Iran's 'best generation' sunk by injuries, lack of preparation

After being eliminated from the World Cup following losses to Mexico and Portugal, the team had hoped to salvage some pride Wednesday by beating World Cup newcomer Angola.

Although the Middle Easterners dominated play throughout the match and created numerous chances, they barely managed to equalize 15 minutes before the game ended in an 1-1 draw.

Iran’s failure to qualify for the second rounds in its third World Cup appearance since 1978 had immediate consequences, with people being fired hours after the game ended.

In Tehran, Iran’s Physical Education Organization fired Mohammed Dadkan, the head of the country’s soccer federation, who had accompanied the team to Germany.

Earlier, Iran coach Branko Ivankovic, who had praised his team as the best-ever fielded by Iran, announced he too would step down after his contract with the federation expires on July 1.

Whoever succeeds him — and the rumor-mill has focused on former China coach Ari Haan — will have to carry out a generational change in the team, purging it of the aging stars that formed the core of the team during Ivankovic’s four-year tenure.

As this year’s World Cup progressed, it became clear that Ivankovic’s reliance on the team’s five Europe-based players to anchor the squad had come unstuck because of the inability of his injury-plagued players to reach top form.

Bayern Munich playmaker Ali Karimi, midfielder Mehdi Mahdavikia, Kaiserlautern defender Ferydoon Zandi and Hannover forward Vahid Hashemian — together with Messina defender Rahman Rezaei and veteran striker Ali Daei, all failed to deliver. That left Ivankovic little choice but to introduce young and untried players as their replacements.

“Those injuries caused unresolvable problems for us,” Ivankovic said. “On the one hand, no coach goes into the World Cup without his best players, but on the other they either can’t play or are in poor form because of the lack of practice.”

To make matters worse, Iran had just two weeks to prepare for the tournament because the full team only assembled in late May due to organizational problems.

Compounding all this was the federation’s inability to secure strong practice matches against strong teams because of the political controversy brewing around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s criticisms of Israel and the international crisis surrounding Iran’s nuclear program.

“The political problems didn’t affect the team in any way, we were completely focused on sports,” Ivankovic said.

But he acknowledged that he managed to arrange the only two warmup matches against his native Croatia and neighboring Bosnia through “personal connections.”

The political controversy, which included calls for the elimination of Iran from the World Cup and protests by Jewish groups against the team, created security and political headaches for both FIFA and the German authorities when Ahmadinejad indicated he would visit the team if it qualified for the round of 16.

Despite the problems, Ivankovic said he was generally satisfied with the level of play demonstrated by Iran, stressing that against Mexico the team could have won a point and should have beaten Angola after outplaying the Africans throughout the match.

“But that’s how it is in soccer, sometimes you also need a little luck on your side,” Ivankovic said.