The third instalment of our 1930 World Cup project focusses on one Alexandre Villaplane. In July 1930, Villaplane led out the French national team for their first ever World Cup game against Mexico in Uruguay. In December 1944, he was shot by firing squad, considered a disgrace to his country having become a Nazi collaborator. Villaplane’s record was never squeaky clean, he played in an Antibes team which was disqualified from the inaugural Ligue 1 season for corruption and his playing career was ended after spending a year in jail having been convicted as part of a horse racing fixing scandal. All of those previous misdemeanours would eventually seem like child’s play, however, given the future crimes of the French international.
Born in Algiers, the capital of then French Algeria, in September 1905, Villaplane was the first North African-born player to represent France at football. He moved to mainland France at the age of 16, where he began living with his uncles. Villaplane immediately secured a deal with FC Sète. Less than 20 miles from Montpellier, Sète were a respectable outfit at this time, and won two regional titles during Villaplane’s time at the club, as well reaching the final of the Coupe de France in 1923.
Villaplane was already earning the plaudits for his athleticism and energetic approach to the game, making him a fan favourite. Capable of playing as either a centre-half or as a central midfielder, he was also renowned as one of the best headers of a ball in France at that time, and would later add intelligence and incisive passing to his game. In 1927, aged 22, Villaplane made the 50 mile journey across the south coast to Sète’s rivals, Nimes, where he would establish himself as one of the finest footballers in France.
Whilst football did not turn professional in France until 1932, clubs were already using various methods to pay players handsomely for their services, such as employing them spuriously for other jobs. In this era of pseudo-amateurism, or ‘shamateurism’ in French football, Villaplane was one of the best paid players in the country, and he was not one to hide or make secret of his wealth. When RC Paris were taken over by a new president who sought to bankroll the club, they soon turned their attention to Villaplane, who headed to the capital in 1929.
It was during his time with RC Paris that Villaplane led France out for the first time at the 1930 World Cup. It was a tournament of firsts for France, who became both the first team to score in World Cup history and the first team to draw a blank in a World Cup game. They won their opening tie against Mexico 4-1, but consecutive 1-0 defeats to Argentina and Chile saw them bow out at the group stage. Villaplane described captaining France in their first ever World Cup game against Mexico as the “happiest day of his life”.
Two years later, and with professionalism within football legalised, it was Antibes who became the big spenders in France, and once again, they looked in the way of the former captain of the national team. Villaplane returned to the south coast, but it wasn’t to be as happy a time as his first two spells in the region. Antibes won the inaugural French top flight, but were soon stripped of said title when it became clear the season defining game against Lille had been fixed.
Villaplane was believed to be one of the key men in the fix, but got off scot-free, as the clubs manager took the rap and the suspected players were absolved of all blame. He was forced to leave Antibes though, but was soon snapped up by Nice. Questions were immediately raised over the players fitness and interest. For a once combative and energetic player, Villaplane appeared a shadow of his former self, and was regularly fined for missing training sessions and minor misdemeanours, eventually parting ways with Nice at the end of that season.
He made a last-gasp attempt to recover his career the following season in the second tier with Hispano-Bastidienne, but his regular absence and eventual sentencing of a year in prison as a result of horse race fixing ended his stint with the club after just three months. It would prove Villaplane’s last involvement with football, retired at 29, and he had not played regularly at the highest level for 2 years by that time.
Having been a player who followed the money throughout the duration of his career, in an ear when most players played for only one or two teams, it was a path Villaplane continued upon after relegation. Cunning but uneducated, having already spent time behind bars and now familiar with corruption and deceit, he naturally turned to a life of crime, as the only means to maintain his levels of wealth and a lifestyle which he had grown fond of. Following his horse racing fixing conviction, Villaplane was briefly in and out of jail for petty crimes, before being approached by Henri Lafont whilst behind bars.
The war was in France, as it was in Britain and many other countries, a blessing for criminals. It transformed the life of Alexandre Villaplane. As the judge who sentenced him to death pointed out, he was not someone who was politically aligned to the Nazi’s. This was a man driven by money and opportunity rather than any ideology or deep-rooted beliefs.
Henri Lafont was a name which would strike fear into any Parisian throughout the Second World War. Between them, Lafont, Pierre Bony and Pierre Loutrel led the French Gestapo, known as the ‘Carlingue’, these were the men Villaplane would soon call colleagues. Villaplane was useful to Lafont as by this stage he had become known as a gold smuggler. The organisations main goal, despite whatever they might have claimed, was to get rich. They murdered and robbed their way to acquiring what the Nazi’s asked of them, whilst keeping enough for themselves to ensure that they did indeed become very wealthy.
Despite lacking political or racial motivation, Lafont in particular was a man who was described by many as a psychopath, and the organisation were happy to track down, racketeer, rob and murder Jews and resistance fighters to ensure they kept the Nazi’s onside. Villaplane himself became all too comfortable with cruelty and murder. In February 1944 he was promoted to the position of SS sub-lieutenant, leading the newly-formed Brigade Nord Africain (BNA).
In this role, Villaplane became renowned for being particularly callous and violent. He was known to use methods of torture, gun large numbers of people down and even laugh whilst carrying out such heinous acts. The judge described Villaplane as being “Cheerful, almost invigorated,” as his organisation took “jewels from the still-twitching and bloodstained bodies of their victims”. A pure con-man, Villaplane’s lack of political motivation became clear later in 1944, when he realised Germany may not win the war.
At this time, he began to massively scale down the violence carried out by the BNA and even attempted to separate himself from the organisation he was the head of. He started claiming that he had been compelled to wear Nazi uniforms and despite his appearance, he in fact had saved the lives of many French people. So generous was Villaplane, he began asking people to pay him lucrative sums of money so that he may spare them their lives.
As the Reich crumbled, resistance forces – aided by the French Army – regained control of the French capital. Villaplane’s pathetic attempts to convince people he was anything other than a murderous mercenary who had been responsible for the death of hundreds, whilst all the while having a smile on his face, did not wash. He was arrested and put on trial before being shot dead by firing squad on Boxing Day 1944 along with Lafont, Bonny and five other collaborators.