Following the Nazi invasion of France, Alexandre Villaplane swapped the captain’s armband of the French national team, for the armband of the SS. This is a story of a conman, a sadist and a footballer.
Boxing Day in 1944. The Second World War was fast approaching its end. The French Resistance had staged an uprising in Paris earlier in the year to liberate the city from Nazi occupation. After years of being slavishly subservient to their German masters, Parisians were finally granted respite as they revelled in the yuletide spirit.
Not one particular individual, however.
As the rest of the city spent the day with friends, family or remembering their lost ones, this man was standing blindfolded against a wall at the fort of Montrouge in the south-east of Paris. His stance was implacable, his face swathed in sanctimonious piety, his bastardised ideological beliefs intransigent still.
A firing squad aimed its guns at him. The man was convicted of high treason against his country. The 39-year-old had conspired against his compatriots by collaborating with the Nazis. He had rounded up Jews and sent them to concentration camps, he had caught members of the French Resistance and exposed them to unspeakable torture and molestation. Only death could pay for his heinous sins.
“Présentez armes, en joue, feu!”
Bullets riddled his body as he fell to the ground with a thud. The collaborator was dead. But this was no ordinary war criminal. The corpse lying on the ground was once the heartthrob of not just Paris but all of France. Women fawned over him, men sought after his friendship.
He was Alexandre Villaplane, a gifted footballer and the former captain of the France national team.
Alexandre Villaplane was born in Algiers in French Algeria. The son of working-class immigrants, he barely had any formal education before moving to the south coast of France to live with his uncles at the age of sixteen in 1921.
The 1920s in France are often referred to as the Années folles or the ‘crazy years’. Until then, the country was still recovering from the catastrophic repercussions of the First World War. The French had lost nearly 1.4 million men in the frontlines – the highest number of casualties relative to the population of any of the countries involved in the war.
Raymond Poincaré’s second of three terms as the Prime Minister saw several reforms and the spending of billions to rejuvenate France’s fallen cities, particularly in the north-east which was hit the hardest in the Great War.
Art Deco appeared in the streets of Paris in considerable profusion. The cafe culture picked up pace. The avant-garde artists, writers and philosophers would use these cafes as ‘idea rooms’ where they would sit for hours on end on a diet of coffee and cigarettes while ruminating on their next surrealist ‘hot take’ on life’s primordial mysteries.
Années folles coincided with the American ‘Jazz years’. Obviously, the cabarets, nightclubs, operetta, casinos and the like made their way across the Atlantic and provided the Parisian bourgeoisie with a means of distraction.
Villaplane, as a child, could never imagine a lifestyle such as this. Perhaps it was this early transition from working-class conditions in Algiers to a fast-recovering French society that made him a materialistic crook in his later life. His inherent cruelty did not manifest until his playing career was over, but his lust for money was apparent from a very early age.
Villaplane’s foray into football began with his local club FC Sète (spelled Cette back then). The club was managed by a Scotsman called Victor Gibson whose origins are as mysterious as the location of Cleopatra’s tomb.
The general consensus on Gibson is that he arrived in Sète in 1914 and remained with the club as player-manager until 1924 during which he guided Sète to two French Cup finals. Little to nothing is known of Gibson’s time in the United Kingdom except the fact that he played for Falkirk and Morton. In 1911, he was part of an amateur XI from Plumstead that toured Spain and played the Catalan club CD Espanyol in friendlies. Gibson, then 22, joined the Spaniards shortly after, and was eventually made captain of the team.
Gibson’s influence on Sète is incalculable. The first French club to win a League and Cup double still play in green and white hoops. It had a lot to do with Gibson being a Celtic fan.
He soon came across local lad Villaplane and brought him to the club. Under Gibson’s watchful eyes, the tremendously talented Villaplane made rapid strides to secure a place in the first team. Sète played the role of a springboard which propelled Villaplane to unparalleled success and of course, riches.
Unlike in Britain, professionalism was still alien to French football. Despite that, players were offered fictitious jobs within the club’s administration in order to lure them. For Villaplane, this was as good as it could get. Blessed with the brain of both a footballer and a con man, he premeditatedly made himself a pawn for the highest bidder.
Only after a season and a half with Sète, Villaplane aged just 18, joined second-division club FC Vergéze, then financed by Perrier, the much-celebrated mineral water company. Villaplane’s noticeable rise as a player with Vergéze made Sète realise what a great mistake they had made by letting him go. They brought him back to the club by offering better financial incentives.
At this point, the young Villaplane must have realised his potential to make seemingly limitless amounts of money through his prodigious talent. His avarice was a bottomless pit. His intrinsic acquisitiveness always on the forefront of his salient desires.
He helped Sète reach the semi-finals of the French Cup before catching the attention of national scouts. The young centre-half could also play in midfield, and Villaplane was selected for a North African XI to play France’s ‘B’ team. A year later, he was awarded with the first of his 26 caps for the French national team in the 4-3 win over Belgium at the now-demolished Stade Pershing.
International stardom was followed by more generous offers from clubs up and down France. In 1927, Nîmes won Villaplane’s signature by offering him a spurious job within the club that guaranteed an extremely handsome salary. Professionalism was still a few years away but to Villaplane it did not matter.
1927 was also the year when Villaplane was plagued with injuries. The French national team was hit the hardest from his absence. A 4-0 home loss against Portugal was succeeded by a 4-1 defeat against Spain and then a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of perennial rivals England in Colombes in the north-west of France.
The lowest point, however, came against the great Hungarian team of the 1920s. Ferencváros legend József Takács scored six goals as Hungary annihilated a Villaplane-less France 13-1 in Budapest.
Two years later, Racing Club Paris, under the presidency of Jean-Bernard Lévy, targeted Villaplane to build a side strong enough to knock their rivals Red Star (not to be confused with the Serbian club) off their perch. Villaplane was an automatic choice considering the fact that he was a French international and one of the best players in the country.
The young star, who never made an effort to hide his fortunes, was presented with the most glorious opportunity in Paris – both from a perspective of a footballer and of a rapacious mercenary. Consistent performances on the pitch, which earned him the captaincy of the national team, went hand in hand with fraternizing with the Parisian underworld. The afternoons were spent on football pitches while the nights were reserved for cabarets and casinos.
Villaplane was arguably football’s first bad-boy.
The inaugural FIFA World Cup took place in Uruguay in the year 1930. Villaplane, now the captain, led France out on the pitch at Estadio Pocitos in Montevideo to face Mexico. The French won 4-1 with Lucien Laurent scoring the first-ever goal in World Cup history.
Les Bleus’ remaining two games ended in 1-0 defeats against Argentina and Chile. The World Cup dream was halted at the group stage.
Villaplane would play just one more game for France, a 3-2 friendly defeat against Brazil in Rio de Janeiro shortly after the World Cup, before retiring from national duty abruptly at the age of 24.
Professionalism was legalised in France in 1932. Antibes, a tiny club from the south of France, aimed for the stars and made a mega-money offer for Villaplane, now ousted as captain of the national team but still a footballer of repute at Racing Club.
However, Villaplane’s arrival at Antibes coincided with one of the major match-fixing scandals in French football history. Villaplane had already sowed the seeds of his eventual spoliation while at Racing Club, but his attitude in Antibes would ignite his descent into a journey of moral turpitude that would assassinate his character and his already-tarnished reputation.
The French league during that time was divided into a Northern and a Southern section with each section made up of ten teams. Antibes finished top of the table in the Southern section and played Lille from the North for the Championship. Antibes won the match and the French league but were stripped of their title after being found guilty of match-fixing. The Lille manager was given a lifetime ban by the French Football Federation, while Villaplane, who was strongly suspected to be the ringleader of the fix, was let go with just a slap on the wrist.
He and two of his teammates were let go by Antibes. Villaplane invited trouble wherever he went, but opportunities to revive his career knocked on his door in spite of that.
OGC Nice came calling in 1933 but Villaplane was a shadow of his former self. Showing up late in training, missing games, showing little interest in his team’s objectives of the season despite being made captain; Villaplane was drifting further away from football and spent his time at casinos and horse-racing tracks instead. Nice were relegated and Villaplane was sacked.
A potential saving grace came in the form of Gibson, Villaplane’s former manager, who was now in charge of a small Bordeaux-based club called Hispano-Bastidienne. Villaplane rarely turned up to training despite his former mentor’s best efforts to resuscitate the career of his former pupil’s promising footballing career.
Gibson’s patience was being tested. The final nail in the coffin was Villaplane’s involvement in a horse-racing scandal. The jury found him guilty of fixing races in Paris and the Côte d’Azur and sentenced him to a jail term. This particular sentencing was followed by multiple others until the war broke out, giving the likes of Villaplane an even more lucrative opportunity to get rich.
No rest for the Wicked
The Nazi incursion of France was swift, precise, and delivered at breakneck speed. The Germans attacked France on May 10 and defeated the French army within a month. The French government departed Paris on June 10, and four days later, the Nazis took over the city.
Like the colonialists of old, the Nazis required help from local inhabitants to establish a firm grip on the city. A crook called Henri Lafont, a sadist who would thrive during the Occupation, offered himself to the occupiers. The top brass in the German forces initially suggested that they shouldn’t besmirch the “purity” of the Third Reich by consorting with opportunists like Lafont but the Frenchman proved his worth to the Nazis by hunting down and torturing the head of the Belgian Resistance which took a serious toll on Belgium’s resolve against the Nazis.
Lafont, together with the former disgraced head of the French police, Pierre Bonny, were mead leaders of the French Gestapo.
Lafont’s aim was not to uphold Hitler’s perverse ideology nor was it to cleanse Europe from the “claws of the covetous Jew”. It was simply to get rich. He made rounds of the French prisons and arranged for the release of old associates who could help him and his cronies amass as many riches as possible.
“Lafont and Bonny were eager to recruit anyone who could be useful to them, and a previous criminal record was not a liability – quite probably the reverse,” wrote Robert Paxton in Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order.
“Criminal elements were used by the Nazis and their French helpers to help round up Jews in the Southern Zone of France after the Germans occupied it in November 1942. Criminals around Marseille found Jews, seized them, and handed them over for a fee, so much a head. They were more reliable than the regular police for this kind of work, because some of the regular police began to have scruples or became unreliable.”
The Carlingue (French Gestapo) made its headquarters at 93, rue Lauriston. Villaplane hooked up with the Carlingue sometime during the Occupation and initially started out as a chauffeur. But his inherent knack for cruelty and an insatiable lust for gold caught the eyes of Lafont who promoted him within the Carlingue hierarchy.
Villaplane went from smuggling tiny amounts of gold to heading the BNA or the Brigade Nord Africain, an immigrant counterinsurgency unit created by the Nazis to fight the southern maquis or the French Resistance fighters. France’s former captain had swapped the iconic blue kit of Les Bleus for the black jacket of an SS Obersturmfürher.
Villaplane’s savagery was apparent during a particular episode in Mussidan in the south-west of France. Eleven resistance fighters aged between 17 and 26 were summarily shot and thrown into a ditch on his orders.
The BNA’s cruelty is described vividly in Philippe Aziz’s 1970 book Tu Trahiras Sans Vergogn.
“Following a tip-off from a source in the Périgueux Gestapo, Alex [Villaplane] and three of his men burst into the home of Geneviève Léonard, accused of harbouring a Jew. They ransack the house … Alex seizes the 59-year-old mother of six by the hair. ‘Where is your Jew?’ he shouts. The lady refuses to answer … Alex picks her up brutally, pushes her into a neighbouring farm, hitting her with his rifle butt on the way, and there he forces her to watch an appalling scene: men from the BNA torture two peasants in front of her.
“After being beaten and set ablaze, the two peasants were machine-gunned from close range.
“Alex laughs. During this time some other men from the BNA had located the Jew, Antoine Bachmann … They bring him to the farm. Alex hits him and then arrests him. He then orders Geneviève Léonard to give him 200,000 francs.”
Fighting for the Resistance was a Yugoslavian footballer called Ivan Bek. The Belgrade-born centre-forward played for Villaplane’s former club Sète. Bek, who was Yugoslavia’s top scorer at the 1930 World Cup, had decided to fight for his adoptive country instead of returning home at the outbreak of war.
Compare that with Alexandre Villaplane, a lying, treacherous man who would have sold his country and everyone in it for the right price.
Justice is Served
The Allies began the Normandy landings in June 1944. The Nazi stronghold in northern France was already showing cracks. Villaplane, a venal opportunist that he was, played a different game now that his overlords were being killed one after the other.
“Oh, in what times we live! Oh, ours is a terrible era!” he would say. “To what harsh extremes I am reduced, me, a Frenchman compelled to wear a German uniform! … Have you seen, my brave people, what terrible atrocities these savages have committed? I cannot be held responsible for them, I am not their master.
“They are going to kill you. But I will try to save you at the risk of my own life. I’ve already saved many people. Fifty-four, to be precise. You will be the 55th. If you give me 400,000 francs.'”
Villaplane was a bastard. A despicable, wretched scum of a human being who was as perturbed by the horrors of war as the guards in Auschwitz were by the screams coming out of the gas chambers.
The Parisians successfully carried out an uprising and liberated the city on August 25, 1944.
“Paris! Paris humiliated! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But now Paris liberated! Liberated by herself, by her own people with the help of the armies of France, with the support and aid of France as a whole, of fighting France, of the only France, of the true France, of eternal France,” said Charles de Gaulle in his famous speech at Hôtel de Ville.
The surviving Carlingue members were rounded up. It is a miracle that the heads of the French Gestapo were not lynched by the French people but were instead offered trials.
“They pillaged, raped, robbed, killed, and teamed up with the Germans for even worse outrages, the most awful executions,” said the prosecutor at Villaplane’s trial. “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.
“His psychology was different to that of the other gang members,” said the prosecutor. “He himself admits he is a schemer. I would say, having studied his file, that he is a con man, a born con man. Con men have a sense that is indispensable to their trade: the sense for putting on a show. This is necessary for blinding their victims and getting them to give up what they want. He used it to commit the worst form of blackmail – the blackmailing of hope.”
And thus on Boxing Day in 1944, the once-talented footballer was shot dead by a firing squad at the fort of Montrouge and buried in an unmarked grave, the location of which is unknown.
Was justice served? Maybe yes, maybe not. How can you quantify human tragedy? Villaplane was one among many barbaric individuals whose appetite for cruelty was underestimated until it manifested for all to see.
It is tempting to analyse and dissect Alexandre Villaplane’s life to check for a life-altering event that turned him into the monster that he became. But all the evidence available to us points to the fact that he was, in fact, just another avaricious con man with a penchant for barbarity.