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Kovač bidding to bow out in style

His time on the international stage may be limited but Croatia captain Niko Kovač, 36, has no plans to be sent into premature retirement by Turkey in Vienna.

Niko Kovač enjoys the victory against Germany
Niko Kovač enjoys the victory against Germany ©Getty Images

At 36 years of age, Croatia captain Niko Kovač recognises his time on the international stage is limited. The evergreen midfielder is expected to withdraw from national-team duties after UEFA EURO 2008™ – but there is no room in his plans for quarter-final opponents Turkey to send him into premature retirement on Friday.

'Last big tournament'
The two sides meet at Vienna's Ernst-Happel-Stadion knowing they lie just three games from glory, so it is sure to be a charged occasion for Kovač as he contemplates the end of his career. "It is a particular joy for me, because I think this is my last big tournament," he told euro2008.com. "I enjoy every single day, not just the matches. There is a special atmosphere in the national team – we feel like we are all brothers, and I already feel sad because I know I will have to retire, but that's life. We have to give more of an opportunity to the younger players, and I'm sure they will continue in the same way."

Turkish luck
Having made his Croatia debut in 1996, the FC Salzburg veteran understands more than most how far the current team can go, starting here in Austria and Switzerland. Three straight wins in Group B have earned Slaven Bilić's side the status of favourites against Turkey, and Kovač would not disagree. "We have beaten England twice, Germany, Italy and Argentina [in the last two years], and that means we are a very good team," he said, contrasting those victories with the match that propelled Turkey into the last eight. "Against the Czechs, they were losing 2-0 and managed to turn the game around, so that means they are capable of beating anyone. They were also lucky and if Petr Čech hadn't made that mistake, things would probably have been different. I'm sure that would never happen again. So we know what we will face and, like them, we are self-confident."

Squad unity
Much of that belief springs from the incredible bonds of friendship that bind the Croatia squad together, as evidenced by the reaction to Ivan Klasnić's winner against Poland on Monday – the Werder Bremen striker's first international goal since undergoing two kidney transplants last year. "We are a team that breathes as one person," said Kovač. "There's no big difference between the first and second team – we're just a team. You saw that after Klasnić scored. We all jumped up off the bench and celebrated his success. Some of us even cried after he scored. We're united as a team and as a country. All the Croatian people are with us and they give us a lot of strength and energy."

Brotherly love
As skipper, Kovač accepts that he too has an important role to play in maintaining the positive mood. An irrepressibly charismatic individual, it is a role he revels in. "I'm the oldest person in this team, and I am the leader on as well as off the pitch," he explained. "We have many players lacking international experience. Sometimes, I have to lift them or calm them down." In turn, the German-born midfield dynamo draws comfort from the presence of his brother Robert in central defence. "It's a big thing playing with your brother," he said. "We've played together in club football and he means a lot to me, because I always feel more secure and confident when he's behind me – I know that nothing can happen." Both men will be hoping the fraternal link-up can continue well into next week.