Toni Kroos, who set a record in 2007 as the youngest player to make his competitive debut for Bayern Munich until David Alaba broke it a few years later, was always better than the rest when it came to football.
At school, he was so good he was made to play without boots on to give his opponents a chance, according to an interview with one of his old teachers in Die Welt (in German).
When Kroos joined the Germany under-17 team in 2005, he was the only squad member from the age group a year younger. "At that age, a one-year gap is a huge difference," Stefan Reinartz, one of his team-mates on that international panel, said.
Kroos stood out among his peers. One of the things Reinartz remembers about him was the crispness of his passes—they glided along the turf. Reinartz makes a whooshing sound before saying: "His passes never bounced. At 15 or 16, he had the passing technique of Xavi or Andres Iniesta; it was just brilliant."
Over a decade later, the economy of Kroos' passing is revered around the football world. He has surpassed a 90 per cent pass-completion rate for the past three seasons in La Liga, per WhoScored.com, and he was the joint-top player for assists during Germany's triumphant FIFA World Cup campaign in 2014.
What makes his distribution special is his passes are so effective; it's not just a question of precision. After retiring prematurely from the game at 27 because of injury, Reinartz co-founded a football analysis company called Impect, which analyses the effectiveness of players' passing and use of space. Kroos is one of the company's most interesting case studies.
During the 2015-16 season, for example, Kroos took out an average of 85 defenders per game with his passes. The average for a defensive midfielder—playing in the same position as Kroos—in European leagues was 28, per Bundesliga Fanatic. This ability to be so decisive is what distinguishes Kroos.
"He has a really good overview of the pitch," said Reinartz, who also played alongside Kroos for a season in the Bundesliga when Kroos was on loan at Bayer Leverkusen. "You could cover his eyes with your hands, and he could still tell you on the right-hand side 50 metres away is Thomas Muller and on the left side is Mesut Ozil, 25 metres away.
"If it's possible to break the line [between midfield and defence], he'll play it, but if it's not possible, he won't play it. He doesn't make mistakes, and he rarely ever gets injured. It seems like it's effortless, like an easy Sunday morning run-out."
Bayern Munich didn't make enough effort to hold on to Kroos when his contract was running down during the 2013-14 season, which was sandwiched between a Champions League triumph for Bayern Munich at Wembley Stadium and World Cup success in Brazil with the national team.
Real Madrid beat off several other suitors—including Manchester United and Manchester City, according to Reinartz—to secure his services for €25 million (then worth £20 million), per Rafa Molina of Marca. It was the "steal of the century," as Kroos' agent, Volker Struth, recently told Jochen Coenen and Axel Hesse Sport Bild (in German).
Because he felt undervalued, Kroos was driven to leave Bayern Munich.
"Toni is a friend of mine, and I know the whole story," Reinartz explained. "It was a little bit about money. Bayern Munich offered Toni a new contract. Toni knew what Mario Gotze was earning at Bayern Munich; Toni and Mario Gotze are [roughly] the same age. Bayern Munich didn't want to pay Toni more than €10 million.
"Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told Toni: 'We won't pay you more than €10 million a year because you're not a world-class player.' If you know Toni, it's not about money. He needs the confidence of other people. He knew he was a very good player, a world-class player. That was the breaking point."
Pep Guardiola, who was a year into his three-year tenure as manager at Bayern Munich, was mystified. He was powerless to hold on to Kroos, even though the German was an archetypal Guardiola player. "Guardiola tried everything," Reinartz said. "He went crazy that Bayern Munich didn't sign him for longer, but it was not possible because of the stance of Rummenigge. It was a no-go."
It was an uncharacteristic error by Bayern Munich. The club is usually canny when it comes to offloading players. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski, for example, both went downhill after leaving the club. Kroos has prospered at Real Madrid, however, joining a select band of German players to win three European Cup winners' medals.
"I watched him a lot in his early days at Bayern, and he had the ball on a string," said Mark Lovell, ESPN FC's Bayern Munich correspondent. "He's just highly underrated. He's respected but not loved in Germany. Kroos wasn't fully appreciated at Bayern Munich and in Germany at large. He was heavily criticised for failing to volunteer for a penalty during the club's loss at home to Chelsea in the final of the 2012 Champions League. His strength of character was questioned.
"He was considered a shy type of guy. He wouldn't be considered very open. He was very uncomfortable talking to the media as opposed to the bigger stars in Bayern at the time. Whereas Muller would brush things off with a sense of humour, and Schweinsteiger had been dealing with the press for years, Kroos was always very reserved, and there's a fine line whether you're considered arrogant or aloof. That's always in the perception of whoever is writing the article—what is his narrative."
At Real Madrid, his reserved nature is prized. The club's fans prefer his type of reticence to, say, Cristiano Ronaldo's narcissism. The club has a history of importing German stars, too, going back to Gunter Netzer, Paul Breitner and Uli Stielike in the 1970s. The club's nickname became The Vikings for a time as a result.
"The German character is exactly what the Bernabeu loves—effort, power, they fight until death," football writer Juanma Trueba said. "German players almost always triumph at the Santiago Bernabeu. Kroos is low profile. He doesn't boast about what he does. It's what fans like here. He will play here for the rest of his days."
When Kroos joined the club, he came in under the radar. All the hoopla in the summer of 2014 surrounded the Galactico signing, James Rodriguez, who arrived for €80 million (then £63 million), per the Guardian. There were 45,000 people at James' presentation, per Juan Ignacio Garcia-Ochoa of . Only 8,000 showed up for Kroos' unveiling, per Ben Hayward for Goal.
Kroos has been a silent Galactico, and James was shipped out to Bayern Munich in the summer, having failed to establish himself at the Santiago Bernabeu.
"There wasn't a song and dance about the arrival of Kroos, which I suppose is quite appropriate for the kind of player that he is—he's not a big, song-and-dance type of player, but he gets so much done," said Phil Kitromilides, who works as a presenter for Real Madrid TV. "Real Madrid fans like him. They realise what an important player he is and the job that he does. He's never been whistled.
"He doesn't speak Spanish, and he has no real intention of speaking Spanish. At his presentation, he was asked do you speak any Spanish because he has a holiday home in Mallorca. He goes there a lot. He replied: 'I don't need to speak Spanish in Mallorca,' making reference to the huge number of Germans who holiday there.
"Yet that hasn't held him back in the eyes of the fans like it has with other players. People might have perceived a lack of integration, that he's not embraced the culture because he hasn't learned the language, but he's done enough on the pitch to gain their respect and admiration. He's got a bit of a bye with that one."
Kitromilides also singled out the transfer fee paid for Kroos—because it was so low by Real Madrid standards for an outfield, overseas player, he didn't carry the same weight of expectation on arriving at the club as James or Gareth Bale. It made it easier for him to be accepted by Madridistas.
The Bernabeu occasionally chants Kroos' name during matches. His personal chant is an unimaginative one—a droning "TO-NI, TO-NI, KROOS, KROOS." But it is an important register as to where Kroos lies in their affections.
"It's a very tough crowd at the Bernabeu," Kitromilides said. "To get them to recognise you, to get your name chanted, is not easy. It's possibly one of the best indications of how highly he is regarded here."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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