on him. ‘O Garçom’ (a waiter) who set the table and put it all on a plate for his teammates.
He’s not a big, song-and-dance type of player, but he gets so much done and has been dubbed by Spanish publication Marca as “a one-man orchestra”, while Germany coach Joachim Löw lauds the “symmetry and balance” he brings to a side, Zinedine Zidane’s “perfect” man to carry the Madrid midfield. The plaudits keep coming but he seems unbothered and unphased by all of it, just like he was in the dressing room the night Germany conquered the world.
“A magnificent player has arrived, as he showed at the World Cup, where he was one of the best in the competition,” Florentino Pérez gushed as he stood next to Kroos at his Real Madrid presentation later that summer. The German’s arrival in Madrid has seen the club end its seven year La Liga drought, adding another league triumph last season with Kroos as a mainstay in midfield. It’s no coincidence that Real Madrid trounced the best in the world and managed an unprecedented trinity of Europe’s holy grail, the Champions League in modern football.
With more than a 90% passing accuracy for three campaigns running, you wouldn’t find the Bernabéu’s loyalty ever break when it comes to their kingly midfielder.
Even by Los Blancos’ immeasurably lofty standards, the club who not only expect to win but expect to dazzle the world while doing so, Kroos has made the fans and board gush since he put pen to paper in 2014. In another managerial switch that swung the fortunes in Kroos’ favour, Zinedine Zidane took on the mantle in temporary charge, later becoming permanent boss for the Les Merengues. Kroos’ deployment deeper in the midfield has worked like a charm. A ‘regista’ as the Italians prefer to refer to his role as, he is the best there is.
A couple of managerial casualties, and a rare early exit from the Champions League, Real have emerged from the darkness since the reappointment of the Frenchman, with Kroos still remaining as one of the stalwarts in a midfield which is powering the side back to where they belong. In tandem with his longhaired master in midfield and an engine that plays behind the pair, Kroos has become the pacemaker of a side whose identity is now transformed by Zidane since his appointment in 2016.
Nicknamed ‘Iceman’ in the Real Madrid dressing room, the latest documentary featuring the World Cup winner tells you why. As accounted by his trainer himself, an incident where Kroos takes out his phone and texts his wife in between half-time, as if taking the mickey out of supposed matchday-nerves.
Whether you remember him for tearing Brazil apart in Belo Horizonte, dominating the Real Madrid midfield to a Champions League three-peat or swooping in that free-kick against Sweden, Kroos is undoubtedly one of the best players of his generation, let alone midfielders. The blonde-haired German, dressed in the royal white of Madrid, donning No. 8, standing over the dead ball with his right arm raised as a signal for the havoc that’s about to ensued is an image in modern football as iconic as any.