KNYSNA - France's World Cup campaign descended into chaos on Sunday with a row between captain Patrice Evra and a fitness coach, a boycott of a training session and the resignation of a senior team official.
All this came a day after striker Nicolas Anelka was sent home for insulting coach Raymond Domenech at halftime of a 2-0 defeat by Mexico on Thursday in Polokwane that left France on the verge of an embarrassing group stage exit.
The incidents were sparked by the players' decision to protest against the French Football Federation (FFF)'s decision to kick out Anelka and also by a nervousness among the players after the player's crude comments were leaked to the press.
The furore prompted President Nicolas Sarkozy to step in, asking his sports minister to prolong her stay in South Africa to speak to the captain and coach on Monday.
The French are regarded as one of the most powerful nations in world football, having won the World Cup as hosts in 1998 and finishing runners-up to Italy in 2006 when the event was last held in Germany.
Their form latterly has been relatively poor, though, and they only qualified for the finals through a controversial goal against Ireland in a play-off after striker Thierry Henry had clearly hand-balled.
Sunday's public session, ironically on a pitch called Field of Dreams, was about to start when a furious row erupted between Evra and fitness coach Robert Duverne, leading to the immediate resignation of the team director.
Domenech had to move in to separate them. Duverne, who had apparently insisted training should take place, angrily threw his stopwatch on to the pitch and left.
"They don't want to train, it's a scandal," France team director and FFF managing director Jean-Louis Valentin said as he also left the pitch.
"It's a scandal for French people, for the youngsters who came here to watch them train. I'm resigning, I'm leaving the Federation. I have nothing more to do here. I'm going back to Paris."
CLOSE TO TEARS
The training incidents came a day after Evra told reporters a "traitor" within the team had leaked Anelka's insults to the press.
French sports daily L'Equipe put them on their front page and a few hours later, Anelka was kicked out of the squad.
Asked by a reporter on Sunday if he was the "traitor", Valentin replied "no, no, no" and appeared close to tears.
The players then walked towards their bus, carrying their slogan reading: "All together towards a new blue dream."
Evra handed over a piece of paper to the team spokesman. It was a statement from the players that Domenech, looking exhausted and discouraged, eventually read out to reporters.
"We deplore the incident that happened at half time against Mexico but we regret even more the fact that an event that belongs to our group and is inherent to the life of a competitive team was made public," the statement read.
"The players are unanimously against the French Football Federation's decision to expel Nicolas Anelka", it added.
Domenech had earlier said he could understand Anelka's attitude but not the player's refusal to apologise.
The players' statement, however, said in their statement Anelka was denied a chance to explain himself.
The players then walked into their bus that drove away and some 200 fans who had come to cheer on their team left the select Pezula resort, where France are staying and inside the boundaries of which the training pitch is located.
France still planned to play their final Group A game against South Africa on Tuesday in Bloemfontein, the players said.
"They will do everything individually and in a collective spirit" on the pitch on Tuesday, the statement read.
The FFF then issued their own statement, denouncing the players' "unacceptable behaviour" and apologising to the fans.
Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot said President Sarkozy had asked her to extend her stay in South Africa and that she would meet with Evra, Domenech and the head of the French football federation, Jean-Pierre Escalettes on Monday.
"He (Sarkozy) like me, we are taking note of the indignation of the French people and ... calling for dignity and responsibility," she told TFI television.
Asked whether there would be penalties for the fiasco, she said: "It's not yet the right time to take disciplinary action but that time will come very soon."comments