French World Cup Players Say Strike Was Unanimous After Anelka Sent Home

French soccer players returning from their early exit from the World Cup said the team agreed unanimously to strike in support of Nicolas Anelka, who was sent home for fighting with the coach.

They disagreed about the atmosphere on the team in televised comments today.

Thierry Henry, France’s top international goal scorer, said there were divisions between older and younger players.

“When I first joined the team, I’d wait to see where the elders sat at dinner before I’d sit down myself,” Henry, 32, said in an interview with Canal-Plus television. “It’s not like that anymore. There is no respect.”

His Barcelona FC teammate Eric Abidal said the “ambience was good” on the team.

“I didn’t feel any tension in the group,” Abidal, 30, said in an interview on TF1 from Barcelona.

Henry, who has scored 51 goals in 122 appearances for France, yesterday went straight from the airplane that carried the team back from South Africa to a private meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy. Henry would only say “it went well” when asked today about the meeting.

Winless Campaign

The French, champions in 1998 and losing finalists at the last World Cup four years ago in Germany, were eliminated in the first round this time after a 2-1 defeat to hosts South Africa, 2-0 loss to Mexico and tying 0-0 with Uruguay.

The sporting disaster has become a political matter because of the behavior of the French players, who refused to train before their final game after Anelka was sent home for insulting coach Raymond Domenech at halftime of the defeat to Mexico.

Anelka’s alleged obscenity-laden outburst ended up on the front page of L’Equipe sports newspaper.

Henry said he didn’t hear exactly what Anelka said. “It wasn’t directed at anyone; he was just talking to himself,” Henry said. “I could barely hear him.”

The scene of the players staying on the team bus while captain Patrice Evra went to tell Domenech of their decision not to train, and then almost coming to blows with the team’s physical trainer, was carried live on several French television stations.

’Tight Group’

“The message it sent wasn’t good,” Abidal said. “But when are living in such a tight group, you aren’t always aware of what impact your actions have on the outside world.”

French newspapers such as Le Parisien have reported that the rebellion was led by Manchester United defender Evra, Abidal, and Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery, who intimidated younger players into going along.

“It was a clumsy thing to do, but I want to be clear that we decided as a group,” Evra said in an interview on TF1 earlier today. “No one wanted to get off the bus and I hope that everyone is honest about that.”

Abidal agreed the players were all in agreement about the refusal to train.

“No one was forced to stay on the bus,” said Abidal. “Everyone had a chance to talk. It was about solidarity with Anelka. We were not in agreement about what had been done.”

Evra, 29, was demoted to the substitutes’ bench for the final game against South Africa.

“It was not a choice of mine,” he said today. “That made it doubly painful.”

Abidal also didn’t play the last match. Domenech said at the post-match press conference that Abidal had asked not to play. He wasn’t asked about that today.

Henry said he didn’t feel he could play any role in calming things down on the team because younger players didn’t listen to him.

“I could have been the big brother but I felt pushed aside,” he said. “When you have no credibility, there’s not much you can do.”

Evra promised that all the players will work with Laurent Blanc, who is replacing Domenech as national team coach.

“The future manager will have a united, determined group of players who want to restore honor to the national team,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Gregory Viscusi in Paris at gviscusi@Bloomberg.net.

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