Toni Kroos is hardly a veteran of the game, but he granted FIFA.com his first exclusive interview almost five years ago. He was just 17 at the time, and poised to collect the adidas Golden Ball as best player of the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2007 in Korea Republic, where his precocious vision and exceptional skill spearheaded Germany's march to third place. Even then, the youngster was fascinated by the big personalities who defined his position on the field, often divisive but always magnetic characters. “I'm overwhelmed by Johan Micoud the player and Stefan Effenberg the personality," he told us.
As the world now knows, his achievements as a youth were merely the precursor to what looks like a big career in the making for the Bayern Munich man. Five years down the road, Kroos rates as one of the best creative players in the Bundesliga. He is a regular for both club and country, ready and willing to seize his chance on the biggest footballing stage and prove he has what it takes to be called world-class. Tuesday evening potentially provides the first step up onto that stage.
Moment of truth
There will be plenty at stake when Bayern entertain Swiss champions FC Basel in the UEFA Champions League Round-of-16 return leg, which starts with the men from Munich a goal down. It is all or nothing for the Bavarians, who have been dreaming for months of reaching this season's final on their home ground, where a big performance this Tuesday will be needed. Kroos is just 22, but exuded extraordinary calm and authority when he previewed the match for FIFA.com: “If we actually take our chances this time, it'll definitely be fine. I think every single one of us will resist being eliminated with everything we’ve got."
The Bundesliga title race looked like Bayern's to lose in late autumn last year, but the club's form has been patchy in recent months. Kroos and company seemed cramped, lacking the pace and dynamism of the first third of the season. Worst of all, the goals which had flowed so freely mysteriously dried up. However, boss Jupp Heynckes’ men released an avalanche of pent-up frustration last weekend in a thumping 7-1 home win over hapless Hoffenheim. Bayern now hope to maintain their new-found momentum when they face Basel in Europe's elite club competition, before going on to do battle with the true giants of the continent. “But that's not something we should be thinking about at the moment. Our focus is on getting through against Basel. After that, we'll see what happens if we come up against the big clubs," cautioned Kroos, sticking tightly to the old footballing adage of taking it one step at a time.
The gifted player has learned that lesson through experience, for although he already has 25 senior international caps, his career has not been as straightforward as many once predicted. The step up from the Munich youth section into the first team proved troublesome, and he went out on an 18-month loan to Bundesliga rivals Bayer Leverkusen. He finally blossomed with the Rhineland outfit, and was promptly recalled to Bayern. He has now become a fixture for Munich and fills two different positions depending on the tactics for the day, either in the hole behind lone striker Mario Gomez, or as the more attacking of the twin holding midfielders.
Fundamentally, Kroos is at home wherever he can strategically dictate the play with his instinctive passing and movement. In the old days, he would have been called a playmaker, “but these days, your ‘No10’ has to cover so much more ground," he reflected. “The position also calls for a great deal more work in defence. For most teams, the role of playmaker as it used to be basically doesn't exist any more," he added. For that very reason, Kroos realises he is far from the finished product yet. “I'm still only 22, and I can definitely still improve certain things in every area. I need to work on my heading, and I should be scoring a few more goals."
Aiming for the top
This honest analysis, mature attitude and finely-honed skill on the ball mean Kroos is a typical representative of the new generation in German football, where the old virtues of discipline and organisation are combined with smart thinking and creative solutions. It is no surprise that Kroos has started seven of Germany's eight internationals this season, and features prominently in boss Joachim Low’s plans for this summer's UEFA EURO 2012. Indeed, as Low plans his assault on the trophy in Poland and Ukraine, he must sift carefully through his central midfield options, which also include Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and in certain circumstances, Mezut Ozil.
The opportunities are there for Kroos to step up to the world elite in the coming months, both in the Champions League and at the European showdown in the summer. “But careful!" the player warned, “our friendly against France [a 2–1 home defeat] showed it's a rocky road to the trophy. We’re in a tough group and the first job is to get through that. But it's also clear that every one of us shares the same goal for the tournament, which is to finish right at the top of the podium this time." Should the Germans succeed, Kroos would take another decisive step towards the greatness of his idols Micoud and Effenberg.