FOR A TIME HE REPRESENTED THE COLOURS of his country at the highest level in football, captaining his France team at the first ever World Cup. A decade later, he was shot dead by firing squad as a national traitor.
It was a cold, snowy, winter’s day in Montevideo, Uruguay, when Alexandre Villaplane, at 25, captained Les Bleus against Mexico in the 1930 World Cup. It would have felt significant for someone born in Algiers, Algeria, then a colony of France, to lead out his teammates representing the French national side.
A Racing Club Paris player, he was at the top of his game. He was described as a tough midfielder who could see a pass before anyone else. Later in his life, though, he would do far more than just play on the right-wing.
It was the first group-stage match for the French and they were playing dominantly when, early in the game, the ball was crossed in; player Lucien Laurent followed its path, set himself and struck a firm volley into the back of the Mexican net for 1-0 France. It was the first goal in World Cup history.
Laurent was an inside-right forward – a small, light, tricky player who had won the French Amateur Championship three seasons before the tournament for CA Paris. He was a worker at the Peugeot factory, and at the time of the World Cup he was playing for their club Sochaux-Montbéliard.
“Everyone was pleased but we didn’t all roll around on the ground – nobody realised that history was being made,” he would later say. “A quick handshake and we got on with the game. And no bonus either; we were all amateurs in those days, right to the end.”
France scored three more times, winning the match 4-1. It was the best day of Villaplane’s life.
As successful as that occasion was,, the remaining two games both ended in 1-0 defeats; against Argentina – who would make it to the final – and Chile. France were out at the group stage and on their way home.
The other European countries at the World Cup didn’t fare much better. Belgium, under coach Hector Goetinck, finished bottom of their group, gaining not a single point, while Romania finished below hosts and winners Uruguay to be sent home too.
Yugoslavia were the exception, overcoming both Brazil and Bolivia. Captained by Milutin Ivković, an SK Jugoslavija (later Red Star Belgrade) full-back, Ivan Bek was their leading goalscorer with three strikes. Five years later he would swap the Yugoslavia kit for a Les Bleus one after becoming a French citizen – playing for Villaplane’s former club Sète where he won a French league title in 1934.
The first ever World Cup passed a success. Though, of course, it goes without saying the differences with the modern game were substantial.
Some believed the referees didn’t know what they were doing for a start. In France’s second group game against runners-up Argentina, the referee blew for full-time six minutes before the 90 were up while France were through on goal. The players were recalled onto the pitch while taking their post-match bath and played out the remaining time.
As for the players themselves, and in particular the Europeans, they came to Uruguay not really knowing what they were getting themselves into. It was an adventure – the European teams were on the same cruise ship, travelling for three weeks and had jobs back home.
Yugoslavia’s captain Ivković was a junior doctor who would graduate after the tournament and Ivan Bek would go on to work on the docks in Sète. Any work-related commitments, which were proving an obstacle for the Romanian players contemplating whether the long trip would be worth it, were solved by the Romanian King Carol, who guaranteed job retention upon their return.
Even so, despite many of the players being amateurs, the final at the freshly built Estadio Centenario was watched by around 90,000 fans to see Uruguay fight back from 2-1 down at half time to win 4-2 against neighbours Argentina to become the first side to get their hands on the new, glistening Jules Rimet trophy. A national holiday was declared for the following day and the Uruguayan consulate became a target for Argentine mobs. A major footballing rivalry was born.
Villaplane, though, would not be of service to his country again, in more ways than one, and moved back to the south of France to play for Antibes. It was from this moment on where his lust for money would start to run his life.
He was heavily involved in corruption – suspected of match-fixing – and was sucked into the criminal underworld, a place ready to exploit the oncoming war.
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NAZI GERMANY SWEPT ACROSS EUROPE, occupying Northern France in 1940. Around this time the French Gestapo, a home-grown Nazi collaboration organisation also known as the Carlingue, was set up by Henri Lafont, a corrupt criminal, and former Police officer Pierre Bonny. They turned to crooks like Villaplane as their easy recruits.
Professor Robert O. Paxton, author of Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, said: “Lafont and Bonny were eager to recruit anyone who could be useful to them, and a previous criminal record was not a liability – quite probably the reverse.
“Criminal elements were used by the Nazis and their French helpers to help round up Jews in the Southern Zone of France after the Germans occupied it in November 1942. Criminals around Marseille found Jews, seized them, and handed them over for a fee, so much a head. They were more reliable than the regular police for this kind of work, because some of the regular police began to have scruples or became unreliable.”
In and out of jail, at one point even fleeing from the Gestapo for stealing goods, Villaplane wasn’t reliable or loyal to anyone but himself. Lafont and Bonny, though, knew his selfish, opportunistic, uncaring personality could only be a benefit to them. He did, after all, just so happen to have a history of racketeering the Paris population.
In 1944, he was rising the ranks and made head of the North African Brigade, fighting for Germany against the French Resistance. Villaplane, just over a decade on from leading his players in the blue of France out at the World Cup, was now leading his troops out in the black of a SS-Obersturmführer uniform in the World War.
At this point in time, the first World Cup goal-scorer Laurent had just been released after serving three years as a prisoner of war in Germany. He was arrested by the Germans in northern France while serving the French army and when he returned back to his home in Strasbourg, he found his most treasured possessions stolen by the Nazis. That included his World Cup shirt.
In Belgium, World Cup coach Hector Goetinck had been killed the year before by a bomb that struck his house in Heist-ann-Zee on the Belgian coast. Yugoslavia’s captain in 1930, Ivković, now fighting for the Yugoslav partisans who were known as being the most effective anti-Nazi resistance movement in Europe, had been shot by the Nazis as a communist political activist. A plaque in his honour stands outside Partizan Belgrade’s ground and a hospital in the city also bears his name.
Villaplane’s objective was to fight Resistance members. One such member was Yugoslavia’s top scorer Ivan Bek, fighting for his adopted country’s resistance movement, who was still at Villaplane’s childhood town of Sète.
Villaplane negotiated the lives of hostages for money and then committed his worst crime of all. He sent 52 resistance members and supporters to their deaths in 1944.
But just months after the massacre, the tide of the war turned in the Allies favour. Lafont, Bonny and the French Gestapo were hunted down. Villaplane was found, put to trial, where he confessed to be an opportunistic crook, and executed on Boxing Day 1944 as a traitor.
Teammate Lucien Laurent, scorer of the first ever World Cup goal for Les Bleus, was the last and only member of that squad who lived to see hosts France lift their first and only World Cup in 1998. How times have changed in French football.
By Dom Walbanke. Follow @DWalbanke