Toni Kroos is number 14 in 90min’s Top 20 Greatest Footballers of the Decade series. Follow the rest of the series over the course of the next three weeks.
?Think of the big footballing events of the last decade, the really significant ones. Write them down if you want.
Got them? Ok, now play a little game of Toni Kroos bingo. It turns out, for many of the big moments of the 2010s, a running through-line was the presence of one German midfielder.
Bayern Munich’s historic treble in 2013, tick. Germany 7-1 Brazil and the 2014 World Cup in general, tick. Real Madrid’s three Champions League titles in a row, tick, tick and tick.
While more glamorous players have hogged the spotlight for the last decade, Kroos has remained a virtual ever-present on stage, playing a pivotal role not just in victories, trophies and continued success (although he has won 40% of the ?Champions Leagues available this decade), but in genuinely historic moments which will define the modern era of football.
Where were you when Germany spanked Brazil in Belo Horizonte? Toni Kroos was there, and he scored twice.
At the turn of the decade, however, things looked to be on a knife-edge for the precocious youngster from the north-easterly coastal town of Griefswald.
Despite being touted as a Jahrhunderttalent (talent of the century) when Bayern Munich cherry-picked the dirty-blonde teenager from Hansa Rostock’s youth academy – ?apparently he was made to play without boots to give classmates a chance at school – Kroos was left out of Germany’s Under-21 squad to go to the European Championships in 2009.
It was a golden generation that famously included Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil and Sandro Wagner, but there was no space for 19-year-old Kroos who had been playing as a number 10 on loan at Leverkusen in the months prior to the tournament.
His Leverkusen teammate Gonzalo Castro instead went to the tournament in Sweden, opening the scoring from central midfield as Germany dismantled England 4-0 in the final.
Germany Under-21 manager Horst Hrubesch, embarrassed by the riches at his disposal, explained pre-tournament that ?Kroos’ position simply didn’t fit his system, and who could argue?
Domestically, however, Kroos ploughed on, continuing to impress with goals and assists aplenty for Bayer Leverkusen. In January 2010, right at the start of a decade he would come to quietly dominate, he was called up to train with the Germany senior squad for the first time, later making his debut in March. By the following summer, Kroos was in Joachim Low’s 23-man squad for the World Cup in South Africa. Castro was nowhere to be seen.
Kroos’ technical superiority, creative eye and unrelentingly accurate distribution continued to make him stand out as he returned to ?Bayern Munich, often playing the furthest forward in a midfield trio that included Bastien Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez.
A season-ending muscle tear against Juventus in the Champions League quarter-finals meant Kroos missed the business end of Bayern’s treble season 2013 (the only time the club have won the Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal and Champions League in their history) but the midfielder had still played a big part on the road to glory.
Another year on and Germany had lifted the World Cup, with Kroos their metronome and heartbeat. His ice-cold precision with key assists against Portugal, France and, of course, his two goals in as many minutes against a punch-drunk Brazil in the semi-final lifting his status to another level of superstardom, as Die Mannschaft lifted football’s biggest prize at the Maracanã.
He earned the nickname ‘garçom’ (waiter) from the Brazilian press for his expert delivery during the tournament, but in Belo Horizonte, as Germany tore the hosts apart, ‘hit-man’ might have been a more appropriate profession. After assisting Thomas Muller’s opener and helping to set up Miroslav Klose for the second, Kroos cut down Brazil with two goals of his own in the space of 69 seconds. The first-half display from Germany, led with an almost indifferent abandon by Kroos, was a historic moment, sending millions across Brazil into fits of despair and a quasi national identity crisis.
Defeated finalist Lionel Messi controversially took the Golden Ball in 2014, but it was Kroos who topped ?Castrol’s Performance Index with a rating of 9.79 out of 10 for his performances.
That summer, a newly crowned world champion, ?Kroos joined ?Real Madrid for a figure somewhere south of €30m. It seemed a mind-blowingly small amount for a midfielder as complete and pre-eminent as Kroos. The German’s own agent called it ‘the robbery of the century’.
Whispers suggested Bayern Munich didn’t want to match Kroos’ wages with World Cup winning goalscorer Mario Gotze, while some claimed Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, club chief executive, didn’t consider his engine-room operator, the Jahrhunderttalent, as ‘world class’.
Then-manager in Bavaria Pep Guardiola was left tearing what little was left of his hair out as Kroos took his inestimable talent to Madrid for the next phase of his decade-defining career, winning back-to-back-to-back Champions League titles.
Even at Madrid, where he has come to be loved, his introduction was more low-key than you might expect for an elite talent who had held the World Cup trophy aloft just a few weeks prior.
Around 8,000 fans turned up at the Santiago Bernabeu for Kroos’ unveiling, less than 20% of the amount the number who had come to the stadium to see €80m James Rodriguez, according to ?Bleacher Report.
Rejection, injury and being criminally underrated have had virtually zero impact on Kroos’ trajectory. For the last ten years, Kroos has continued to play with an unwavering assurance in midfield, whether further forward or from deep. His clinical, low-profile style, ironically, has made him stand out in Galactico-studded teams, while helping him to a trophy cabinet with enough precious metal to match the GDP of some countries.
Consistently topping assist and passing accuracies charts; at pretty much any point in the last ten years if someone asked you to name the best central midfielders in the world, chances are Toni Kroos would’ve been in your top three answers.
Number 20 – Arjen Robben: The Flying Dutchman Who Became a Modern Legend at Bayern Munich
Number 19 – Mohamed Salah: The Humble King Who Conquered Rome and Took Liverpool By Storm
Number 18 – Sergio Aguero: The Man Who Painted Manchester Blue With One Kick of a Football
Number 17 – Manuel Neuer: The Bayern Munich & Germany Legend Who Revolutionised Goalkeeeping
Number 16 – Eden Hazard: The Brilliant Belgian Who Mesmerised Fans Across the World
?Number 15 – Zlatan Ibrahimovic: The Man Who Needs No Introduction