by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

23 February 1930: Alexandre Villaplane, future Nazi war-criminal captains France for the first time

Stories of footballers falling from grace are not that uncommon, but few could have fallen as far as Alexandre Villaplane, the one-time captain of the French national side, who was to be executed for war-crimes at the end of the Second World War.

Villaplane was born on 12 September 1905 in the Algerian city of Constantine.  In 1921 he moved to the south coast of France to live with his uncles and here he signed for his first French club, FC Sète.  Even though he was just 16, he was considered good enough by the club’s Scottish manager, Victor Gibson, to be picked for the first team.  He briefly fell out with Sète and joined Vergèze, a second division club financed by the mineral water company Perrier.  He was quickly lured back when he continued to impress, and further good performances saw him poached by local rivals Nimes Olympique, where his reputation as the country’s finest centre-half continued to grow.  He was not only described as the country’s best header of the ball, but also noted for his work-rate, and his tackling and passing abilities.

While at Nimes he won his first cap for France in a 4-3 victory against Belgium in 1926, the first player of North African origin to achieve this. He became an automatic choice for his country and in total he was capped 25 times for the French national side, as well as appearing for the French team in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.   On 23 February 1930, in his twentieth appearance for the country, he was named captain for the first time in a friendly against Portugal.  He kept the captaincy for France’s appearance in the first ever World Cup in Uruguay later that year.  When he led France out in their first game in the competition against Mexico he described it as the happiest day of his life, and, although France failed to qualify from their group, Villaplane got good reports for his performances in the three games they played.

Villaplane should have been on the verge of what could have been a legendary career, but instead his life took a very different route.  Despite being just 24 years of age he was never picked for his country again as his reputation for extravagant living was outstripping his fame as a footballer.  He had joined Racing Club de Paris in 1929 and since then was as likely to be spotted in the bars, casinos and race-tracks of Paris as much as the training ground.  Here he would have come into contact with the criminal gangs of the Parisian underworld and rumours about his activities were growing as he lived a lifestyle way beyond any visible means of support.

When professionalism in football was allowed in 1932 the ambitious small club FC Antibes decided to aim high and made Villaplane, who was still considered by may to be the best player in the country, their number one target.  The French league was then divided into two leagues, North and South, with a play-off between the two winners to decide the national title.  With Villaplane on board Antibes were to win the first Southern French championship in 1933, only to be disqualified from the final play-off after it was discovered that a crucial game during the season had been fixed.  Although the Antibes manager was judged to be the guilty party, and banned from football, the game was rife with talk that the wrong man had taken the fall and that the real culprit was Villaplane.  Disconcerted by the talk the club let Villaplane go and he was snapped up by OGC Nice, but his interest in football was on the wane and he received several fines for missing training as he spent more and more time at the racetrack betting on horses.  When Nice’s patience ran out he was released and his first manager Vic Gibson, now at second division club Hispano-Bastidienne de Bordeaux, tried to reignite his career by signing him.  Villaplane, however, was now seemingly beyond rescue and after 3 months, in which he barely turned up to the club, he was released.

With his football career finished the next time he appeared on the sporting pages was at the end of 1935 when he was sentenced to prison after being prosecuted for his part in horse-race fixing.  With a taste for the high life but no income from football to support it, Villaplane sank further into the criminal world and served several more prison sentences, and when World War 2 started, like a lot of Parisian criminals, he became involved in the black market which emerged from the shortages being caused by the war, for this he earned another jail sentence in 1940.  On his release he fell in with a gang that was led by the notorious French collaborators Lafont and Bonny, becoming Bonny’s chauffeur.  Ultimately this group was to serve as the French Gestapo under the Nazi occupation.

In 1944 Villaplane, now well in with criminals acting on behalf of the Nazis, was appointed the head of one of the North African Brigades (BNA), a collection of immigrants that collaborated with the Nazis in France.  The ruthless nature of his brigade earned him the nickname SS Mohammed and he was rewarded by the Germans by being given the rank and uniform of an SS Untersturmfuhrer (lieutenant), and put in charge of hunting down resistance fighters in the Aquitaine region.  In June 1944 he was involved in the massacre of Oradour-sur-Glane that saw around 700 people, almost the entire population of the village, slaughtered.  According to survivors, Villaplane didn’t join in the killings, but he watched, unmoved.  The next day though he did take part in killing when the summary execution of 11 suspected resistance fighters in the village of Mussidan took place.

Villaplane was driven not by ideological reasons but simply by greed, and in an effort to extricate himself from his situation as it became increasingly obvious that Germany were losing the war, he started carrying out highly visible acts of kindness. He claimed loudly that he had been forced to wear a German uniform, and he began helping people, who he had formerly been hunting, to escape, but driven by avarice to the end he demanded payment for any such help.

Following the liberation of Paris Villaplane found himself arrested and prosecuted for his crimes.  At his trial the prosecutor told how the BNA led by Villaplane had “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 26 December 1944, aged 39, Villaplane was executed by firing squad after being found guilty of being responsible for at least 10 deaths, and so ended the sorry life of the man who was arguably football’s most contemptible character.