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By ESPN Staff

Iran coach blames lack of fitness

NUREMBERG, June 11 (Reuters) - Iran coach Branko Ivankovic bemoaned the lack of fitness of his key German-based players after his side tailed off in the second half and suffered a 3-1 loss to Mexico in their opening Group D match on Sunday.

Six of the squad play outside Iran, four of them in Germany, and Ivankovic has pointed to their experience playing in German stadiums and said they had to stand up and be counted.

Iran opened brightly and dominated for the first 20 minutes, with Hamburg's Mehdi Mahdavikia flashing a long range shot past a Mexican post and Bayern Munich's Ali Karimi crossing to striker Vahid Hashemian of Hanover 96, whose downward header forced a sharp low save from the Mexican keeper.

However, Mexico took control in the second half, exploiting a defensive mix-up for the second goal after 76 minutes from Omar Bravo before Zinha added a third three minutes later.

Ivankovic was not without his injury problems, however, while some of those players who had recovered from knocks were struggling for match fitness in the afternoon heat.

He had to withdrew Karimi after an hour, later telling a news conference Iran's playmaker was not fully fit. Karimi, known as the "wizard of Tehran" and the "Asian Maradona", suffered an ankle injury playing for Bayern in March.

"With Hashemian it was two months probably (since he last played). Mahdavikia didn't practice over the past 10 days," said Ivankovic. Hashemian picked up a knee injury in April while Mahdavikia has been struggling with a back injury.

"Also today, we didn't have (Ferydoon) Zandi in the lineup," said the coach referring to the injured Kaiserslautern midfielder.

Of the defensive mix-up from which Mexico retook the lead, Ivankovic said it could have reflected a lack of concentration but that could also partly be the result of the injuries.

"They had an advantage in preparation," he said of the Mexican team. "We had many problems."

The Croat said his Iranian squad had already turned their thoughts to their second group match against Portugal on Saturday. They face Angola the following Wednesday.

"We will have a chance to do something. Not everything is over today," he said.

Jewish and human rights groups have seized upon Iran's involvement in the World Cup to protest against the Iranian government but Ivankovic said this had no impact on his team.

"Nobody in the team discussed politics. We discussed opponents, football and today Mexico," he said.

Ivankovic also dodged a question about his plans after the World Cup. Media are speculating that he will then step down as Iran's coach.