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Minister blasts French team

BLOEMFONTEIN, June 22- A French minister reduced the country's disgraced World Cup stars to tears as she gave them a dressing down over their tantrums ahead of their final group game Tuesday.With the whole of France outraged at the antics of the millionaire footballers in refusing to train and threatening to boycott the match against South Africa, Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot said she had told the players they are a "moral disaster".

"They applauded me and they were crying," Bachelot said of the encounter at the team camp on Monday night.

A French Football Federation official, Henri Monteil, said many young players were again in tears when they went to coach Raymond Domenech’s room to apologise for the strike that started after Nicolas Anelka was sent home for insulting Domenech.

"I told the players that they are perhaps no longer heros for our children," Bachelot told reporters.

"It is the dreams of your partners, your friends, your supporters that you have broken. It is the image of France that you have tarnished."

She went on: "I said to the players that French football was confronting a disaster, not because it had lost a match, but because this disaster is a moral disaster."

Bachelot said she told the stars that "nothing will be the same again" during what she called "an extremely emotional meeting" when she saw tears in the eyes of the players.

France’s World Cup campaign has been in disarray since the 2-0 defeat to Mexico. Anelka was replaced at half-time after his slanging match with Domenech and was later expelled from the team camp.

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The players refused to train on Sunday and Domenech said later that it was possible some might boycott Tuesday’s game against South Africa which it had to win handsomely to have any hope of reaching the second round.

Bachelot said she had spoken to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon before delivering her dressing down. She said measures would be taken to reform the French football federation after the World Cup fiasco.

She vowed to continue "the combat for the financial moralisation of sport" and to improve the game’s professional conduct. She said that any player who did not agree to a new charter would not be selected for France.

Amidst bitter recriminations over the player protests, federation secretary general Monteil said that the ringleaders were finished in the French squad.

"Anyway, the three or four leaders are players on the decline, who will never play again in the World Cup," Monteil was quoted as saying by the Charente Libre newspaper.

"Who are they? I don’t know … (William) Gallas, (Eric) Abidal, maybe (Thierry) Henry, who is friends with Anelka," he added.

Monteil said he saw young players in tears as they went to Domenech’s room at the team hotel to apologise for the protests.

Domenech has described the team protests as "unspeakably stupid".

The French antics have led to angry protests at home with sponsors withdrawing and some towns even taking down giant screens put up to watch the national team’s World Cup games.

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The vice president of the French National Assembly Marc Laffineur on Tuesday demanded a parliamentary inquiry into the "humiliation" of the country inflicted by the footballers.

The final group game also became a political event for South Africa, which was desperate to avoid becoming the first hosts to drop out of the World Cup in the first round.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu led attempts to rally national support behind the Bafana Bafana national team. Tutu’s call was splashed across front pages, with The Star newspaper’s banner proclaiming: "Storm the Bastille, Bafana".

"As South Africans, we need to pat ourselves on the back for having achieved something very special in terms of developing fantastic infrastructure, ensuring that it works, and uniting our people," he said.

Organisers have sought to divert attention away from the bitter divisions in the French squad and to a lesser extent in England other top teams.

"It’s a wonderful success story so far," the tournament’s top organiser Danny Jordaan told a news conference.

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