SALVADOR (Reuters) - Cameroon's affection for its favourite footballing son has turned sharply with striker Samuel Eto'o accused by local media of "treason" after leading strike action by their World Cup squad at the weekend.
Eto'o's tantrums and temperamental behaviour have long been tolerated because of his success on the field but it seems his country has had enough on the eve of their opening game against Mexico at the World Cup.
One newspaper editorial accused the four-time African Footballer of the Year and his team mates of "high treason" as the fallout from their delayed departure to the tournament continued this week.
A strike by the World Cup-bound squad over money meant their expensively-chartered airline took off for Brazil almost 24 hours late as the players attempted to squeeze more appearance money out of their federation.
But what really rankled with the fans and media was the team's refusal to receive a symbolic flag from prime minister Philemon Yang at the end of their last warm-up international against Moldova in Yaounde last Saturday.
Their German coach Volker Finke accepted it on their behalf.
"We must now ask: which country do Eto'o and his comrades represent if they go to Brazil having refused to accept this country's most precious symbol, its flag?," asked the daily Mutations newspaper.
"The flag is a symbol of the nation. We can blame those in power (for our problems), but insulting the national anthem or trampling the flag is a sacrilege.
"That is the great sin of the Indomitable Lions, when they rushed as one man into the locker room and refused to receive the flag from the Prime Minister.
"A player who goes to the World Cup is a soldier at the front. If he does not want to board that is high treason that deserves punishment!"
Cameroon skipper Eto'o did not face the pre-match news conference in Natal on Thursday and team press manager Raphael Nkoa intervened to prevent players being questioned about the dispute. Vice-captain Enoh Eyong, though, said Eto'o was the squad's "natural leader".
"He is a player everybody knows worldwide, he is the captain of the team and he has a lot of experience," he told reporters.
"We hope he's going to be on his best form to score us a lot of goals and lead us to victory in the next games, starting tomorrow." Joseph Owona, acting president of the Cameroon soccer federation, had earlier also waded in to criticise the players.
"What they did on Saturday, it is a shame to the nation, a total contempt for the government and people who came to watch them and say goodbye. If they do not respect the emblem of this country, can we still support them?" he told reporters.
The website Camfoot added: "It's still Kafkaesque what happened with the Indomitable Lions. For Volker Finke, a German national, to receive the flag, supreme symbol of the nation, is totally inappropriate."
It said Eto’o, 33, was the leader of the squad who largely did whatever he wanted while the rest meekly followed.
The Mutations newspaper added: "Between a legitimate claim and fraudulent behaviour, there is a threshold that must not be crossed, but the Lions have happily crossed it shamelessly.
"Eto'o haggled premiums for the players until the last drop of his saliva to satisfy the pecuniary greed of our professional football players."
Arguments over money ahead of major tournaments has become almost commonplace for Cameroon’s football team, with Eto'o previously cast in the role of protector of his team mates from the greed of officialdom.
In Natal, defender Nicolas N'Koulou, responding to suggestions that the dispute might damage their World Cup campaign, said the spirit in the squad was excellent.
"We are very united," he told reporters. "We're like a family. We came together with a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of motivation and determination and we hope to have the best tournament possible."
Coach Finke said outsiders should not judge the way the negotiations had played out.
"I see my group solid, united and all the things on the periphery don't necessarily need any comment," he said.
"Just respect the way things are done in Africa. We found a solution eventually and that's good enough for me."
(Additional reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Natal; Editing by Ken Ferris)