Toni Kroos makes his mark in Brazil
In Adaptation, the 2002 film by Spike Jonze, Nicolas Cage's depressed screenwriter is told the secret of a good movie by creative writing instructor Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox). "The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit . . . Your characters must change, and the change must come from them. Do that, and you'll be fine."
Football articles -- sports articles in general, come to think of it -- often follow the exact same formula. Player A has some problem. It could be a bad injury to overcome. Perhaps he's fallen out with the coach. Or maybe he had a difficult childhood. Nobody believed in him when he started out. He's unhappy at his new club; the food in that city is not very good. He bit someone.
But then someone, or something, made him see the light. He's changed his ways. He's a reformed character, a different man. A different player. A better player. That's why he's winning now. That's why the team is winning now. The end.
We all like to read those pieces; we all like to watch those films. They makes us feel good about ourselves with their uplifting -- but let's face it, not entirely truthful -- message: Only you can control your own destiny. Just change your ways and everything will be great.
There are many articles written about Toni Kroos at the moment in Germany that have broadly followed that narrative. The 24-year-old has been so good in Brazil that he's seen as a legitimate contender for the Golden Ball, an award given to the best player of the tournament. Nobody really expected him to do so well. Why the sudden improvement? What has changed?
But first: his problem. He's too phlegmatic, a guy "with one face for all the gamut of emotions" as Süddeutsche Zeitung put it. Just the other day he was asked about his volley in the 2010 World Cup semifinal against Spain again. It's an old story, but it keeps popping up. It's the Kroos story -- at least it was the story until Brazil.
It was the only chance Germany created during the entire 90 minutes in Durban. Kroos, according to the general view, wasted it. Instead of putting his foot through the ball, the Bayern Munich midfielder tamely side-footed it into Iker Casillas' arms.
Kroos has always maintained that he couldn't hit the ball any other way, but that scene has stuck in the collective memory. Not so much because he could have done better, but because he walked through the mixed zone so indifferently after the game, as if Bayern had eked out a 2-1 win away to SC Freiburg.
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Kroos is a player who never, ever loses his cool, either on or off the pitch. Hold on, that's not exactly true: He showed a bit of petulance, throwing his gloves on the ground when Pep Guardiola substituted him in a Bundesliga game not long after the winter break. Generally speaking, though, he hardly shows any emotion at all. If you only looked at him, you would have no idea what the score was. Kroos plays his own game for 90 minutes, one metronomic pass at a time.
It's fantastic to be this level-headed when things go your way, but when they don't, it can look like apathy. Joachim Low's decision to use him as some kind of man-marker against Andrea Pirlo in the Euro 2012 semifinal backfired spectacularly. Germany fell apart, with Kroos watching. "His critics feel that he's lacking the big moments in his career," wrote Die Zeit at the beginning of the tournament.
Against Brazil in this World Cup semifinal, Kroos had so many big moments that he's almost being seen as a different player -- a bigger player. "Germany has a new world-class player," Der Tagesspiegel wrote.
"It was probably one of my better games," Kroos said, with typical lack of passion. Low has praised the importance of Kroos' impulses in the German midfield. His colleagues have to accommodate him, not vice versa. Mesut Ozil made way, playing a more peripheral role on the flanks. Kroos also takes all free kicks and corners, with devastating effect. Germany have scored five goals from his dead-ball situations at this tournament.
Bayern's decision to let him go -- they didn't bow to his wage demands, arguing that he wasn't quite world-class -- has certainly looked less smart with every passing game. "It's a joke that Mario Götze makes nearly three times as much," Der Tagesspiegel noted.
It's hard to disagree with that assessment. Bayern's cause has not been helped by the fact that Götze and Kroos share the same agent, and Real Madrid have seemingly pulled off a real coup with his signature. (Bayern officials rate the chances of him changing his mind and staying at Allianz Arena at "1 percent," according to papers in Munich.)
So what has changed? Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote that he had become "a hawk" during the Brazil game. They cited the situation where he dispossessed Fernandinho and went on to score the fourth German goal, his second on Tuesday night in Belo Horizonte. What does that mean, exactly? Kroos himself said that "he was more mature and had developed" further after the Portugal game, but there was a much bigger clue in his assessment after the final whistle in the Mineirão. "I'm in good shape, I'm fit," he said. "That's why I can perform this way."
This is bad news for the story arc of all Kroos pieces -- maybe this one as well -- but there's really little doubt: Kroos hasn't actually changed at all. Instead, he's simply become more like himself, more relaxed about his craft and supremely assured about his own talent and ability to do meaningful things with the ball. What used to be lethargic now looks serene; he's a player at peace with himself.
One could easily draw a parallel to the zen-like aura of Pirlo or Zinedine Zidane at this point, but let's not. Kroos and his German team, a group of incredibly focused young men who resolutely refuse to be impressed with themselves, would want us to wait until after the final for that.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.