These days when we say a footballer went from hero to villain we tend to mean that he scored a goal and then, say, gave away a penalty. So that cliche seems a trifle inadequate when referring to Alex Villaplane, as you’ll gather from even the starkest summary of his life:
13 July 1930 Captains France in their first ever match at the World Cup finals, a 4-1 victory over Mexico.
26 December 1944 Shot by firing squad having been condemned as one of the most despicable traitors in his country’s history.
Born in Algeria in 1905, Villaplane was the first player of North African origin to represent France. At the age of 16 he had moved to live with his uncles on the south coast and joined his new local club, FC Sète. The club’s Scottish player-manager, Victor Gibson, recognised his talent and fast-tracked him into the first team. Professionalism was not yet permitted in the country but clubs nonetheless found ways to pay players and in 1927 Villaplane was lured to Sète’s rivals, Nîmes, by the promise of a spurious job for which he would receive a generous salary.
It was at Nîmes that he would first earn nationwide admiration – not only was he the sort of high-energy, tough-tackling performer whom fans have always loved, but he was also hailed as the best header of the ball in the country and one of the most perceptive passers of his generation. He won the first of his 25 France caps against Belgium in 1926 and was appointed captain just before the inaugural World Cup. Leading France out against Mexico in Montevideo was, he said, “the happiest day of my life”.
Already by this stage the way he led that life was agitating tongues. In 1929 he had been recruited by Racing Club de Paris, who under a new president were attempting to become the biggest club in the country and had made signing Villaplane their priority. Formal professionalism was still three years away but Villaplane made no attempt to hide the fact that he was earning a fortune, and swanked it up in bars, cabarets and, most of all, at horse racing tracks, where he began fraternising with underworld connivers.
When professionalism was finally legalised in 1932, little Antibes decided to make a bid for the big-time and their first step, as Racing’s three years previously, was to secure the services of Villaplane. At that time the championship was divided into southern and northern sections, with the winners of each playing off for the title of champions. Antibes won the southern section and then beat SC Fives Lille in the decider – only for it to emerge that the match had been fixed. Antibes were stripped off their title and the team’s manager banned, though it was widely believed he was a scapegoat, Villaplane and two team-mates with whom he had previously played at Sète suspected of being the real plotters. All three players were soon let go.
Nice snapped up Villaplane but soon regretted it. Several times he was fined for missing training, and when he played, the one-time dynamo trudged around the pitch looking unfit and uninterested. Nice released him, after which the only club who wanted him were second-division Bastidienne de Bordeaux, now managed by his former mentor at Sète, Gibson. After three months during which Villaplane rarely turned up, the Scot sacked him. So Villaplane was lost to football. But in 1935 he popped up again in the sports pages – after being imprisoned for fixing horse races in Paris and the Côte d’Azur.
In June 1940 Paris fell to the Nazis. The occupation spelt doom and despair to many, but for some it spawned new opportunities. The conquerors needed help getting established and forged links with assorted local black marketeers to procure what they could not themselves plunder, anything from gas to food to fine art. One local criminal emerged as particularly useful – Henri Lafont, an illiterate orphan turned rampant ne’er-do-well, who would thrive during the occupation to such an extent that he could have described himself in much the same way as Signor Ferrari did in the film Casablanca: “As the leader of all illegal activities I am an influential and respected man.”
Some of the Nazi top brass wanted rid of Lafont – the austere old Prussians who believed the Reich’s honour was being besmirched by consorting with shabby crooks. So Lafont proved his worth by personally hunting down and torturing the leader of the Belgian resistance.
The more Lafont’s influence grew, the more he recruited. He toured the Parisian prisons, arranging the release of old associates and anyone else who could help consolidate his powerful place in the perverted new social order. Pierre Bonny, once the most famous police officer in France before being disgraced and jailed for corruption, became his right-hand man. At some point they hooked up with Villaplane, whose assorted activities by now included gold smuggling. The gang set up their head-quarters at 93, rue Lauriston, probably the most infamous address in Parisian history, the home of the gang that became known as the French Gestapo.
The French gestapo
The gang’s aim was to get very rich and they did so, providing the Nazis with whatever they wanted and keeping plenty for themselves. They were not ideologists but to be sure of retaining the trust of their overlords, who provided them with SS uniforms, they regularly tracked down Jews, resistance fighters and various other enemies of the Reich. In the cellar of 93, rue Lauriston, many people were tortured.
Throughout 1943, French resistance to Germany intensified. The local Gestapo was ordered to help exterminate the rebels. Since Hitler had been funding an Arabic-language newspaper that depicted the Führer as the great liberator, intent on freeing downtrodden peoples from the twin evils of colonialism and communism, Lafont had the idea of reinforcing the German and collaborationist ranks by forming a squadron of fighters drawn from the immigrant population. In February 1944 the German authorities gave the go-ahead. The Brigade Nord Africain (BNA) was set up with instructions to cleanse the Périgord region. At its helm was Villaplane, promoted to the position of SS sub-lieutenant.
Villaplane’s unit quickly became notorious for its cruelty. On 11 June 1944, for instance, they captured 11 resistance fighters in Mussidan, a small village in the Dordogne. Aged 17 to 26, the maquisards were marched to a ditch and shot. As well as giving the death order, Villaplane is said to have pulled one of the triggers.
In Philippe Aziz’s authoritative 1970 book on the Lafont and Bonny gang,Tu Trahiras Sans Vergogne, the following story is told. “Following a tip-off from a source in the Périgueux Gestapo, Alex and three of his men burst into the home of Geneviève Léonard, accused of harbouring a Jew. They ransack the house … Alex seizes the 59-year-old mother of six by the hair. ‘Where is your Jew?’ he shouts. The lady refuses to answer … Alex picks her up brutally, pushes her into a neighbouring farm, hitting her with his rifle butt on the way, and there he forces her to watch an appalling scene: men from the BNA torture two peasants in front of her.” After being beaten and set ablaze, the two peasants were machine-gunned from close range. “Alex laughs. During this time some other men from the BNA had located the Jew, Antoine Bachmann … They bring him to the farm. Alex hits him and then arrests him. He then orders Geneviève Léonard to give him 200,000 francs.”
“They pillaged, raped, robbed, killed and teamed up with the Germans for even worse outrages, the most awful executions,” said the prosecutor at Villaplane’s trial after Paris had been liberated. “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.”
Despite the barbarity of the BNA, resistance fighters became more numerous. Villaplane began to realise that Germany may not win the war. He started to hedge his bets. He staged public acts of mercy, allowing many of the people he was supposed to be pursuing to escape, cultivating the appearance that he was only working with the Nazis to help save his compatriots. According to the prosecutor, his greed undermined this artifice.
“His psychology was different to that of the other gang members,” said the prosecutor. “He himself admits he is a schemer. I would say, having studied his file, that he is a con-man, a born con-man. 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.'”
In August 1944, with Allied forces closing in, Parisians rose up. Troops from the French Army, over half of them African, arrived to complete the liberation of the French capital. Reprisals against suspected collaborators were swift and bloody. The heads of the French Gestapo were not lynched, however. They were tracked down and put on trial. Then sentenced to death. On the day after Christmas in 1944, Villaplane, Lafont, Bonny and five others were taken to Fort de Montrouge on the outskirts of the city and shot dead.
~Guest writer, Hriday Sharma.