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   June 13, 2002 | 1038 IST


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Fallen French dodge forgiving fans

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Around 500 forgiving fans, clad in blue France team shirts and waving national flags, crowded into airport arrivals on Wednesday to greet the national side, World Cup winners in 1998 but dumped out of the competition in the first round this week.

But the upbeat mood turned sour when only two members of the squad appeared. A Roissy airport spokeswoman said police, anxious about the size of the crowd, had ushered away the others for flights direct to their home towns.

"I was already disappointed by the defeat and now I'm even more disappointed," said disgruntled fan Stephane Faisy, 34.

"If they are not even prepared to meet their supporters who are here to encourage them after their defeat than that's a real shame," he added.

A sheepish Zinedine Zidane, the talismanic midfielder whose thigh injury kept him out of France's first two matches, slipped out of a side door and sped away from the frenzied crowd. Chelsea's Emmanuel Petit faced the fans, but he too was tight-lipped.

Petit The event was a pale reflection of the heady triumph of July 1998, when a million delirious supporters came out to cheer "les Bleus" as they paraded down the Champs Elysees after winning the trophy.

Meliza Richer travelled from Nancy in eastern France to cheer home les Bleus, especially her favourite player Christophe Dugarry, and was bitterly disappointed they did not show up.

"I'm gutted. I thought I would go home having seen Dugarry... They had no right to do this," she said.

Earlier, fans sang the national anthem as they waited to thank the team, who dished up the worst performance of any defending champions, eliminated without scoring a goal in three matches against Senegal, Uruguay and Denmark.

"Whether they win or lose, we'll still root for the French team," said 16-year-old Alicia Coste, who had wanted her shirt signed by Zidane and goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.

France dominated world soccer for four years, adding the European title in 2000 and were favourites going into the tournament.

Some fans and commentators have railed against arrogant and lazy players they say were more interested in juicy advertising deals than in playing football.

"They were at the top of the sport and had won everything, so maybe they did go out there thinking it was already sewn up," said 29-year-old Stephane Gantiez.

"But I've come here to thank them anyway because they did their best and they're great players."

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