Croatia captain quits international football

ZAGREB - Croatia captain Niko Kovac has decided to retire from international soccer and make way for younger players in the national team. "It was a tough decision because playing for my country was everything to me," Kovac, 37, told the Zagreb daily Vecernje Novosti. "But I am not a child and I know I would be a liability to the national team if I carried on, given that I am not a regular for my club Salzburg. "Croatia face a tight battle to qualify for the 2010 World Cup finals and the team needs younger players performing every week for their clubs. "We have several able replacements in my position and coach Slaven Bilic has plenty of options." Kovac, a versatile defensive midfielder, scored 15 goals in 83 international appearances. Bilic, who said last month he would also quit after Croatia's 2010 World Cup campaign, said the captain would be "sorely missed". "He was never our best player but he was beyond any doubt the most important and his retirement is a huge blow to our ambitions of reaching South Africa," Bilic said. "On the other hand, we know that he won't be in top form when the World up qualifiers resume and we can't take the chance of fielding a half-fit player. "Niko deserves all the honours for what he has done for the national team and personalities like him are indispensable." Croatia are joint second with Ukraine in Group 6 on seven points from four matches, five behind leaders England who have maximum points. They are away to Andorra in their next match on April 1 while England host Ukraine.