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From World Cup captain to war criminal

Toby Craven by Toby Craven @rfutbol - 2 2,865

Pin Alexandre Villaplane during his time at Sètes. Twitter/ctxt
Alexandre Villaplane during his time at Sètes. Twitter/ctxt

From World Cup captain to war criminal

Toby Craven by Toby Craven @rfutbol - 2 2,865

To be a professional footballer at the highest level, you are expected to be more than talented and dedicated in training. You are expected to be a role model to the fans who will follow your career and pass judgement on every aspect of your private life.

For most players, the spotlight holds no fear. Raheem Sterling has given millions to charity and worked with police to help reduce knife crime. Didier Drogba played a vital role in bringing about a ceasefire in the First Ivorian Civil War. Juan Mata has led Common Goal, a drive for footballers around the world to donate 1% of their wages to charity.

Unfortunately, charitable instincts and maturity are not requisite traits for a successful football career, and there are those upon whom the public eye is not so flattering. Hugo Lloris, captain of the French national team, was caught drink-driving in London in August 2018. As well as being fined £50,000 and banned from driving for 20 months, he was excoriated by the press and public alike for his reckless and dangerous actions.

Look back further, however, and there is one player whose fall from grace stands alone, whose character is uniquely barbaric. In 1930, Alexandre Villaplane captained France in the first ever World Cup match. In 1944, he was executed by firing squad for war crimes.

Villaplane was born in Algeria in 1905, but by his 16th birthday he had moved to live with his uncle on the south coast of France. He joined local club FC Sètes, and helped them win three successive league titles from 1921 to 1924.

Villaplane changed clubs with a regularity that was unusual at the time, and in 1927 he moved to Nîmes. French football would not become professional for another five years, but clubs founds ways round the system, and he earned a good wage for a spurious job within the internal hierarchy of the club. These deals were common, and it was often referred to as the ‘shamateur’ era.

His stock rose quickly after making the move. Having won his first cap for France in 1926, he was named captain just before the World Cup four years later, and he described leading his side out against Mexico in their opening game as the “happiest moment of my life”.

Villaplane was an excellent player. He was a tough centre-back who was nigh-on impossible to beat in the air and gave no quarter in the tackle, a mould of player which has always inspired affection in the hearts of fans. He also had excellent vision, and could play incisive passes with both feet.

He made the move to Racing Club Paris in 1929, with the club attempting to become the best in the country under a new President. Once again, he was assigned a token job by the club in return for an even larger salary.

When it came to these unofficial salaries, a certain level of discretion was the norm, given that players were supposed to be motivated uniquely by their love of the game. However, it became increasingly clear in Paris that Villaplane’s passions lay away from the field. He became a regular fixture of the city’s nightlife, enjoying casinos, cabaret and, crucially, horse racing. It was at the racecourse that he started to fall in with the wrong crowd.

In 1932 professionalism was legalised, and Antibes tried to make the most of the new era by making a push for the top divisions. Their first move was to sign Villaplane. The bid for success appeared successful at first, as they one first the regional league and then the final of the national championship, against SC Fives Lille.

This façade soon unravelled when it emerged that the final had been fixed - Lille had been paid to lose. Antibes were stripped of their title and their manager was banned from football, but it was widely accepted that he had been made a scapegoat. The real culprits were Villaplane and two other players, all of whom had played together at FC Sète.These three were released at the end of the 32/33 season.

His football career limped on for two more years with stints at Nice and Hispano-Bastidienne. After being released, and then sacked for hardly turning up, Villaplane’s life as a footballer ended in 1935. His contribution to world of sport held one final twist, when that same year he was jailed for fixing horse races.

In the next five years, his repertoire of illegal activities expanded to include gold-smuggling amongst other things, and he spent several stretches behind bars. Rather than impede his exploits, these periods inevitably presented new contacts and fresh opportunities. Such an opportunity soon emerged that helped Villaplane transition from a common crook to a war criminal.

In May 1940, Paris fell to the Nazis. For a certain calibre of person, this offered lucrative opportunities, as the Germans needed smugglers who could bring in anything that couldn’t be looted from the city. Among the most influential of these was Henri Lafont, a gangster whom Villaplane had met in prison.

He was a ruthless individual. When it was suggested among the highest ranks of the Nazi party that their association with Lafont might damage the reputation of the Reich, he proved his worth by tracking, capturing, and torturing the head of the Belgian resistance. In return, the Nazis made him head of the Carlingue, one of the most infamous groups of the Second World War.

It was in this capacity that he freed many of his associates from prison before recruiting them to the Carlingue. At some point he crossed paths with Villaplane, and the former French captain joined the gang.

The Carlingue’s close relationship with the Nazis meant they were known as the French Gestapo. While their raison d’être was to make money for themselves by any means, their impunity to do so was granted in exchange for rooting out the Jews left hiding in Paris.

Lafont made Villaplane SS sub-lieutenant and head of the North African Brigade (BNA). This group of mercenaries, all immigrants from Algeria and neighbouring countries, was ordered to cleanse the Périgord region in the south of France of its Jewish presence.

Finally, Villaplane had found his calling. His unit gained a reputation for being cruel and ruthless, even within the context of the Nazi party. The prosecutor at his trial said: “They pillaged, raped, robbed, killed and teamed up with the Germans for even worse outrages, the most awful executions.

“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."

On 11 June 1944, the Brigade captured 11 resistance fighters in Mussidan. Villaplane urged each of them that they did not have to die, that they could save themselves - in return for 200,000 francs (equivalent to roughly €4.5m in 2018). None of the poor fighters could even come close, and they were marched into a ditch and shot. Villaplane gave the kill order, as well as pulling the trigger on one of his victims himself.

Despite the best efforts of the gang, the resistance in France was only growing stronger. Villaplane, realising that he was on the wrong side, began to cultivate the image of a man who was only following orders; who was just another prisoner of the Nazis. As the prosecutor at his trial recounted, this façade was undermined by his uncontrollable greed.

“I would say, having studied his file, that he is a con-man, a born con-man,” the prosecutor said. “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.”

“[A witness described him] arriving in a village in a German car and wailing the following: 'Oh, in what times we live! Oh, ours is a terrible era! 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.'"

Paris was liberated on 25 August 1944, and the surviving members of the Carllingue, including the BNA, were rounded up. It is extraordinary in retrospect that Villaplane was put on trial instead of being lynched, as were many Nazi collaborators. The scale and nature of his horrific crimes meant that his trial held no prospect of redemption; his football career was forgotten. It stands as a permanent record of his greed and cruelty.

On Boxing Day 1944, Villaplane, Lafont, and several other members of the Carlingue were taken to Fort de Montrouge on the outskirts of the capital city, and shot by a firing squad. Today, the man who led France out in the first ever World Cup match is buried in an unmarked grave in an unknown location.

Toby Craven

Toby Craven

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