Toni Kroos’ retirement might shock some but it fits his Real Madrid story

Toni Kroos’ musical taste famously leans more towards Robbie Williams than Frank Sinatra, but the Germany and Real Madrid midfielder’s tremendous career is best summed up by one of the American crooner’s best-known classics.

Whether choosing to play with the same white boots he cleaned every day himself for almost a decade, through changing the fundamentals of his game to make himself a key cog in four Champions League titles, all the way to deciding his own way of going, Kroos has always done it his way.

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The 34-year-old announced himself on Tuesday, via Instagram, that his last game for Real Madrid will be the Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund on June 1. And that he will then hang up his boots for good after representing Germany on home soil at this summer’s European Championship.

Kroos has followed careful plans, made on his own terms, along each step of his career — ever since he burst onto the scene as a precocious teenage playmaker, winning player of the tournament awards at the Under-17 Euros of 2006 and the same age group’s World Cup the year after.

He became Bayern Munich’s youngest Bundesliga player when he broke into the team at 17 years and 265 days old, providing two assists on his debut in September 2007. Still, he could see the benefit of spending 18 months on loan as a regular starter at Bayer Leverkusen before returning to Bayern, ready to play a key role in his first Champions League win in 2013. By the following summer he was already a World Cup winner with Germany, and at the age of 24 showed determination in charting a course out of Munich to join Madrid.

Kroos and Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, pictured in 2014 (Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images)

Kroos had been happy under Pep Guardiola, but he felt Bayern’s hierarchy did not value his contribution enough in offering more money to international team-mate Mario Gotze. So he forced through a cut-price €25million (£21.3m; $27.1m at current rates) move to Spain — which turned out to be one of the best bargains in football transfer history.

At Bayern under Jupp Heynckes and Guardiola, and for Germany under Joachim Low, Kroos was more of a No 10, or at least an attacking midfielder, without too many defensive responsibilities. That was never going to work at Madrid. With the ‘BBC’ attacking trident of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo at its peak, the team needed balance further back.

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Welcomed by Carlo Ancelotti, then in his first spell as Madrid coach, Kroos settled straight into directing traffic from a new deeper role. This involved regularly launching Ronaldo and Bale on the break, while accepting greater defensive responsibilities.

“(Ancelotti) trusted me from the start in a position I hadn’t played much before,” Kroos said in February 2015. “Playing in the centre of midfield is difficult. You have to be versatile, good with and without the ball, defend well, start attacks and be strong in the challenges. It’s a tough position to play in. I’m trying to overcome my weaknesses. I know I can progress further and that’s what I’m working on.”

That work continued to pay off, in spades. After Ancelotti left at the end of 2014-15, and Rafa Benitez’s time was cut short in January 2016, Zinedine Zidane promoted Brazilian holding midfielder Casemiro to join Kroos and Luka Modric in an ideally balanced triangle.

Kroos, Casemiro and Modric celebrate Champions League final victory in 2022 (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)

This trio became the cornerstone of the side that won three straight Champions League finals under Zidane from 2016-18, rivalling Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta as the very best midfield of the modern era. Not that Kroos was copying anyone — he always had his own way of playing.

It helped to be inside the Santiago Bernabeu to appreciate how he would take control of a game, regularly coming deeper, back into Madrid’s half, finding space to the left of the centre circle where he knew rivals would find it difficult to press him. From there, he could use his range of short- and long-range passing to find his team-mates around the pitch, and move defences out of shape.

Kroos continued to adapt his game over time.

He was never a Casemiro-style destroyer in defence, being neither quick nor particularly strong, but he made up for that with an ability to read the game and sense what opponents were planning. When Ronaldo and Bale were replaced in a new Madrid team by Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo, Kroos himself adapted, especially with early balls into space down the left to exploit Vinicius Jr’s pace.

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Even after he passed his 30th birthday, Kroos always wanted to play. He did not hide his disappointment when he was not given the full 90 minutes in big games — and was particularly unhappy when Zidane left him on the bench through a whole Champions League quarter-final first leg against Manchester City in 2020.

But he also had the intelligence and self-knowledge to realise he was not quite as physically capable as before. After being criticised when Germany went out of Euro 2020 (delayed until summer 2021 by the COVID-19 pandemic) against England in the last 16, he announced his international retirement, knowing it would help to prolong his top-level club career.

His relationship with Ancelotti, a midfielder in his own playing days, has always been super-close.

The wily Italian has managed the transition in Madrid’s middle third — keeping Kroos and Modric on board not only as key players but also useful examples for a new generation in Federico Valverde, Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni. Kroos’ status at the club was also clear as one of the few players who spoke on a one-to-one basis with the club’s executives. It did not happen often, but he was listened to when he had a point to make.

Kroos looks up to the Bernabeu stands after the recent victory over Bayern (S. Mellar/FC Bayern via Getty Images)

This did not mean Kroos particularly enjoyed Ancelotti often replacing him in the second half of big games, especially during the incredible comebacks of Madrid’s 2021-22 Champions League success — his fourth title in the competition with the club, and the fifth of his career. Ex-Madrid forward Paco Gento, who died aged 88 in January 2022, is the only player to have lifted the European Cup six times — a record Dani Carvajal, Nacho and Modric could also match at Wembley next month.

There was drama during the closing stages of last season, as Kroos’ contract entered its final months. Nobody knew whether he really might be about to end his connection with the club, or even with the game altogether. It seemed unthinkable when he was sublime in both legs as Madrid hammered Liverpool 6-2 and then Chelsea 4-0 on aggregate in last season’s Champions League knockout stages.

There were then real fears at the Bernabeu that he might stop playing after he and his team-mates were overrun by Manchester City in the semi-finals, followed by relief when he eventually signed on for another year.

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This February came the decision to return for Germany’s national team, to play the Euro 2024 finals on home soil.

Some players might have wondered how they would be received in such circumstances, but Kroos was again firm in his own mind. National coach Julian Nagelsmann welcomed him back with open arms, even though it meant re-arranging the balance of the side. Almost everyone accepted their chances of success on home soil this summer had immediately been improved — except some at Bayern who were still hurting at how he left them a decade ago.

Just a few weeks ago, when Kroos returned to Munich with Madrid and gave a great individual midfield display against his old side, it again seemed unreal that he might be close to calling it a day. The assist for Vinicius Jr’s opening goal was trademark. Replays showed how he spotted the opportunity and pointed out to Vinicius Jr where to run before timing and weighting his pass perfectly.

Ahead of another Champions League final for Kroos and Madrid against Dortmund, there was an increasing feeling in the Spanish capital that Kroos would stay for another season at least. Club president Florentino Perez and Ancelotti both really wanted him to renew, as did his team-mates. When a branch of the Toni Kroos Academy recently opened close to his home in the Spanish capital, it was taken as a welcome sign he was planning on sticking around for some time yet.

GO DEEPER Late-career Toni Kroos can still dominate a Champions League tie like few others

While not playing as many full matches as earlier in his career, Kroos’ numbers while on the pitch were still holding up. His passing accuracy for the 2023-24 La Liga season was 94.5 per cent. It has not dropped below 93.5 per cent in the past five campaigns — especially impressive given he rarely plays safe balls to a team-mate beside him, instead taking risks with longer passes, switches of play and incisive actions through the opposition lines.

The Athletic has reported that Kroos himself had doubts in recent months about continuing, although he has felt good physically and mentally. He always told his agents not to consider any other options. It was staying at Madrid or nothing.

In the end, Kroos informed the club hierarchy that he would not renew his contract. Ancelotti was given some warning — just 24 hours — with a phone call on Monday.

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At Madrid’s Valdebebas training ground, the reactions were telling. “We are devastated,” said one source — who, like all those cited here, preferred not to be named as they did not have permission to comment. “He is the best I have ever seen,” said another.

But Kroos, as so often before, was doing it his way.

He will have few regrets, if any, over how his career has played out. And he has never appeared worried about saying or doing what he truly felt.

“I’m happy and proud that in my mind I found the right timing for my decision and that I could choose it on my own,” he said in his announcement on Tuesday. “My ambition was always to finish my career at the peak of my performance level. From now on, there is only one leading thought: a por la 15 (let’s go for the 15th Champions League title)!”

Additional reporting: Mario Cortegana and Guillermo Rai

(Top photo: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

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