When Alexandre Villaplane was made captain of France in 1930, he said it was the happiest day of his life. He was a national hero, the most popular player in the country, and led France into the first ever World Cup in Uruguay in 1930.
Fourteen years later he was executed, shot by a firing squad having been condemned as a traitor and a war criminal. The Second World War, in all its brutality, had revealed the true character of a treacherous and deceitful man.
Villaplane was born in Algiers in French Algeria, the son of working-class immigrants. He grew up in a family without money, struggling to get by, and that clearly contributed to his desire for wealth later in life.
When he was 16 he moved to the south coast of France to live with his uncle. Villaplane had had almost no formal education, but he did excel at one thing: football. He joined local club FC Sete, where he quickly established himself as a unique talent. The club’s manager, a Scotsman by the name of Victor Gibson, was impressed enough to promote the teenager to the first team.
It was clear early on that Villaplane wanted money above all else. He had not been at Sete for long when he was lured away by rivals Nimes, who offered a more substantial salary. His decision was vindicated, though, as he quickly became a star at the club. Fans admired his relentless energy, his crunching tackles and his powerful headers.
In 1926, Villaplane won his first France cap against Belgium. His reputation was quickly rising and the fame, it seemed, had gone to his head. By 1929 he had joined Racing Club de Paris, whose president Jean-Bernard Levy had targeted him with the aim of putting together the best team in the country.
Professionalism in French football was still three years away, but Villaplane was well rewarded for his performances on the pitch. Still in his early 20s, he spent his time in bars, cabarets and casinos, or betting on horses. He soon became well acquainted with the Parisian underworld, an environment that seemed to suit him.
Increasingly, Villaplane’s attention was drawn away from the football pitch. After captaining France at the 1930 World Cup, he retired from the international game at the age of just 24. Two years later he joined Antibes, just as professionalism was legalised. The club were soon accused of match fixing, for which the manager was blamed and given a lifetime ban. It was suspected, though, that Villaplane and two other players had been at the heart of the plot.
It was a sign of what was to come. Villaplane was a crook and an opportunist, and his descent into criminality was inevitable. Antibes released him after the match fixing scandal, so he moved onto Nice. But his discipline had gone. He repeatedly missed training and lacked the fitness to play.
Nice also released Villaplane, and only second division Bastidienne de Bordeaux, managed by former Sete coach Gibson, were willing to sign him. Again he refused to train, and he was sacked. It was an ignominious end to his footballing career.
Villaplane lacked the work ethic and commitment to persevere with football, but he still sought the wealth it provided. The best of both worlds, for him, was crime: in 1935, he served his first jail time for fixing horse races in Paris. But far worse was to come.
In June 1940, the Nazis invaded France. Their swift incursion of the country was brutal and merciless, and left thousands living miserably. For Villaplane, though, it was an opportunity. French criminals, unscrupulous as many were, did not hesitate to collaborate with the Germans. In return, they were treated well and rewarded financially.
The ring leader in Paris was Henri Lafont, an illiterate orphan who had established himself as an accomplished criminal following the outbreak of war. He was tasked with recruiting others to do the Germans’ bidding, to track down resistance fighters and Jews. Villaplane, who by now had turned to smuggling gold, eventually joined up with Lafont. They spent their days torturing and coercing dissidents in a dark cellar in Paris. Villaplane showed no remorse. He was concerned by little other than his own well-being, and his own financial gain.
He was soon rewarded for his deplorable work. By 1943, French resistance had grown stronger and more organised. A concerned Hitler ordered the extermination of all rebels and Lafont suggested that a rank made up of France’s immigrant population should be formed. The Brigade Nord Africain was created in February 1944, and Villaplane was at the helm, given the title of SS sub-lieutenant.
This new unit was to cover the Perigord region, where they would round up dissenters and put an end to the uprising. In June 1944, Villaplane and his men captured 11 resistance fighters in the small village of Mussidan. The men and women, aged between 17 and 26, were taken to a ditch and shot. Villaplane gave the order and pulled the trigger too.
Though he had paid little attention to the progress of the war, Villaplane soon noticed that Germany might be defeated, and that a successful French resistance might leave him in a precarious position. So he began to show mercy to those he had been ordered to track down. He would let some escape, but not because he felt pity for them. He did so only to better his own reputation and to avoid prosecution when the war ended.
But it didn’t work. In August 1944, when Paris was finally liberated, the leaders of the French Gestapo were put on trial.
“They pillaged, raped, robbed, killed and teamed up with the Germans for even worse outrages, the most awful executions,” said the prosecutor of Villaplane's and his men. “They left fire and ruin in their wake. A witness told us how he saw with his own eyes these mercenaries take jewels from the still-twitching and bloodstained bodies of their victims. Villaplane was in the midst of all this, calm and smiling. Cheerful, almost invigorated.”
The sinister smile was only wiped from his face when he was shot, on Boxing Day 1944, at Fort de Montrouge on the outskirts of Paris. France’s former captain was left lifeless, riddled with bullets, and the World Cup of 1930 was long forgotten.
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