France team in ruins; Henry, Sarkozy to meet

KNYSNA, South Africa -- France winger Florent Malouda apologized to his nation and its fans after the team's disastrous World Cup, saying that restoring its battered reputation is now the priority.

Coach Raymond Domenech and his players were expected to return home Wednesday to a hostile reception from a nation shocked by their behavior during the tournament.

Striker Nicolas Anelka was sent home after verbally abusing Domenech, causing the rest of the players to refuse to practice two days before France's 2-1 upset loss to South Africa that left the team in last place in Group A.

"It's a complete disaster that we chose to express ourselves like this," Malouda said. "We honestly didn't know it would affect people so much. We could not imagine what would come after that. We're really sorry for the French population and the French fans. That's not what we want to show.

"The image we have shown to the world, the way they see France right now is a disaster. As players, we are the first responsible for that. Before the World Cup we had great expectations, and we are leaving without winning a single game."

France striker Thierry Henry will meet President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday to discuss the debacle. On Wednesday, Sarkozy met with Prime Minister Francois Fillon and Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot to talk about it.

"The head of state asked the ministers to ensure that those responsible learn the lessons of this disaster quickly," Sarkozy's press department said. "He also asked the ministers to ensure that no financial reward is given."

France defender Patrice Evra said Tuesday that all the players had agreed to forfeit their bonuses.

Opinion among the players seems to point to Domenech, a lame duck before the tournament, as the main culprit for the failure.

"There is a cause for all this failure, several things will come out," said Evra, who was stripped of the captaincy by Domenech. "Then, if people don't want to forgive, at least they will know the truth."

Whether it was Domenech's failure to manage the team well, the attitude of Evra and other players or an interfering French soccer federation, the answers promise to be more entertaining than the team's performances.

"The End of a world," read the dramatic headline on the front page of sports daily L'Equipe on Wednesday.

Not only did France go out in the group stage for the second consecutive major tournament without a single win, but Domenech's handling of the squad and the extraordinary player strike created a media tempest.

Last Sunday, the team refused to train over the FFF's decision to expel Anelka from the team after details of his expletive-filled rant were printed in L'Equipe. Anelka had insulted Domenech at halftime of France's 2-0 loss to Mexico.

The extraordinary scenes from France's practice field, as Domenech broke up an altercation between Evra and a fitness coach, were beamed live back to the nation. One FFF official stormed off, shouting "I'm ashamed" before resigning on the spot. Domenech was left alone to explain why his players were not training and sitting on a bus.

Malouda was the only France player to score at the World Cup. When the final whistle blew after the South Africa loss Tuesday, the enormity of the embarrassing exit hit him hard.

"I have never been a boxer, but it's just like you get knocked out," he said. "When you see the atmosphere in the stadium, you wanted to stay in the competition but we know we don't deserve it. What can we do? Go home. We deserve it."

Many observers, including former France stars like Zinedine Zidane and Bixente Lizarazu, blamed Domenech for letting the situation spiral out of control and the FFF for retaining him after the team failed to make it out of the group stage at Euro 2008.

Domenech ended his six-year tenure without a trophy and in contentious style, refusing to shake the hand of South Africa's coach.

Laurent Blanc, a World Cup winner in 1998, will take over and Domenech wished his successor well.

"I've had six exceptional years, in both ways," Domenech said. "I wish Laurent all the happiness possible. I hope the France team succeeds."

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