Kroos’ career ends in chaos as Germany fails to intimidate Spain

STUTTGART, Germany — For a player who built his career on keeping his cool, Toni Kroos never expected it to end in chaos. But after 833 games for club and country, the final stretch of the German midfielder’s career was marked by a series of fouls, missed chances, dramatic late goals, disallowed penalties and a referee who handed out 16 yellow cards and one red card.

Germany’s dream of winning Euro 2024 as hosts came to a bitter end in Stuttgart on Friday when Mikel Merino’s 119th-minute header sent Spain through to a 2-1 quarter-final victory. Luis de la Fuente’s team will march on and play a semi-final in Munich on Tuesday, but it is the end of the road for Germany and also for Kroos, the Real Madrid midfielder who had hoped to call it a day on his international career, just as he did in his club days at Real by retiring as European champions.

But those are just the bare facts of an incredible 120 minutes that proved so uncharacteristic of Kroos and Germany, with Premier League referee Anthony Taylor and his VAR colleagues playing no small part in the drama. Had Taylor been more decisive in the fourth minute, when he withheld a yellow card from Kroos for a cynical foul on Pedri that saw the Spanish midfielder limp off the pitch moments later, the tone of this unforgettable match might have been very different.

By not taking firm action against a serious foul so early in the game, Taylor allowed Germany to play out their game plan of physical intimidation, which clearly threw Spain off their rhythm throughout the first half. Perhaps Taylor had chosen to give Kroos the benefit of the doubt given his reputation as a world-class player, one who has enjoyed a distinguished career, but the referee simply gave the 34-year-old and his team-mates free rein to rough up Spain.

Germany played with the fear of Spain’s superior quality and ball skills, while De la Fuente’s players suffered from a different kind of fear: the fear of being hit every time they came near a German opponent.

“Lamine Yamal is only 16 years old, which means our players have a great chance to control him,” Germany coach Julian Nagelsmann said in his pre-match press conference. “We’ll see how he reacts when things get tougher.”

His post-match message was no different and unrepentant.

“We started nervously, made too many fouls, too many yellow cards too early,” Nagelsmann said after the game. “Still it was good, we wanted [a] sign that we were present.”

So the tactics were clear and Kroos was the leader of the German group, which was so shocking to see. By the end of the game he had committed five fouls — three more than any other offender. He should have been booked for the foul on Pedri, long before he was finally booked midway through the second half for stopping Dani Olmo’s run on goal. If it hadn’t been for a defensive defender, Kroos could have been sent off. What an ending that would have been.

It wasn’t just Kroos, though. Antonio Rüdiger, David Raum and Robert Andrich were booked for fouls on Spain’s young attackers, while Germany ended up with eight yellow cards. And so it was for Spain, who decided to fight fire with fire in the second half after their first-half experience. Robin Le Normand’s yellow card will see him miss the semi-final, while Dani Carvajal will also miss after two yellow cards, the second of which was for wrestling Jamal Musiala to the ground in extra time.

In a way, Nagelsmann’s decision to make it a physical match was understandable. Spain have been the best team in this tournament so far and he felt the only way to win was to outplay them.

It was a flawed tactic, however, especially with the talents of Kroos and Musiala at his disposal. Florian Wirtz, whose 89th-minute strike cancelled out Olmo’s opener, was only named as a substitute, and that decision sums up Nagelsmann’s approach.

Wirtz was supposed to start every game for Spain, and that’s the difference between the two teams, but even the Bayer Leverkusen midfielder was bitten by the cynical bug. Ten seconds after coming on, he fouled Aymeric Laporte.

Perhaps this was the day that Nagelsmann’s Germany showed their true colours as a team with dazzling young talent, but also a team that had been too reliant on the performances of their older veterans. Germany were lucky to draw with Switzerland, and Spain were better than the Swiss, so the victories over Scotland, Hungary and Denmark were merely victories over weaker opponents.

We know this was the final farewell for Kroos, but Rüdiger (31), Manuel Neuer (38), Ilkay Gündogan (33) and Thomas Müller (34) will probably follow him into his international retirement. Even Emre Can, at 30, can count himself a thing of the past as Nagelsmann starts rebuilding for the 2026 World Cup.

“I don’t even know what the plan is because I didn’t plan on being knocked out,” Nagelsmann said. “My team and I now have the task of thinking about the selection and what is the right thing to do in the Nations League in September.”

Perhaps Nagelsmann did not believe he could compete against Spain in a football match, and chose to employ underdog tactics. However, Germany are rarely underdogs, especially when they are hosting a major tournament.

Taylor’s initial leniency allowed Germany to continue with their basic approach until he began to show his hand. If only Kroos could have influenced the team to play in a different way, one that better suited his role as conductor at the base of the midfield with his incredible passing range and vision. Instead, he was a destroyer and a disruptor.

By the time Germany changed their tactics and let Spain play a game of football in the second half, the game had become a free-for-all. It was unpredictable from start to finish.

When the ball hit Marc Cucurella’s hand in the 106th minute, Germany shouted for a penalty, but VAR Stuart Attwell, the same official who offered Germany a penalty against Denmark when the ball hit Joachim Andersen’s fingers, turned down the appeals. A penalty shootout seemed inevitable as the game headed into the 120th minute, but Merino’s header from Olmo’s cross sealed the equalizer with a minute to go.

With that, Germany was eliminated and the curtain fell on Kroos’s excellent career, but not in the way anyone had expected.

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