PARIS, April 30 (Reuters) - Fabien Barthez's flamboyant career has almost certainly ended with a controversial exit in keeping with one of the world's best but most eccentric goalkeepers.
The former world and European champion had a fight with a Nantes fan after a home defeat on Saturday, turned in the keys to his club house and drove out of the Atlantic port city with his family in his car en route to an unknown destination.
The 35-year-old said on Monday he had left Nantes because he feared for his safety and would not return.
'I will not play for Nantes again,' Barthez told French radio France Info. 'This has got nothing to do with football. I no longer feel safe there and it's better for me to leave.'
Olympique Marseille coach Albert Emon, who knows Barthez well, strongly suggested the goalkeeper's career was now over.
'It's sad, it's something very personal. He's had a great career. You can't take that away from him. He's been one of the best keepers in the world,' said Emon, who was an assistant coach when Barthez played for Marseille.
Barthez was hailed as a saviour when he came out of retirement in mid-December to help Nantes in their bid to escape relegation.
But the famously shaven-headed keeper has committed some embarrassing blunders reminiscent of his worst days at Manchester United.
He has also stirred controversy, notably after conceding a clumsy goal in a 1-0 defeat at home to lowly Sedan earlier this month. After being substituted with an injury, he left the stadium without waiting for the end of the game.
Barthez then earned more unwanted headlines when he hurt team mate Dimitri Payet with a dangerous tackle in training on Tuesday.
Always an individual, Barthez failed to win acceptance from the rest of the team before leaving the sinking ship after an ugly scene.
On Saturday, after a 2-0 home defeat by Stade Rennes which means Nantes will almost certainly be relegated for the first time in their history, five drunken fans blocked his car as he was driving out of the Beaujoire stadium.
They kicked the car and banged on the windscreen and one fan tried to open the car door.
Barthez then got out of his car and started trading punches with one of the fans. Security staff moved in to separate them.
'Fabien is in a state of shock,' Nantes president Rudi Roussillon said on Sunday after the news that Barthez had left.
'He has been deeply affected by this assault. This is not acting. He can't cheat.'
An eccentric genius to some, and just plain eccentric to his critics, Barthez will be remembered in France as a prominent figure of the team who lifted the World Cup on home soil in 1998.
His shot-stopping ability was one of the host nation's keys to success and the ritual good-luck kiss on the head before kick-off from defender Laurent Blanc will stay as one of the tournament's abiding memories.
As well as enjoying international success in his 87-cap France career, he also won two English Premier League titles during a five-year spell with Manchester United.
Before crossing the Channel, he had lifted the European Cup with Olympique Marseille in 1993 and won two French titles, with Monaco, in 1997 and 2000.
Controversy, however, has always accompanied a player who was suspended for five months in May 2005 after spitting at a referee during a friendly match between Marseille and Wydad Casablanca.
He never apologised.