French Soccer Players Refuse to Practice

After the French soccer team's weekend drama, including the dismissal of a key player and the team's subsequent refusal to practice, French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked his sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot to play the referee when she meets today with France Coach Raymond Domenech, team captain Patrice Evra and Jean Claude Escalettes, the president of the French soccer federation.

"He (Sarkozy) like me, we are taking note of the indignation of the French people and we're calling for dignity and responsibility," on behalf of the players, Bachelot told TF1 television last night.

The minister will attempt to tighten a few screws ahead of Tuesday's crucial World Cup game against hosts South Africa in Bloemfontein.

In the weekend leading up to the game, the "Field of Dreams" on which the team was supposed to practice at their camp in Knysna at the tip of South Africa became the "Field of Drama".

On Sunday the French players refused to practice to protest the decision by the French soccer federation to send home forward Nicolas Anelka, who reportedly insulted Domenech at halftime of a 2-0 defeat by Mexico last Thursday.

Sunday afternoon, the French squad -- known as "Les Bleus" -- arrived at training as usual and got off the bus to greet fans, but Domenech and Evra stayed on the bus to talk. When the two finally emerged, fitness coach Robert Duverne was on the field putting down training cones, Duverne got into a heated argument with Evra. Domenech intervened, and Duverne then stormed off, throwing his stopwatch in the air.

Evra then handed a letter to the team press officer, and the players, en masse, boarded the bus -- emblazoned with the slogan "All together for a new dream in blue" -- and drew the curtains in the bus windows.

In the meantime, France Team Director and Soccer Federation Managing Director Jean-Louis Valentin walked off the field and announced his resignation.

"They don't want to train, it's a scandal," said Valentin, tears of anger in his voice. "It's a scandal for the 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."

Domenech, whose tactics and management skills have been called into question for years, then read the statement written by the players explaining their protest.

"All the players in the French squad without exception wish to affirm their opposition to the decision taken by the French Football Federation to exclude Nicolas Anelka (?) The French Football Federation did not at any time try to protect the group. It (the federation) took a decision without even consulting the players as a whole, uniquely based on facts reported by the press," Domenech read from the statement. "As a consequence and to show our opposition to the decision taken by officials of the federation, all the players has decided not to take part in today's training session."

"Each of us will do all he can, of course, but also in a collective sense, to ensure that the French team gets its honor back on Tuesday night with a good performance at last," Domenech read.

The bus left shortly after Domenech's speech.

The French soccer federation later issued a statement offering its apologies for the "unacceptable behavior" of the players.

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