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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A stubborn and unconventional player decides to retire at the top of his game

Toni Kroos with Real Madrid in 2018 (Wikipedia)

By Dermot Corrigan / The Athletic

Midfielder Toni Kroos played his final game in professional soccer last Friday: Germany’s 2-1 defeat to Spain in their European Championship quarterfinal.

Kroos, 34, said in May that he would hang up his old-school white boots this summer. A few weeks later, he won a fifth Champions League trophy with Real Madrid at Wembley Stadium. Over the past month, he had been starring for his country on home soil at Euro 2024.

So why, when he is at the top of his game, is Kroos stepping aside?

He said well in advance that he would finish on his terms.

A stubborn and unconventional character who has always liked to do things his way, Kroos was never going to emulate his former Madrid teammates Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo by playing into his late 30s.

Instead, his plan was to go out at the very top. He initially retired from international soccer in 2021 after experiencing a series of disappointments with Germany, allowing him to focus on a final few years with Madrid.

He might even have retired altogether last summer, but he eventually agreed to stay another season in Madrid. Then he accepted a call from Germany manager Julian Nagelsmann — only two years his senior — to return for this summer’s Euros.

Speaking to German magazine Kicker last month, Kroos said that he knew many players tried to play for as long as possible but that his view was different.

“I simply want to be remembered as the 34-year-old Toni Kroos who played his best season for Real at the end,” he said. “I’ve achieved that. I take it as a compliment that many people think the timing is too early.”

From his start in professional soccer as a talented teenager, Kroos steered his career in unexpected and distinctive directions.

After spells with local clubs Greifswalder and Hansa Rostock, he agreed to a move to Germany’s biggest club, Bayern Munich, at the age of 16. But he didn’t fit in at the Bavarian club at first. When he returned after a successful 18 months on loan at Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes was unsure how to best use Kroos’ skills. Homegrown hero Bastian Schweinsteiger was still the main man in midfield, and an injury meant that Kroos missed the team’s 2013 Champions League final win against Borussia Dortmund.

There was similar uncertainty with the national team. Germany manager Joachim Low brought a 20-year-old Kroos to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, then used him sparingly off the bench. For Euro 2012, Low preferred the more physical midfield duo of Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, with Mesut Ozil the first choice in the No. 10 role. Kroos’ only start was in the semifinal match that Germany lost to Italy.

Many German fans and pundits felt that Kroos’ use of possession was too slow and methodical and did not help decide games. He was not an all-action, box-to-box midfielder in the mold of Lothar Matthaus, Stefan Effenberg or Michael Ballack. Nor was he a floating No. 10 playmaker in the line of Thomas Hassler, Mehmet Scholl or Ozil.

But Kroos thrived when Pep Guardiola arrived at Bayern in the summer of 2013 and placed him in a deeper role, giving him more influence. Bayern began to build moves slowly and painstakingly — not in the traditional, direct German approach — and Kroos was happier than ever on the field.

At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Low made use of Guardiola’s influence. Fielded as a deep playmaker, Kroos played 689 of 690 minutes as Germany won the trophy. He registered two assists in the opening 4-0 win against Portugal, provided the free kick for Mats Hummel’s winning header in the quarterfinal against France, and scored two goals and made one assist in the 7-1 semifinal hammering of Brazil. His control and precision were key in the 1-0 win against Argentina in the final.

Just 24, Kroos was about to enter his peak, but another surprise decision was coming. Within weeks of helping Germany become world champions for the fourth time, Kroos left the country. Annoyed that Bayern had offered a bigger contract to his international teammate Mario Götze, he forced a move to Madrid.

Kroos was immediately more comfortable in the Spanish capital, with coaches Carlo Ancelotti and then Zinedine Zidane trusting him with the reins of the team. The superbly balanced midfield of Kroos, Casemiro and Modric steered Madrid to a record three straight Champions League titles under Zidane, from 2016 to 2018.

Internationally, problems were looming again. Kroos played every minute of Germany’s Euro 2016 campaign in France, where they lost, 2-0, to the hosts in the semifinal. The 2018 World Cup was a disaster: Although Kroos scored a 95th-minute free-kick winner against Sweden, defeats to Mexico and South Korea meant that Germany exited at the group stage for the first time in 80 years.

The delayed Euro 2020 tournament brought more failure, with Kroos and Co. eliminated by England in the Round of 16.

The ensuing criticism of Kroos played a large role in his decision to retire from international soccer in 2021, at age 31. If he was not wanted by his country, it wasn’t a problem — he was happy to focus on his club.

In an interview with The Athletic in 2020, Kroos said he would finish his career at Madrid. The idea of playing for a smaller team, or at a less-competitive level, never appealed. Nor did the idea of following his former teammates Ronaldo and Karim Benzema to play in the Saudi Pro League.

“They talk about ambition, but it’s all about money,” Kroos told Sports Illustrated last year. “In the end, that’s a decision for money, and against football.”

Kroos has also said the match calendar places too many demands on top players, and he has criticized the governing bodies UEFA and FIFA. Spending more time with his wife and three young children was more important to him than constant travel, training and games.

The idea to return with Germany had started with Nagelsmann, a younger coach from the Guardiola school who also left Bayern last year.

“Julian reached out to me and explained his vision for the national team,” Kroos told magazine FourFourTwo last month. “We spoke for a very long time about his ideas and philosophies. He also asked me for mine. It was clear to us that those ideas aligned.”

Not everyone in Germany was convinced. Some pundits still felt those ideas and philosophies weren’t right for the national team. Before the tournament, captain Ilkay Gundogan was asked about some fans’ disparagingly referring to Kroos as “Querpass Toni” — Sideways Toni. Gundogan laughed it off and praised his teammate, perhaps not surprisingly given that he is another midfielder not in the typical German mold whose game developed under Guardiola.

Kroos’ performance against Scotland in the tournament’s opening game was a prime example of how he could control a game. He completed 100 passes of a possible 101 and dismantled Scotland with the intelligence and accuracy of his distribution, as Germany ran out as 5-1 winners.

The German public embraced the Kroos farewell tour. At stadiums around the country, his name was featured on more replica jerseys than any other. Chants of “Toni, Toni, Toni!” erupted whenever he came over to take a corner.

That acclaim should be normal for the most decorated player in German history. He won 34 trophies for club and country over his career — the only title missing was the European Championship. Given how the past few months had played out, it would have been no surprise if he had guided Germany past Spain on Friday and on to win the final in Berlin on July 14. But it was not to be.

Despite his ability and distinguished career, Kroos has only once been named the German soccer player of the year, in 2018. Speaking to Kicker last month, he was asked about critics who may have been jealous of him.

“They have an opinion,” he said. “I created facts.”

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