“He’s one to keep an eye on, he’s going to be big.”
Such effusive words of praise for hopeful young footballers are a common feature of the modern game, even if the majority of players are rarely able to live up to their billing. However, occasionally there are exceptions and in this case, Franz Beckenbauer’s comments a few years ago about a promising youngster by the name of Toni Kroos now appear prophetic.
Beckenbauer was speaking after the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007, when he handed Kroos the trophy for finishing as the tournament’s best player. “It feels great of course,” Kroos told FIFA.com in Seoul shortly after the awards ceremony seven years ago. “I'm very happy with my performances throughout the tournament as a whole, but I'd gladly swap them for winning the world title with my team. There's no doubt, though, that it's a great honour to win this award.”
Kroos captained Germany’s U-17 side at the competition in Asia and stood out with his consistently impressive displays as the team’s midfield heartbeat, his passing and movement perfect examples of traditional German efficiency.
Fast-forward to the present day and after winning numerous titles at club level, Kroos has now lifted the FIFA World Cup™ Trophy he had longed for and become a genuine world-class player in the process. The statistics from Brazil 2014 underline his new-found status, as the 24-year-old finished top of the Castrol Index, which charted the best and most consistent performers at the tournament. His subsequent transfer from reigning FIFA Club World Cup champions Bayern Munich to defending UEFA Champions League winners Real Madrid offers further proof of Kroos’ standing.
From Greifswald to Munich
Kroos took his first steps in the game at his hometown club Greifswalder FC but in 2002, aged 12, he joined former German Bundesliga outfit Hansa Rostock, where he was coached by his father. His extraordinary technical ability was soon recognised by other clubs and in the summer of 2006 Kroos moved to Bayern. After helping the Bavarians’ U-19s into the final of the German championship he started training with the senior side in the second half of the 2006/07 season and played in several friendly matches
Ottmar Hitzfeld handed the attacking midfielder his Bundesliga debut in September 2007, making him Bayern’s youngest-ever player to appear in the top flight at the time, aged just 17 years and 265 days. Unlike many other youthful prodigies, Kroos remained grounded and continued to focus on working hard and playing well, rather than being distracted by tattoos and eye-catching haircuts.
An 18-month loan period at Bundesliga rivals Bayer Leverkusen helped the youngster, who occasionally comes across as a somewhat timid character, to mature further. Jupp Heynckes, who later orchestrated Bayern’s treble-winning campaign, played a key part in Kroos’ development in Leverkusen and continued to do so when the duo were reunited in Munich.
"Taking the step of moving to Leverkusen was the right one but moving back was hard," Kroos confessed. Although his return to Bayern also bore fruit, there were no guarantees at the time. "With hindsight it’s always easy to say it was the right thing to do," Kroos said.
Heynckes’ eyes still light up when asked to describe Kroos’ talents. "Toni is a top-class player and the way he plays football is a delight," said the 69-year-old. Suddeutsche Zeitung even dubbed him as the "Prince regent of Bayern’s attacking play."
However, after his sensational breakthrough year in 2010, in which he made his senior debut for Germany and also appeared four times at the World Cup in South Africa, Kroos’ career appeared to stall. He did not start a single game at UEFA EURO 2012, with Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger ahead of him in the central midfield pecking order. Others, such as Ilkay Gundogan, Marco Reus and Mario Gotze, seemed to have overtaken him too.
Yet Kroos refused to give up and used the criticism and intense competition for places as an additional source of motivation. He remained a constant, if low-key, member of both Bayern’s star ensemble and of the national team en route to Brazil 2014. It is perhaps that precise quality of understated excellence that Germany coach Joachim Low sets such store by.
Kroos started all seven of his country’s games at the recent World Cup, and it was partly thanks to his quick-fire brace that he was voted as Budweiser Man of the Match in Germany’s memorable 7-1 thrashing of hosts Brazil. The can be no doubt whatsoever that Kroos was crucial to Germany’s triumphant campaign.
Player of the tournament
Several years may have passed since Kroos was honoured for his displays in Korea Republic in September 2007, but the chorus of praise for his performances has only grown stronger in the meantime.
Beckenbauer’s aforementioned quote set the tone for countless similar comments after Kroos made his Bundesliga debut. "He is truly a world-class player when you see what he’s capable of doing in training at such a young age," said the World Cup’s all-time leading scorer Miroslav Klose. Former Germany goalkeeper Oliver Kahn was equally impressed: "In terms of playing ability, he’s the best I’ve seen at youth level for many years."
Kroos’ transfer to Real Madrid also led to some of the game’s greats offering their opinions. For instance, Brazilian icon Ronaldo congratulated his former employers on the signing by saying they had just recruited the best player at the World Cup. Kroos himself stated that "winning the World Cup tipped the scales for me. I wanted a change."
His path from the unassuming town of Greifswald to the top of the global game may now have come to an end, but Kroos, who is now a father to a one-year-old boy, is not one to rest on his laurels. With the record Spanish champions he will be aiming to add more silverware to an already impressive collection.
It is surely only a matter of time before the next wave of compliments comes Kroos’ way, but any concerns that they might go to his head are unfounded. After all, he is already more than used to hearing them.