‘Irreplaceable’ Toni Kroos walks away early at the top, a mic-drop moment

<span>The announcement of Tony Kroos’ retirement fits that too, fits the way he plays: no flash, no fireworks.</span><span>Photograph: Isabel Infantes/Reuters</span>
The announcement of Tony Kroos’ retirement fits that too, fits the way he plays: no flash, no fireworks.Photograph: Isabel Infantes/Reuters

Toni Kroos ended his career the way he played it: with perfect timing, completely in control, a man apart. Few footballers would have done it this way and fewer fans wanted it to happen when it did, but it’s his choice and that’s reason enough. Isco recently begged him to continue, Dani Carvajal didn’t want to bid farewell already and David Alaba admitted he was was “annoyed”; Lucas Vázquez was “gutted” and Vinícius Júnior called it a “terrible day for the ball”. But, trust him, this is what Toni Kroos does and has done over 17 years: make the right decision at the right moment, chosen with care and executed impeccably.

“This season, my 10th at Real Madrid, will be my last,” he said on Tuesday morning in a special, Spanish edition of the podcast he does with his brother, Felix. “I am convinced it is the correct decision.”

Related: Toni Kroos: Madrid and Germany midfielder to retire after Euro 2024

It is also one that is very him. In February, when Carlo Ancelotti was asked about the prospect of the German retiring at the end of this season, he replied: “If he does that, he’s got balls.” He has always had that, another kind of courage; if there was a hint of disbelief to go with Ancelotti’s admiration – a he wouldn’t … would he? – there was also recognition that he might. Kroos is a little different, and so here he is, walking away early, aged 34, and at the top: a mic-drop moment.

“So sad my friend, but you completed the game,” Isco responded. Very soon, he really might have done. When Kroos reached 400 games with Real Madrid, he tweeted: “Could have gone worse.” A World Cup winner in 2014, a four-time league champion, his last game for Real Madrid will now be the European Cup final; win and he will equal Paco Gento’s all-time record of six victories. If he gets there, his last game for Germany would be the European Championship final, in Germany, his return from international retirement in March the perfect plan permitting the perfect retirement.

And it will be a retirement, too: no winding down in a second-rate but lucrative league, heart no longer in it. “When I leave Madrid, I leave football,” he insisted. From Madrid to the sky, as they say. Know your value, not your price. When Madrid won the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia last winter, he was whistled by local fans angry that he had expressed his disappointment at Gabri Veiga going to Saudi Arabia. After the match, Toni Kroos the tweeter, all dry cool, a little hint of mischief, a man above all the bullshit, posted: “That was fun today. Amazing crowd.”

The announcement of his retirement fits that too, fits the way he plays: no flash, no fireworks. As the eulogies rolled in, he tweeted: “I’m trending at least?”

What a way to go, the way he said he always wanted: his way. Before he gets too tired of it or they get too tired of him. “I’m glad there are lots of people who want me to play for another year; that’s always better than the other way round, when they say ‘please stop’,” he said in February. “People say I could easily play a few more years, and maybe that’s the case,” he said on Tuesday. “But I don’t want to reach a point where people say: ‘Pfff, why’s he still playing?’ So I chose the best moment and the best moment is now.”

The idea that anyone would want him to stop feels absurd now, but for all the smoothness, the apparent ease, he knows what this costs, how quickly it can all slip from you, how relentless the competition, how high the standards to which you must keep. He has seen it happen to others, Luka Modric included; he has felt it close in his case too. Besides, where can he go from here? “I have thought about this for months and there are pros and cons as always but I’m convinced it is what I want,” he said. Retire from football before football retires you, they say. Few get to make that choice; few are able to even recognise the moment. Always leave them wanting more.

When Madrid won that miraculous Champions League in 2022, the transition had already tentatively begun, Ancelotti talking about “60 minutes of quality and 30 minutes of energy,” admitting that he had asked for “understanding from the veterans and patience from the next generation”. A year ago, after Madrid were defeated by Manchester City, that was accelerated. Or at least that was the plan. As this season began he was on the bench; now Ancelotti says that he is “irreplaceable”. There is no one like him, not even in this squad. Not in any squad.

“He’s unique,” Ancelotti said. “He is always in the right place, he doesn’t misplace passes. The best thing is the way he positions himself, his body. He’s a midfielder that wants the ball, that is not scared of the pressure.” In Munich recently, in Madrid’s worst moment, he proved it: that night was about the way that he took control, saw them through the storm.

“It’s one of my best seasons and a good moment to leave it,” Kroos insisted. It is his last because it is good; perhaps it is also good, in part, because he knew that it might be the last. This a decision he has thought about for a long time. “If in a few years’ time you talk about Toni Kroos, I always wanted you to remember how I was. I always wanted to be at the level I am at now.”

They will remember the player to whom Luis Díaz handed the ultimate compliment: he named his dog after him. “He practically hasn’t lost possession since he was in the Under-12s. Everyone says ‘he plays walking’ but he doesn’t need to run,” Santi Cazorla said recently. “If you’re not quick, not strong in duels, you have to create time and space in other ways. He should never retire.” They will remember a man whose passing is so good even his signature goal is a pass, a player who seems to have his own personal patch of pitch, a clock moving at a different speed, exercising control over the game, making sense of it all.

A footballer who as Vinícius put it, “does the easy thing”, but who knows it’s not easy and certainly won’t be for ever. Who Juan Román Riquelme once described as the closest thing football has to Roger Federer: “He can go out, play, and go home again not even needing to bath: he doesn’t sweat, he doesn’t get dirty.” Why, when you can make time yours? When Ancelotti went into the dressing room to tell the players that the 2022 Champions League final kick-off had been delayed, Kroos replied: “No problem, we’ll win it later.”

That line wasn’t brash, it wasn’t bravado – it never is – it was just him, understated, undemonstrative. It’s there in his personality and in his play. Jorge Valdano called his football “silent, so much so that there are people who don’t see it”, writing: “What a joy it is to see intelligence owning the game, with no need for haste or muscle. At the end of every game he is always the player with the most touches and you wonder: how can it be that they don’t see him, don’t appreciate his influence?”

Perhaps the nature of Kroos, the quiet cool, the unwillingness to make it about him meant some took a while to appreciate him. But hey, in your own time – or, better still, in his – and they do now. For many, that is precisely another reason to appreciate him. “I always had the objective of ending this way,” he said.

No one wants him to go, including the fans who watch him and the teammates whose lives he made better, but he earned the right to choose, something he does judiciously. Class even when it comes to saying goodbye. “It is the correct decision,” he said, and if he says so then it is. You can lament that he has gone too soon but know that he knows, that he sees, that his decisions are invariably revealed as obvious after the event. This is just what Toni Kroos does. When he provided that pass for Vinícius in Munich, setting up the perfect goodbye 17 years after he began, a teenager giving two assists on his debut, the Brazilian called it a “gift”. Kroos called it “nothing special”; it was about the run, he said. All he had to do was the right thing at the right time, choosing the perfect moment to let go.