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 individual.
Born in Algiers, which was then part of French Algeria, to working-class immigrants in 1905, Villaplane had a tough childhood. His family had little money and it was a daily struggle to get by. It does not require too much of an imagination to wonder whether his upbringing contributed to Villaplane’s insatiable desire for wealth during his adult years.
At the age of 16, he moved to France’s south coast to live with his uncle. He arrived without a formal education and his prospects seemed bleak, although football offered a potential way out. Villaplane was a gifted player and he was soon snapped up by local club FC Sete, going on to become one of the team’s key players under the management of Victor Gibson of Scotland.
Villaplane was not motivated by the beauty of the game, however; for him, football was a means to a more important end: money. After three years at Sete he joined rivals Nimes Olympique, a bigger club who could afford to pay him more. Villaplane quickly became a star player for les Crocodiles, with supporters admiring his relentless energy, ability in the air and crunching tackles.
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 free time in bars, cabarets and casinos, or betting on horses. He soon became well acquainted with the Parisian underworld, an environment into which he slotted seamlessly.
As time went on, Villaplane’s attention drifted further and further away from football. He captained France at the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay in 1930, helping his country to victory in the tournament’s first ever game, but it was increasingly clear that his heart was not really in the endeavour.
At 24, Villaplane called time on his international career. He kept plugging away at club level, though, no doubted boosted by the professionalization of the sport in 1932. His next stop was at Antibes, but the club were accused of match-fixing soon after his arrival, with the manager given a lifetime ban after an investigation. It was alleged that Villaplane and two of his team-mates had been central to the plot.
That was not surprising. Villaplane was a crook and an opportunist, and his descent into criminality was inevitable. Antibes released him after the match-fixing scandal, so he joined Nice. But he was no longer even bothering to try, regularly missing training and being deemed unfit to play.
Nice quickly tired of his antics and released him, with Villaplane then forced to drop into the second tier with Bastidienne de Bordeaux. Managed by his former Sete boss Gibson, Villaplane again refused to train and was duly sacked, bringing the curtain down on his playing career.
Although he did not particularly miss football, Villaplane was certainly loath to lose the lifestyle and wealth that came with it. It was at this point that he turned to crime, fixing horse races in Paris – a misdemeanour which landed him in prison midway through the 1930s. But things would get far, far worse.
In June 1940, the Nazis invaded France. Their swift incursion of the country was brutal and merciless, and left thousands living miserably. Villaplane saw things differently, though; for him it was not an opportunity, with money to be made from collaboration with the invading forces. Showing loyalty to the Germans would result in financial rewards.
The ring leader in Paris was Henri Lafont, an illiterate orphan who had established himself as an accomplished criminal in the previous few years. He was tasked with recruiting others to do the Germans’ bidding, which largely revolved around tracking down resistance fighters and Jews. Villaplane was one of those he brought into the fold. The pair spent their days torturing and coercing dissidents in a dark cellar in Paris, an activity for which Villaplane showed no remorse. As long as he was getting paid he did not seem to care about the plight of others.
Villaplane 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 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, 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, 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. The sinister smile was only wiped from Villaplane’s 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, the 1930 World Cup a distant memory.