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Toni Kroos the leader emerges as Germany seek top form

MOSCOW -- Two games into the World Cup, Germany's midfield and attack have gone from being written in stone to the great unknown.

It's a matter of interpretation whether the uneven start to the tournament has a) freed Joachim Low from the shackles of loyalty to introduce fresh legs, or b) introduced so much uncertainty that the Bundestrainer is just as much in the dark about his best team as the German public.

The good news, ahead of Wednesday's must-win Group F game vs. South Korea, is that it probably doesn't matter all that much which view is the correct one. Because the one player guaranteed to start ahead of the defence goes by the name of Toni Kroos.

The 28-year-old was always going to the most important player for the Nationalmannschaft in Russia, the man who provides order and calculation at the centre. But his 95th-minute masterpiece of a goal in Saturday's 2-1 win vs. Sweden, combined with an almost flawless passing record -- 95 percent of his 127 passes found the addressee -- and the unclear status of former A-listers Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil, has made the Real Madrid maestro his country's most influential player.

"He was world class before. Now he has gone a step beyond that," German TV commentator Marcel Reif said on Monday. Die Zeit, meanwhile, compared Kroos to 1970s icon Gunter Netzer, the stylish, long-haired diagonal-ball specialist, but the truth is that the national team has never quite had such a dual-purpose midfielder.

When Germany needed him most, the man from Greifswald went from dominating a match to deciding it. No one else would have had the guile to attempt such a low-percentage, devilishly difficult shot as he did vs. Sweden at that moment in Sochi.

Going into that game, Süddeutsche Zeitung had reported that his peers had doubted him following a poor performance vs. Mexico. And a source close to some former and current internationals expressed reservations about the lack of his personal involvement in various discussions and debates that gripped the Vatutinki base camp in the wake of the Luzhniki loss, telling ESPN FC that Kroos' self-contained way of playing to his own tune, come what may, might render him uninterested in wider group dynamics.

Not everyone in the German FA delegation saw the funny side, either, when Kroos, the son of a football youth coach father and multiple GDR badminton champion mother joked at a press conference that the spartan surroundings of the team hotel made him "look forward to a holiday even more." Could it be that he simply did not care all that much about the team doing well?

Similar charges of heightened self-interest were levelled at him in the corridors of FC Bayern's headquarters before they sold him to Madrid four years ago. (The decision to part ways with the most technically proficient central midfielder of his generation looks more misguided with every passing day; it threatens to become an unflattering part of German football folklore, like Bayern rivals 1860 Munich narrowly failing to sign both Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller).


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But those itching to light the touch paper on the wretched question of "leadership" that held back German football for much of the 1990s and early noughties were disappointed on Saturday night when Kroos gave the quintessential modern answer. He led, not by scything down an opponent, thumping his chest or bleeding profusely, but by doing his job under pressure and bringing out his teammates' qualities in the process.

With a temperament as cool as the Baltic Sea next to which he grew up, Kroos will never be a man of the people. Unlike many style-conscious members of the Germany squad, he seems totally uninterested in projecting a desirable lifestyle, tweeting instead about walking his dogs and his love for the sort of music that people who don't love music seem to love, such as German band Pur and the 1990s equivalent of Phil Collins, Robbie Williams.

The not-wholly-unfounded perception of him as a professional, who might have been better suited to playing an individual sport, has consistently detracted from his genius. Germans did not really have a point of reference for his particular game, either; dominating the ball and centre of the pitch has not been understood as an end itself until very recently.

But now that everything and everyone else is up for discussion, Kroos has become more than a key player. He has, to use a science-fiction reference, graduated to being the Keymaker, opening 100 doors to guide the national team through the Matrix.