Fairly or unfairly, the World Cup can often elevate or deflate a player’s career, be either the feather in the cap of a icon or the chains weighing down a should-could-would of player. Maradona, one of the five greatest soccer players of all time, had his shining, legendary moment in the World Cup of 1986, where he single handily dragged a undermanned and untalented Argentinian team to glory. Others such as Johan Cruyff and Michael Planti, for example, never found that international accolade that so desperately eluded them. Seven short games with unfamiliar teammates and under hot, hostile conditions shouldn’t define a legacy; yet, often times they do.
For some players, the stakes are obvious. Messi doesn’t need the World Cup to be viewed as the G.O.A.T, but a win would surely cement his place at the undisputed greatest player of all time. Neymar is close to becoming a Brazilian legend, having already (at the age of 25) made 84 caps and scored 54 goals for his national team; lifting the trophy would elevate him to the pantheon of great Brazilian players such as Pele, Ronaldo, and Zito, among others. For others, such as Eden Hazard, Kylian Mbappe, and Isco, the tournament is chance to jostle their way towards becoming the best player in the world after Messi retires.
And then there is Toni Kroos.
It’s easy to forget about Kroos – he’s not omnipresent as Paul Pogba, or as magical as Andres Iniesta, or as celebrated as Luka Modric. To an unobserved, untrained eye, his play is simple and easy, recirculating and retaining possession, before passing the ball up to Ronaldo, Benzema, Bale, and Isco for Real Madrid and Mueller, Reus, and Sane for Germany. He doesn’t say much at press conferences, doesn’t do many interviews, doesn’t appear in many commercials, and his name doesn’t sell a lot of jerseys. In an era where the loudest and flashy collect the accolades and get the praise, Kroos is the quietest and most efficient.
That’s what fools people. His role – he plays it for both club and country – is being the controller, the hardest responsibility on the pitch, a center midfielder who dictates the tempo of the offense, organizes the the press, and serves as the link between the defense and attack. It requires more than just technical skill and physical endurance; the mental fortitude to keep concentration for 90+ minutes, to be the hub around which the team revolves, is something only the best of the best in the world can do, and Kroos does the job at a higher level and for a longer period of time than anybody since Xavi did it for Barcelona.
His CV speaks for itself; four league title across two leagues, four Champions Leagues trophies raised – including the last three in a row – a World Cup already under his belt, and countless numerous, lesser trophies. Add in three UEFA Team of the Years, was the top assist provider in the 2014 World Cup, and made the Team of the Tournament for the Euros 2016. Both Germany and Real Madrid revolve their teams around his abilities and skills, and he’s rewarded both. For the past five years, Kroos has been the best midfielder in the world.
No one notices. No one cares. For Germany, he’s seen as one of a Golden Generation of the many Golden Generations the country has had, overshadowed by Manuel Neuer helping redefine the goal keeper position, Thomas Mueller’s general weirdness and goal scoring abilities, and Mesut Ozil’s magical left foot. At Real Madrid, the fans appreciate Kroos, but they don’t love him, adore him even, like captain Sergio Ramos, the brilliant, incomparable Marcelo, and the indomitable Cristiano Ronaldo. The goals fly in, the crowd roars, and the scorers celebrate, another win secured. And Toni Kroos jogs towards them, the silent, invisible architect of two of the greatest teams of this era.
The dirty secret of the World Cup is this; Germany isn’t as good as four, or even two, years ago. This team feels like Spain in 2014, or Italy in 2010; a formerly great team with the same great players, only everything is slightly askew, just off, and suddenly, unexpectedly, the team finds itself knocked out in the first round, or worse, in the group stages. Jurgie Lowe has had problems integrating new faces into the starting eleven, and players such as Manuel Neuer and Jerome Boatang are coming off injuries (in Neuer’s case, a 9 month layoff from a re-broken foot, over the past 15 months, he’s played a total of four matches for club and country). Over the small sample size of three of four games, any mistakes can send a team home, and Germany look vulnerable.
Tactically, there are some underlying issues. The inexplicable decision to leave Leroy Sane home left the German squad without a pacey outlet that can stretch a defense and break defenders down one on one. Mesut Ozil, the primary attacking midfielder for the team and whose play can’t be replicated, sustained an injury in a recent friendly, putting his World Cup in jeopardy. In the midfield, none of the players brought to Russia look like the correct fit to field alongside Kroos in the double pivot of the 4-2-3-1 Germany likes to play. Sebastian Rudy doesn’t posses the necessary guile, Ilkay Gundegon and Sami Kehdira don’t have the energy and stamina to play seven games in the summer, and Leon Goreztka is best in a three man midfield – he’s too attack minded for a double pivot.
The burden falls on Kroos; if he can’t deliver the goods, then Germany could be headed to an early exit, and the generation the burst onto the scene at the 2010 World Cup will begin to see the end of the road. If he does deliver, and orchestrates a win, or even gets them to the final, Kroos will enter the hallowed, upper regions of the games best center midfielders, like Xavi, Iniesta, Zidane, and Rijkaard. With everything to gain, and very little to lose, the stage is set for Kroos to make the leap to immortality.