June 11, 2016

LILLE, France (AP) Since making his debut for Germany just months before the 2010 World Cup, Toni Kroos has quietly gone about becoming one of the team's leaders, and an undisputed star.

Fresh from helping Real Madrid win the Champions League, Kroos is now one of the candidates to be captain when Germany opens its European Championship campaign against Ukraine in Lille on Sunday.

Despite being only 26, the unassuming midfielder is one of the first players his teammates seek when looking to play the ball. Kroos exudes calm, plays at his own tempo, initiates the game and provides a reliable link between defense and attack. His passes are almost always unerringly accurate.

''I'm relaxed, because there's no reason for me not to be,'' Kroos said Saturday ahead of his fourth major tournament.

Kroos has already made 65 appearances for Germany.

''Toni Kroos is a fixture on the pitch. He has all the qualities you need,'' Germany coach Joachim Loew said Saturday.

Loew has often praised the step-up in performance Kroos has made since switching Bayern Munich for Madrid after helping Germany win the World Cup in 2014.

On his improvement since moving to Spain, Kroos said: ''I think I'm at a good level for the last few years. What's helped is that I've been injury-free for the last three or four years, I could play through. That always helps. From that point of view, I feel really good. It was case with Real, it was the case at the World Cup.''

Two years ago, Kroos' man-of-the-match performance in the 7-1 semifinal win over host nation Brazil exemplified what he brings to Germany. His confidence, coolness and clinical play were rewarded with two quick-fire goals and an assist.

His assurance was evident again Saturday, when he stressed the need to fight and put in hard graft to win games when Germany's superior technical ability alone might not be enough.

''If we're at the same fighting level as our opponents, then we win the games. I've no doubt about that. It's only when we don't match that, this fighting and scrapping, that it can be difficult and there could be a surprise,'' the midfielder said.

Kroos was born in the northeastern city of Greifswald in January 1990, giving him the distinction of being the only player born in the former East Germany to have won a World Cup.

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