BERLIN, Germany, May 30 – Minnows Greifswalder FC are a world away from Real Madrid, yet World Cup winner Toni Kroos is the local hero in the small north German city on the Baltic coast.
Greifswalder, who have just won promotion from Germany’s sixth tier, is where Kroos started his career as a six-year-old before joining Hansa Rostock, then Bayern Munich and ultimately Real in 2014 after helping Germany win the World Cup in Brazil.
“Toni Kroos is a huge role model for me,” said teenager Ben Ole, a midfielder in Griefswalder’s Under-15 team, who has neither met Kroos nor seen him play live.
“We can be proud that such a great star learned to play football in Greifswald.”
Kroos rarely returns to the sleepy city, population just 50,000, where his father, Roland, still trains the first team and his success for Real and Germany is closely followed.
The success of the Kroos brothers — Toni’s sibling Felix Kroos plays for second division Berlin-based club FC Union – is a point of enormous pride.
“He (Toni) contacts us through WhatsApp, for birthdays or special occasions,” says his former coach Wolfgang Toeller, 60.
“Answers don’t come back the same minute, but we are still friends with Roland and his mother.
“Among my work colleagues, everyone is very proud of Toni, we always talk about him and comment on his performance.”
– Precocious talent –
The club’s tree-lined stadium is where Kroos first dreamt of becoming a world champion.
“It was there,” said Toeller, pointing to one of the training pitches.
“I can still remember it clearly.
“He was six years old, behind the hand-rail with his father, it was a youth team training session.
“His father asked us if he could participate, we said ‘yes, why not?’.
“Straight away, you could see he was so good that at the end of the training, we said: ‘He can come back when he wants to’.
“Toni was very small, he was two or three years younger than the kids in the group, but you could see from the way he moved and his positioning, he was a natural.”
Hartmut Schmidt, who shared the junior coaching job with Toeller, remembers the tiny boy with enormous talent.
“He wasn’t going to school yet and couldn’t even write,” said Schmidt, 64.
“I remember how his mother held his hand when he signed his first permit to play.”
Kroos was born in January 1990, two months after the Berlin Wall came down.
His father had played for Griefswalder and his mother, Birgit, is a former East German badminton champion.
“They took great care of the boys, they took care of their nutrition, their sleep, and generally all that is important for athletes,” says Toeller.
– ‘Hearts beat for Madrid’ –
Kroos was 12 when he was spotted by Hansa Rostock, the biggest club in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and 100km (60 miles) west of Greifswald.
To make sure the youngster had the support he needed, Hansa hired Kroos’ father as an Under-17 coach and the whole family moved.
It was the first steps on the path to the Santiago Bernabeu.
At the age of 16, Bayern snapped Kroos up for their youth academy, and he started his professional career there in 2007, creating two goals in just 18 minutes on his senior debut off the bench in a 5-0 drubbing of Energie Cottbus.
He was sent on loan to Bayer Leverkusen for the 2009-10 season, but when Kroos returned to Bayern he was a key factor in winning the 2013 treble of Champions League, Bundesliga and German Cup.
However, Kroos missed the 2-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the 2013 Champions League final at Wembley due to injury.
He made 205 appearances for Bayern, but Kroos joined Real in 2014 after the German club’s chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told him he “wasn’t a world-class player”.
The huge amount of silverware Kroos has so far won in Spain — including a third straight Champions League title in Kiev last Saturday — has left the Bayern chief eating his words.
Having a former Griefswalder FC player at Europe’s top club means there is a small enclave of Real Madrid fans in north Germany.
“When Real played Bayern in the Champions League (semi-finals), our hearts beat for Madrid,” admitted Schmidt.