Interview, cross pass, legend: How Toni Kroos divides football in Germany

Interview, cross pass, legend
How Toni Kroos divides football Germany

By Tobias Nordman

Toni Kroos is one of the most successful footballers of all time. Not only is he world champion and has won six national championships, he can now also call himself a five-time Champions League winner. And yet the 32-year-old is controversial in his German homeland.

For some it’s a tedious cross-push, for others it’s the smartest passes in the world. Toni Kroos polarizes. And not just because of his aborted anger interview on ZDF on Saturday evening, which roused an entire nation from the lethargy of a less than spectacular final game. After Mesut Özil, he is probably the most emotionally discussed national player of the outstanding generation, who became world champions in Brazil in 2014 and are now increasingly losing focus. Quite amusing: As great as the emotionality in the evaluation of Kroos is, the native of Greifswald is as cool as a professional and his game is so ripped off. And so incredibly successful for years.

When his team, the Royals from Real Madrid, had once again won the most important club competition in the Stade de France in Paris, happily 1-0 against Liverpool FC, that’s when the individual criticisms were formulated. A classic in sports journalism. A popular category among fans. One that provides the great material for the passionate reappraisal. Kroos was considered by some experts to be the best man at Real. The French sports newspaper “L’Equipe”, on the other hand, saw him as the worst player on his team. And alongside Liverpool’s Luis Diaz as the weakest man on the field. The statistics don’t bear that out. The pass rate was outstanding, the number of ball actions higher than any of his teammates.

But what are statistics! Football is emotion, not mere numbers (just in terms of results). If anyone has anything to say about it, it’s Özil. Whereby his assessment was all too often mixed up with alienation from his Turkish roots. The legendary Cristiano Ronaldo was able to repeat so many times that he hardly ever valued a teammate more than Özil. That didn’t catch on in his German homeland. And won’t do it anymore. The atmosphere around the playmaker is too poisoned because of his proximity to the internationally critical Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his settlement with the DFB. His career is too broken, which may have ended after he was kicked out at Fenerbahce. How strange that would be.

Why is he so appreciated?

At Kroos, things are emotionally different. Hardly anyone works on Toni Kroos as a person. But it is his game that he strategically orchestrates from the eighth position. Kroos does this with his feeling for the needs of the team. However, he is always caught in the corset of the coach’s tactical guidelines. In Madrid he succeeds perfectly. Neither club icon Zinedine Zidane nor the immortal Carlo Ancelotti and certainly not the eternal national coach Joachim Löw ever entertained the slightest public doubt that the game designer no longer met the requirements of modern football. The sovereign championship in the Spanish league and the triumph in the premier class are statistically indisputable evidence. Kroos is an undisputed regular player.

But there is also the “Uli Hoeneß” team. So the team that has only seen the 32-year-old as an annoying cross pass player for years, a follower. Hoeneß, whose sentences are heard more in the football republic of Germany than anything else that is said, said last year after the unsuccessful European Championship: “I really like Toni. But his way of playing is totally over. With the whole EM I haven’t seen a player play football like that.” A devastating swan song in a beautiful dress.

Kroos no longer plays for Germany. Maybe because he was tired of hearing people say things would definitely go a lot better with other players in midfield. Joshua Kimmich is considered more bilious, more passionate. Leon Goretzka as much more dynamic. Thomas Müller as indispensable. Jamal Musiala and Florian Wirtz as magicians of the future. Anthems were sung to them, while Kroos was only allowed to listen to stanzas. With all his successes, world champion, six championships with Real and FC Bayern, five triumphs in the Champions League (the complete list of titles can be found here), he was at best a sporadic German football hero.

The 2018 World Cup goal as a bitter punchline

The fact that he scored one of his most famous goals in the 2018 World Cup debacle, when he kept Germany in the tournament at least for a short time with his last-minute free-kick against Sweden, is somehow a bitter and fitting punchline in the struggle for the confirmation he deserves from his homeland. It’s not even about love and affection. “Better controversial in Germany and worldwide recognition than the other way around,” Kroos once said about his image at home. A sentence in which a hell of a lot of bitterness can be interpreted. Kroos does not tell a Gaudbursch story like Müller, nor a favorite neighbor story like Jérôme Boateng once did. He’s not a gladiator like Bastian Schweinsteiger in the 2014 World Cup final against Argentina, not a heroic straddle like Mats Hummels and not a fan icon like the moody Lukas Podolski. Kroos is just Kroos, a cool strategist. However, it has also changed over the years. With his personality documentary, he opened up the unknown side as an approachable family man. With his tattoos, which were only done later in his career, he gave himself something more rebellious, which was supposed to counteract the brave. In the podcast and social media duel with brother Felix, he is the entertainer. This transformation is certainly also part of his struggle for recognition.

Would that be different if his position in the game offered more spectacle? If he was a striker who gave Germany magical Messi moments? If he was a dribbling wing attacker? An authority in central defence, a flying titan in goal? Possible, but pointless. Kroos is an eight, a strategist, a ball-safe and game-intelligent cruise control in the hardly noticed center. Kroos is a link player, not a refiner, not a preventer. The heroic stories have been written in other roles for years. At least most. There have been very few legendary eights in recent years. A Xavi, for example, who, as the heart of the Catalan tiki-taka, had something magical about it. An Andrea Pirlo too, who was so terribly elegant and who stabbed Kroos early in his career, in the 2012 European Championship semifinals.

Kroos is not all that. He gives the team what they need. A game shift, a short pass to get rid of the opponent’s pressing pressure. With his ball security, Kroos is also robust against attacks from the opponent. He delivers the small, big moments. This game of ice-cold precision often does not want to go together with the talent that characterizes this player in the public perception. Doesn’t he have to characterize every game with his outstanding technique and his intelligence? As Lionel Messi did with his dribbles. Or Cristiano Ronaldo with his pace, his power, his shot.

There were two answers to this question: Yes, he must. That’s what those who didn’t know what to do with his game said, who never saw him as an indispensable protagonist. No, he doesn’t have to. So said those who admired his influence as his team’s “cool heart”. As the data portal Opta reports, Kroos played more passes into the dangerous attacking third than anyone else in the Champions League since data collection began. As legends like Xavi, like Xabi Alonso, like Cesc Fabregas, like Sergio Busquets. All Spanish. Coincidence that Kroos, who is actually the prototype of German football virtues (reliable, precise, successful, but not magical or spectacular) found peace here? Hardly likely!

A debate without a common denominator

The debate about the native of Western Pomerania really picked up speed in the summer of 2018. No German national player was the subject of public debate so often after the World Cup debacle (Özil was removed because of his resignation). While Löw never let Kroos talk to him about personal matters, a country talked its mouth fuzzy. The admirers of his outstanding passing game only admired his outstanding passing game. They let their opponents’ arguments that the player lacked leadership, volume, toughness and passion fly past them uncommented.

Since Saturday night, his angry interview on ZDF has been discussed as excitedly as he was discussed in sporting terms. Was he right? Was his complaint about the questions justified? Or was that a fit of arrogance from a top-paid footballer who knows what’s in store for him after a game like this? The fact that the topic of critical reporting pops up in the whole situation is a strange side effect. The rant about uncritical journalism runs through almost every department. Only sport, this emotional world, seems to be entitled to an exemption. There is no answer as to how Kroos’ outbreak should be assessed. There are two. As always with Kroos. He splits the football republic of Germany.

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