The treacherous life and traitor’s death of Alexandre Villaplane, France’s first World Cup captain
In French, 'ball' and 'bullet' are the same word: balle. The last balle Alexandre Villaplane had to deal with hit him in the nape of the neck: the coup de grâce, a 7.5mm piece of lead shot at point blank range in the courtyard of the Montrouge fortress on Boxing Day, 1944. He was 39 years old; a murderer, a gangster who'd espoused 'collaboration' with the Nazi occupation forces, under whose direct orders women had been raped, prisoners burnt alive, Jews ransomed and then sent to death camps. He had also been the captain of the France football team at the 1930 World Cup, his country's finest centre-half of the pre-war era.
There is a photograph of him, which I was told was taken in the days leading to his execution for "high treason and acts of barbarism", in which he is just about recognisable from earlier pictures, dressed to the nines like a Pigalle pimp, hair slicked back, ambling casually in front of a brick wall which I imagine must have been very much like the one in front of which, blindfolded, he heard the orders of the officer in charge of the firing squad. Villaplane's life, and death, had been the antithesis of Sir Henry Newbolt's Vitaï Lampada. He was a bastard of the first order, one of these mediocrities who defined a very modern kind of evil, in which the only transcendence to be found is in the suffering of the victims. War, to him, was just a means to steal more money. He couldn't care less about Aryan supremacy and the thousand-year Reich, but he cared a great deal about himself.
According to the prosecutor, who didn't have to break sweat to secure a death sentence, "His psychology [was] entirely different from that of the other members of his group. He describes himself as a 'fiddler' (combinard). I'd say [...] that he's more than that: a born crook. And, to do their job, crooks need a have a natural feel for 'staging'. Villaplane has it to the highest degree. He would attempt and succeed in staging the most abject of blackmails — the blackmail of hope. Dressed in a German uniform, he'd get out of a car seized from the maquis and embark on the following monologue: 'What times we are living through! To what extremities am I reduced, I, a Frenchman, forced to wear the German uniform, these awful rags! [...] They're going to kill you – but I'll save you, risking my life. I've saved fifty-four [people]. You'll be the fifty-fifth. That'll be 400,000 francs.'"
The Jew, the resistant, the Gaullist would pay – if he or she could. Then the Algiers-born Villaplane, aka. 'SS Mohammed', would leave him or her to the mercy of his thugs, North African mercenaries whose savagery is remembered to this day in the south of France. According to survivors, Villaplane didn't join in the beatings, the torture, the killings. He watched, impassive or smiling, counting his cash, except on one occasion, when he took part in the summary execution of 11 maquisards in the village of Mussidan. The oldest of these men was 26 years old, the youngest 17. Money could have saved them, perhaps, but none of them had any.
By then, in 1944, as in 2011, no-one cared to remember that Villaplane had once been the skipper of a national team that had nearly reached the semi-finals of the very first World Cup in Uruguay. All that had happened long before the Germans routed the French Army in 1940, before the 'hero' of Verdun, the octogenarian field-marshal Philippe Pétain, had launched his pathetic version of home-cooked fascism, a casserole of ideological leftovers re-heated for a terrified populace, before Villaplane himself had swapped a football jersey for the tunic of an SS Obersturmfürher. To him, football, like collaboration, had been a means to an end, certainly not a vocation. The saddest thing in this saddest of stories might be that he never realised the true value of his – by all accounts – exceptional talent. He wasted it, as he wasted so much else besides.
This murderous crook had been a superb player, who was first noticed by a Scot called Victor Gibson, one of a number of British football men who eked out a living in the leagues of continental Europe at the time. Very little is known of Gibson, who'd turned up in Séte (then spelled Cette) in 1912 at the age of 30. He'd played for Morton (now Greenock Morton) and Falkirk before appearing, very briefly, for Espanyol of Barcelona and subsequently crossing the border to the port on the French Mediterranean. In Séte his passport alone would have made him a choice candidate for the position of head coach, which he occupied with distinction for 12 seasons. His influence can be felt to this day. Séte, the first French club to win the League and Cup double (in 1934), still play in green and white hoops: Gibson was a Celtic fan.
Villaplane had the quick intellect of a born conman, and soon realised that the football of his time, rife with shamateurism as it was, opened splendid opportunities to lead the kind of lifestyle that his background (he was the son of working-class immigrants) and his education (he had barely any) would otherwise have denied him. Aged 18, little more than a season and a half after Gibson had fielded him for the first time, he joined Vergéze, a second division club financed by the mineral water company Perrier — just long enough to make the board of Séte realise they'd made a mistake by letting him go. He was back as soon as better terms were offered to him. International recognition quickly followed. In 1925, selected for a 'North African XI' to face France's 'B' team after he'd helped Séte reach the semi-finals of the French Cup, he caught the eye of the national scouts and, a year later, on 11 April 1926, he was awarded the first cap of his brief but brilliant career with Les Blues. It was in a friendly against Belgium, which France won 4-3 at the now-demolished Stade Pershing, on the outskirts of Paris. The dashing centre-half immediately established himself as an automatic choice in France's first XI, and it cannot be coincidence that when injuries prevented him from playing, as was the case for most of 1927, the performances of a team that had improved steadily in the 1920s suffered a dramatic turn for the worse. That year, minus Villaplane, the French collected drubbings at the hands of Portugal (0-4), Spain (1-4), England (0-6 — Dixie Dean scored twice at Colombes) and, in extraordinary fashion, Hungary, who atomised Jules Dewaquez's team 13-1 in Budapest, József Takács putting six goals past the goalkeeper Maurice Cottenet, who decided to quit football there and then. "I want to leave on a high," as he put it. As soon as Villaplane was fit again, he rejoined the squad, and played 20 internationals on the trot, until his career with France came to an abrupt and unexplained halt in 1930, at the age of 24.
His talent couldn't have been the cause. His energy on the field was widely admired, as was his gift for providing what we now call 'assists' to the likes of Paul Nicolas, the Red Star centre-forward who captained France before Villaplane was appointed, and took on this responsibility again when the younger man was deemed persona non grata. In the absence of any footage of Villaplane in action, we must make do with contemporary reports, which insist on his exquisite ball control as much as on his physical strength and aerial prowess. Unfortunately, he wasn't just a footballer of repute, but soon became a footballer with a reputation. In these pre-professional days (France had to wait until the 1932-33 season to accept that players could be employees of their clubs), it was widely accepted — at least within the game, if not by the Corinthian hardcore of the Fédération — that top clubs could only attract top players if they offered them fictitious jobs, just as many impecunious 'gentlemen' were given secretarial sinecures in English county cricket. Villaplane's undoing was that he flaunted his money and didn't give a damn about what was said about his highly unusual — at the time — habit of changing clubs every three years or so: Séte (1921-23), Vergéze (1923-24), Séte again (1924-27), SC Nîmes (1927-29) and Racing Club (1929-1932), solely motivated by the promise of a better pay-packet.
His move to Racing attracted particular attention in that regard. The club's then president, Jean-Bernard Lévy, wished to knock neighbours Red Star off their Parisian perch, and spent fortunes to attract the best talent in the country; Villaplane, now recognised as one of the best, if not the best player in the land, naturally became one of his first targets. Then again, he'd probably have been forgiven if he hadn't fallen in with the 'wrong crowd' almost as soon as he came to the capital. He burnt his wages in cabarets, casinos, fine restaurants and on racecourses, the favourite habitat of mauvais garçons in the 1920s and 1930s.
This was a world, a demi-monde, which Villaplane entered with relish. Easily corruptible, he quickly set out to corrupt others; his descent into criminality had begun. His notorious behaviour soon made him unsuitable to national duty in the eyes of the high-minded administrators of the French Football Federation (FFF), who chose not to call on him after the 1930 World Cup, despite three fine performances in games against Mexico, Argentina and Chile. Two years later, their decision would be vindicated.
The fives-time captain of France had moved back to the south — to Antibes — as soon as professionalism was sanctioned by the authorities, in 1932. To everybody's surprise, the Antibois, led by Villaplane, topped one of the two ten-team groups which then composed the French first division, thereby qualifying for the grand final. But the word soon spread that a crucial game against SC Fives Lille had been bought. The coach of Antibes, one Valére, his forename lost to history, got a life ban. Villaplane — who'd played a key part in the plot — got away with a slap on the wrist and the 'advice' to look for a livelihood elsewhere, which he did at OGC Nice, where his life unravelled for good. Showing up late for training sessions, showing little interest in the team of which he was captain, Villaplane drifted ever further away from football, with disastrous results. Nice were relegated. Villaplane sank. In 1935, shortly after he'd rejoined Gibson at a small Bordeaux club, Hispano-Bastidienne, he earned his first conviction (for fixing horse races at the hippodromes of Paris and the Côte d'Azur). That jail term was followed by a number of others until the greatest opportunity of his life struck: the war — or, more to the point, the defeat.
The messy aftermath of France's capitulation was a godsend for criminals. As soon as the armistice was signed in June 1940, Villaplane tried his hand at racketeering and blackmail, his preferred targets being black marketeers and Jews. He was immediately arrested for handling 'hot' goods, however, and it was in jail that he was approached by Henry Lafont, one of the most reviled figures of the collaboration; to many, a psychopath, a sadist, but first and foremost an opportunist who convinced the occupier that he was someone they could do business with by leading them to the destruction of a whole Belgian resistance network. The Nazis appreciated the favour, and made him the head of the French Gestapo where, in tandem with a disgraced former head of the French police, Pierre Bonny, he tortured and murdered his way to a fortune, holding parties for the happy few in the choicest bordellos of Paris. Villaplane, first recruited as a chauffeur, stuck to this duo as surely as a fly keeps coming back to a rotting carcass, until — in 1944 — he finally got his big break. The Germans encouraged the creation of a 'Brigade Nord-Africaine', which was placed under the orders of the Algerian-born Villaplane. The BNA was given the task of 'cleaning up' southern maquis, which they did, mercilessly, until the Reich finally crumbled and Villaplane, who seemed incapable of planning beyond the next party, was caught in the debacle, captured and taken into custody. The companions of his last days and hours were a terrified Bonny and a defiant Lafont, who as "he'd lived ten lives in four years, couldn't care about losing one now" — as his former lover Marie-Cécile de Taillac put it in her memoir Marga, Comtesse de Palmyre.
All three were shot on 26 December 1944, a day after Villaplane had turned 39. Yes, that broken body belonged to a Christmas child. It was buried in an unmarked grave, the location of which is unknown. The footballer had died a long time before that, and his memory has all but vanished from the game's history. It would be tempting to think that the man who led out France against Mexico in July 1930 was a different one to the appalling brute who caused so much suffering, that his life had turned round because of a traumatic event, a loss or an act of betrayal. The tragedy is that Villaplane never truly changed.
He just got worse.