Reflections on Villaplane
The French team at the 1930 World Cup. Alexandre Villaplane is at the back, second from right. Photograph via FIFA.
by Juliet Jacques
My father and I had walked many times together into the Stade Olympique, but this was the first time that Racing Club had reached the final of the Coupe de France, held at our team’s home ground in Colombes on the outskirts of Paris, and he held my hand as we approached to stop me running off into the huge, febrile crowd.
As we queued to get in, my father reached into his wallet and handed me a ticket:
FÉDÉRATION FRANÇAISE DE FOOTBALL
COUPE DE FRANCE
Racing Club de France –FC Sète
Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir, Paris
Entrance 28 – Standing area
Dimanche 27 Avril 1930.
“The garage has done well so I thought I’d get something special for your birthday,” he said. “Whatever happens, make sure you enjoy it, son.”
“Thanks Papa!” I said, hugging him. He rubbed my hair as I showed the ticket to the man behind the counter and pushed my way into the stand.
“Stay with me!” shouted my father, limping as the turnstile always aggravated his leg, wounded by a German bullet at Verdun. I kept racing towards the terrace, already nearly full, trying to get as near to the front as possible. My father stopped underneath the Peugeot billboard at the back of the tiny strip behind the goal.
“Let’s go here.”
“Oh, come on, Papa!” I replied, feeling like we were miles from the action with the running track separating us from the pitch.
“We can’t get any closer, it’s packed. Here,” he said, giving me the match day programme he’d bought outside, “tell me who’s in the team.”
“We’ve got Tassin in goal,” I told him, “and Anatol and Capelle at full-back.”
“I should hope so too, given how much we paid for them. Who’s up front?”
“Veinante and Lhottka.”
“He must be injured. Shame. Is Alexandre Villaplane playing?”
“Yes, he’s the half-back.”
“We need a big game from Alex today,” said my father. “If he can get on top of Louis Cazal then I think we’ll do it. Look, they’re coming out.”
Villaplane led Racing Club onto the pitch, in their usual light blue and white hoops with black shorts, alongside Cazal, who wore the green of FC Sète. We clapped and cheered with the 40,000 crowd, nearly all Racing fans in flat caps who had come after the factories closed at lunchtime, and the noise was deafening as the two teams lined up for the national anthem.
“Look at Alex!” said my father as Villaplane put his hand on his heart and sang La Marseillaise. “That man would die for us, I reckon. For Paris and for France.”
“It says here he’s Algerian, like us,” I replied, pointing at the programme, which said that he was born in Algiers on Christmas Day 1905.
“No, son, he’s French. Like you and me.” He pointed at the main stand. “Do you see those two men in the box?” I nodded. “That’s President Doumergue of France,” he told me, referring to the leader of the Third Republic. “And next to him is Jean-Bernard Lévy. Do you know who he is?” I shook my head. “He owns Racing Club.”
“Is he rich?”
“He bought all those players,” said my father, as the teams got ready to kick off. “He made sure he got Alex first. Clever, isn’t he?”
I nodded, reading about how Lévy, a 29-year-old businessman, had bought our team the previous summer and vowed to make us the best in France. It also said that Villaplane had made his name at FC Sète before joining SC Nîmois in 1927 and establishing himself in the national team. Although he had only been at the Stade Olympique for one season, it already felt like he was Racing Club. Villaplane wasn’t the tallest but his calmness on the ball and his huge strides when trying to win it from his opponents, as well as his powerful leap to head clear or set up chances, made him seem giant.
Against Sète, he was immense. Time and again, he cut the supply lines to their star striker, Ivan Bek of Yugoslavia, with crunching, perfectly-timed tackles, and then played intricate balls through their defence to his France team-mate Émile Veinante, or ambitious passes to the left and right wings, the supporters clapping as each found their target. After eighty minutes, the match was still scoreless, the fans growing tense, but we started singing Villaplane’s name as he knocked Cazal off the ball and launched it to Marcel Galey, wide on the left. Galey whipped in a cross and there was Ferenc Lhottka, beating Séte goalkeeper Charles Frondas to the ball and heading it home – 1-0 to us!
“Yes!” I screamed as my father embraced me. The crowd surged down the terrace: my father kept his arms around me to protect me from the crush, making sure I shielded his injured leg. Racing’s players ran back to the halfway line, high-fiving and hugging each other. Villaplane held out his hands, urging his team and fans to remain calm, and it died down a little, but with just a few minutes left, everyone sang about how we would win the Cup, and I joined in.
“Not just yet, lad,” my father told me, ever the pessimist. With seconds to go, Villaplane missed a tackle on Cazal, who played it between Anatol and Capelle, and Alexandre Friedmann raced through to equalise. The Racing Club fans went quiet as the tiny band of Sète supporters who’d travelled from the south went wild behind the other goal. Soon, the final whistle went, and my father put his arm around me. “Don’t worry,” he said as the players prepared for extra-time. “We’ve been the best team. We’ll still do this.”
The Stade Olympique fell silent as Villaplane sat his men in a circle, pointing to each in turn. Although we couldn’t hear his words, we could see their faces, even star players like Anatol and Veinante, full of respect for their young team-mate.
“What’s he saying, Papa?”
“I don’t know,” he whispered. “He’s probably telling them to keep working as a team rather than trying to win it on their own, and to look out for each other.”
The referee blew his whistle and Lhottka kicked off again. Almost immediately, it became clear that Villaplane’s team-mates were not all as fast or fit as he was, and Sète played around him: his half-back partner Paul Guézou couldn’t keep up with Bek, and the Yugoslav broke through to put Sète into the lead after just four minutes. “We can still win!” I yelled as my father’s face dropped, but fifteen minutes later Bek scored again, bursting past Villaplane in the penalty area and rifling home from point-blank range. As Tassin kicked the ball out of the net, Villaplane dropped to his knees and slammed the ground, before Anatol took his arm and helped him up.
The match ended, and Villaplane offered handshakes to his opponents and friendly arms around his comrades’ shoulders. “Don’t cry, son,” my father told me. “We’ll be back next season.” We walked slowly, wordlessly up the steps as President Doumergue and Jules Rimet, the head of the Fédération Française de Football, handed the trophy to Sète coach Sydney Regan, turning only to see Villaplane embrace Cazal.
LE MIROIR DES SPORTS
Lundi 14 Juillet 1930
FRANCE VICTORIOUS IN FIRST WORLD CUP MATCH
The first football World Cup began yesterday in Montevideo. Playing in the opening match to honour the tournament’s founder, Jules Rimet, who has been a tireless advocate of friendly competition between nations, France were triumphant, beating Mexico by four goals to one in front of a small crowd at the Estadio Pocitos. The goals came from Lucien Laurent, Marcel Langiller and André Maschinot (2), but France owed their win to their fearless captain, Alexandre Villaplane of Racing Club, whose hard running, precise passing and tough tackling helped Les Bleus to assert their superiority from the start.
The following season, my father and I returned to Colombes, full of pride after reading about our captain, even though his team had lost 1-0 to both Argentina and Chile and gone out in the group stage. Now, however, Villaplane’s performances were less enthusiastic and less energetic, and Racing Club were beaten in the first round of the Coupe de France. “Good thing too,” said my father, “I can’t afford those Cup games any more.” People around me stopped singing his name, and instead they murmured about Villaplane being seen drunk at bars, taking his pick of the women in casinos and throwing cash around at the racetracks – none of which, said my father, befitted an amateur and a gentleman. The Depression had taken hold in France, not least on my father’s automobile business, and although I refused to believe the rumours and tried to defend his performances, we still wondered: where was he getting his money?
One March afternoon in 1932, I was at my father’s garage in Montmartre, cleaning the showpiece Bugatti Type 49 convertible. It was black with a red trim, and I was polishing the bonnet until I could see the whiteness of my teeth in it, as my father had asked me to. A small but striking man, his dark hair in a side-parting, entered in an immaculate suit. I recognised him instantly, and was so stunned that I knocked over the bucket of water by my feet.
“Are you … Alex Villaplane?”
Seeing him without that running track keeping us apart, I was struck by how narrow his shoulders were, and how the light from the window shone just below his hairline, greased back with Brylcreem. Although I’d seen so many of his brave clearances at Colombes, I’d never realised until now just how big and bold that forehead was.
He picked up the bucket and my sponge, handing them back to me with a generous smile.
“I am indeed.”
I was trying to think what to say to him as my father came out of the office.
“What an honour!” he said. “The captain himself!”
“Are you Racing Club fans?” asked Villaplane.
“We go to every game at Colombes.”
“Good! If you were Red Star supporters, I’d take my business elsewhere.” My father laughed at the reference to Racing’s local rivals, and shook Villaplane’s hand. I ran into the office, took the Cup final programme from the cabinet and thrust it at Villaplane.
“Would you like my autograph, young man?”
“I’m sure he would,” my father replied. Seeing the cover, Villaplane sighed, his face lifting slightly when he read the description of his career.
“The first North African to play for France,” he read. “You are Algerian too, yes?”
“We’re French,” I said.
“I was from Algeria originally, but my son was born in Paris,” my father told me. “A lifelong Racing Club supporter.”
Villaplane scrawled his signature across the line-ups and gave the programme back to me. It was barely legible, but I didn’t care. He put his hand back on the Bugatti.
“I want to buy this car.”
“No disrespect,” replied my father, “but you’re an amateur. How could you afford it?”
“I run a successful automobile business in Sète, where I grew up,” said Villaplane, calmly, and deliberately, “and I want to set up in Paris. I heard good things about you from Racing’s sponsors, so I wondered if you might like to go into business with me. We would have your showroom here and mine on the south coast under common management, sharing the profits. If you’re interested, I have some information on my company, including accounts for the last five years.” He gave my father a file and a business card. “You don’t have to decide straight away.” He looked at me. “I can trust your Papa, can’t I?” I nodded. “Great!” he said, returning to my father. “Here’s a cheque for the car. I’ll be back next week and then we can talk more.”
Villaplane gave the cheque to my father, shook his hand and left. I looked again at the programme, clutching it to my chest when my father tried to take it.
“Will you do it, Papa?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “You’ve heard all the stories at Colombes.”
“But you always told me that people will say anything about Algerians. And anyway, you said he hasn’t done anything wrong.”
“I know, but I need to check everything with the bank.”
Ten days later, Villaplane returned.
“Did you cash my cheque?” he asked.
“She’s yours,” said my father. “Show Monsieur Villaplane to his car, will you?”
I ran to the Bugatti and opened the door. Villaplane jumped inside.
“Perfect,” he said, stepping into to the car. He smiled again, one corner of his mouth rising as his eyes narrowed, and fixed their gaze on me. Then, more relaxed, he looked at my father. “Did you consider my proposal?”
“I discussed it with the bank,” replied my father. “They said your finances look sound.”
“Our showroom does well,” said Villaplane, “and I am told that professionalism is close to being legalised. M. Lévy has assured me that when that happens, I will become the highest-paid player in France. Between that and the business, we’ll be fine.” My father smiled, and Villaplane shook his hand. “Visit my men in Sète. If you like them, then we are ready.”
“I will,” said my father. “But first I need to sort out the paperwork for the car.” He looked at me. “You talk to our guest while I find it.”
As my father went into the office, Villaplane grabbed the steering wheel, grinning again.
“What was it like playing in the World Cup?” I asked.
“Oh, incredible,” he said, his eyes fully open for the first time. “We got this huge boat with stained-glass windows and paintings from the Côte d’Azur to Uruguay. The Romanians and the Belgians were there, and the Brazilians joined us later. A few referees, too, so we had a chance to pay them off.” He smiled at me, and I laughed. “I’m only joking – we were cheated with that disallowed goal against Argentina, as I’m sure you know.” I nodded. “Anyway, we had to keep fit – Delfour gave us exercises – but it was fun, like a holiday camp. Then I was chosen as captain. Can you imagine what it’s like to captain your country?” I shook my head. “Well, it’s hard to explain,” he said, “but the day I took the field against Mexico was the greatest of my life, and the feeling when it ended and we’d won the first ever match …”
“Why don’t you play for France any more?”
Villaplane got out of the car and put his hand on my shoulder, looking me in the eye. “Son, you’ll know that people will say anything about us Algerians, right?” I nodded. “The French players started spreading rumours about me, and the Fédération believed them. It’s all political,” he said. He fixed me a menacing stare, his mouth open slightly, jutting out his forehead. “I know people say things at Racing Club, too, but luckily Monsieur Lévy knows who’s telling the truth. You do, too, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” I gulped.
“You’re a good lad, I can see. Can you persuade your father to work with me?”
“What’s it worth?”
“I’ll introduce you to all of your heroes,” he said. “Capelle, Delfour, Veinante – everyone. If we win our Cup semi-final against Cannes then you can meet the President of France. How does that sound?”
“Great!” I said.
“Great.” He offered his hand, and I shook it.
My father returned, finally, with the papers.
“Thank you so much,” said Villaplane. “See you next Saturday.”
“Perfect,” my father replied. “Enjoy your Bugatti!”
Villaplane drove the car out. His eyed narrowed and he shot me a smile as he went.
“Are you going to do it, Papa?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Oh, come on. You’re not going to believe all those lies about him, are you?”
“Well, his cheque cleared. You’re right – I should go and visit.”
The next weekend, my father returned from the south coast, telling me that he could not wait to go into business with such a gentleman. Soon they were partners, with my father running the Paris office and Villaplane, the overall owner, managing the branch in Sète.
Four weeks later, my father found the showroom locked, and the land sold. He called the Sète branch: neither that number nor his contact for Villaplane in Paris were in use. He went back to Sète, finding a padlocked building with the signs and fittings removed. Weeping, he explained to my mother and me, saying that an anonymous caller had told him not to go to the police, and that even if he did, they wouldn’t care about an Arabic Algerian being robbed by a French one, especially not one as powerful as Villaplane.
“I’m so sorry, Papa. I knew from how he looked at me when he drove away that you shouldn’t have done it. But I told you to because I got excited about meeting all the players. He told me the rumours weren’t true, and I believed him. It’s all my fault.”
“No it’s not,” he said. “I don’t know how I let myself be taken in. I’d heard more than enough.” He winced. “I survived a bullet in the leg, I can survive this.”
After my mother left, my father found work at the Renault factory in Boulogne-Billancourt and we moved to a small flat in Montrouge, on the edge of Paris. My father told me that he could never watch Racing Club again, but I missed our trips to the Stade Olympique, and we agreed that I might go back once Villaplane was gone. Even though my father had told me not to, I went to the police, explaining how Villaplane had stolen his business: they assured me that however untouchable he seemed, they would take the charges and any threats against us very seriously. Then they looked at the contract: there was no mention of how money would be split if the business was sold, and no proof of whether or not the sale had been discussed, so there was nothing they could do.
Days later, the FFF announced that professionalism would be legalised. Sochaux’s president, Jean-Pierre Peugeot, had admitted to paying his players years earlier, and Lévy was involved in its introduction, telling the fans that this meant Racing Club could finally become the strongest team in the country. But he did not make Villaplane his highest earner: the captain was immediately sold to Olympique d’Antibes, in Division 1 Groupe B of the new national league, for what I imagined to be a large fee and a huge wage.
Antibes spent heavily, but I was still surprised when they won their section and beat Groupe A winners SC Fives Lille5-0 in the deciding game. It soon emerged that the match had been fixed. Stripped of the championship, Antibes blamed their manager, Valère, but after sacking him, they quietly released three players: Laurent Henric, Louis Cazal and Villaplane. He joined Nice for the 1933-34 season, but neither of us returned to Colombes for their 4-3 defeat to Racing – that summer, they were relegated and Villaplane’s lazy, unprofessional displays were blamed. Then he spent three months with Hispano-Bastidienne de Bordeaux in the second division, rarely turning up and being fired. The next I heard of him was in 1935, when he was sent to prison for six months for fixing horse races in Paris and the Côte d’Azur.
On 5 May 1940, I went to Colombes, alone, and saw Racing Club beat Marseille 2-1 in the final of the Coupe de France. Five days later, the German invasion of Paris began. President Lévy, who had spoken out against the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and the FFF’s refusal to allow anti-Mussolini demonstrations at France’s 1938 World Cup quarter-final against Italy, played at the Stade Olympique, was killed during the first week.
My father and I both knew that as Algerians, we could be marked men: he insisted on staying in Paris, believing that his job would be safe, but he said I should leave, and I went to work as a typist in Bordeaux, There, I joined the Resistance, distributing handbills on arrests, acts of sabotage, and planned raids by la Carlingue, the French Gestapo.
Months later, one of those bills brought news of my father. At 3am on Saturday 7 September, the police had broken into our home and arrested him on trumped-up fraud charges. They delivered him to the Carlingue, who tortured and killed him. Then I heard: Villaplane had been released from Fresnes prison, where he had been sent for handling stolen goods, and then he joined the gang.
The following year, after the Allied landings in North Africa, the German occupation spread across the country. I moved from Bordeaux to Mussidan, a village in the Dordogne in south-west France, working on a farm and gathering intelligence for the Resistance. On 11 June 1944, a BMW 328 rolled into the square. The maquisards (as the rural Resistance were known) had attacked an armoured train at the station that morning, and the Gestapo must have come for revenge.As I wondered how best to warn my comrades, the villagers opened their doors.
The car stopped, and a man stepped out. The first thing I noticed was the Nazi armbands. Then the narrow shoulders, and a cap that did not mask that huge forehead, which reflected the light of the afternoon sun: Villaplane.
“Oh, what times we live in!” he told a priest, in that same measured, rehearsed tone that I’d heard at the garage. “Oh Father, this is a terrible age! To think that I, a proud Frenchman, am reduced to wearing a German uniform!” A crowd had assembled. “Have you seen, ladies, what atrocities these butchers have committed? They are going to kill you.” He approached a silver-haired woman, in her late fifties, and placed his hand on her shoulder. “But I will try to save you, even as I risk my own life. I have already saved many people. Fifty-four, to be precise. You will be the fifty-fifth. If you give me 400,000 francs.”
I watched, horrified, as she let Villaplane into her home, followed by three other men. I took aim, putting my finger on the trigger of my pistol. Then I remembered the Communist Party order not to assassinate individuals, and as the door closed, I ran to find my friends. It was too late: they had been arrested by the Brigade Nord-Africaine. An Arabic soldier pointed a gun at me, telling me to give up any weapons and join the others. My comrades and I were marched to a ditch and ordered to line up with our hands on our heads. I stood on the far right as three men in SS uniform marched into view.
Villaplane walked up to us, smiling.
“These are the criminals, captain,” said one of his men.
“You shall dig your own graves,” Villaplane told us, “unless you have 200,000 francs.” Nobody in this tiny village seemed to recognise him. Perhaps, like most people in France, they were more interested in cycling than football.
“Alex!” I said. He stopped, open-mouthed, narrow-eyed, staring at me. “You don’t know me, but I watched you in Colombes.”
“Drop your weapon,” Villaplane told his soldier. “Keep the others here.” He placed his arm around my shoulder. “Come with me,” he said, leading me away.
I heard a voice from a comrade.
“You haven’t got 200,000 francs, have you?”
“Shut up!” I shouted back. The BNA solider rammed a gun into my comrade’s back as everyone else tried to stay still.
“No talking!” yelled Villaplane. Satisfied that order had been restored, he took me to a nearby farmhouse and sat me at the kitchen table.
“You are a Racing Club supporter?” he asked.
“My father and I went every week. We were so proud when you captained France.”
He sighed. “That was the happiest day of my life.”
“And now you wear a German uniform.”
“I do it for France,” he said. “To save as many French people as I can.”
“For a price.”
“I saw you, telling people you’d help them. For 400,000 francs.”
“Every centime goes towards my countrymen. For them, I even stole from the Germans. They caught me and I had to leave Paris. My friend Cazal sent me papers so I could go back.”
“Louis Cazal? From Antibes?”
“Yes,” said Villaplane. “We played together at Sète.”
“And then you fixed the games together.”
“I took a huge pay cut to join Antibes. What else was I supposed to do?” He lit a cigar. “Besides, everyone was doing it. They only checked us because nobody expected us to win.”
“Wait,” I said. “Pay cut?”
“You didn’t believe that we were amateurs, did you?” He paused. “You probably thought that you were funding us, didn’t you?”
“That’s what my father always said.”
“Look, Lévy paid me a fortune. They were all making up well-paid jobs for us in whatever businesses they ran, because they thought having the best players and winning trophies would be good for their companies. Those teams owned by Peugeot or Perrier, getting even richer off people like you, and me, telling everyone that we were ambassadors for them, because Lévy couldn’t captain his country, could he? The Fédération were even worse – three weeks in South America just for travel expenses!”
“The honour wasn’t enough?”
“I can’t live on glory, can I?”
“If the money at Antibes was so bad, why did you leave Racing Club?”
“Someone lied about me to the police, saying I stole his business,” said Villaplane, tears in his eyes. “I liked a drink and a night out, so everyone thought I must have, even though there was no proof. The police told me that if I paid them 400,000 francs and left Paris, they’d drop it. I asked Lévy if the club could pay but he said no, he’d heard too many stories about me. I had no choice: I gave them the money and went.”
I took a deep breath. Villaplane glared at me.
“I don’t have any money,” I said, seeing the gun on his lap. “But if France win the war, then you’re in big trouble.” He shrugged. “Release me and I will speak in your favour.”
“I’m a Racing Club fan. Even though we lost, it was an honour to watch you in that cup final.”
“I don’t know how we didn’t beat them,” he said, finishing his cigar. “I can still see it – Cazal getting the better of me, playing it through to Friedmann …”
“It wasn’t your fault. If everyone else had worked as hard as you then we’d have won.”
“Perhaps,” he said. “Cazal says I should have stayed at Sète, but those years in Colombes were the best of my career. Because of that, I will let you go.”
We stood, and he shook my hand.
“When that game went to extra-time,” I said, “You gave a speech. What did you say?”
“I just told everyone to keep going.” He smiled at me, laughing at my disappointment. “What were you expecting?”
“Nothing,” I said. We left the farmhouse via the back door. I saw the bodies of two peasants, shot and burned. Villaplane went through their pockets. He took some money, and a watch from one of their wrists. “Nice, isn’t it? Do you want it?” I shook my head. “You sure? You could sell it.” I stepped back. “I won’t fire,” he said. “Go!”
I walked away, and he returned to my comrades. “Shoot!” I heard, before eleven gunshots: none of them had 200,000 francs. I ran, wondering what became of the woman in the square.
I left for Paris that night, hitching lifts with sympathetic peasants who drove me as far as they could and then offered shelter. I arrived in August as the city celebrated its liberation, and joined the Forces of the Interior. Later that month, Villaplane was arrested. He had tried to hide at a farm, south of Paris, before escaping to Spain, but his gang was betrayed by a former member who exchanged his freedom for information on their whereabouts. Reprisals against collaborators were swift and brutal, but Villaplane and the heads of the Carlingue were not lynched: instead, they were put on trial, beginning on 1 December.
It began with the formation of the gang. To establish themselves in Paris, the Nazis had linked up with black marketers. Swiss national Max Stocklin, imprisoned as a German military informer, was released and got his contacts to freeHenri Lafont, an illiterate whose criminal career began at 13, when his father died and his mother abandoned him. Lafont bought food, furniture, clothes, art and gold and sold them to the occupiers, opening bureaus for Jewish property and Norman livestock. He met bankers, lawyers and senior Nazis, some of whom felt the Reich’s name was tarnished by association with such shabby crooks. So he infiltrated the Marseille Resistance, finding and torturing its Belgian leader, Lambrecht. This led to 600 arrests and Lafont touring Parisian prisons to recruit for his own operation.
Lafont’s first choice was Pierre Bonny, a police officer who became famous in 1923, when Guillaume Seznec, head of a Morlaix sawmill, was convicted of killing business rival Pierre Quéméneur, condemned by a typewriter discovered in Bonny’s investigation. In 1934, Bonny helped to expose Alexandre Stavisky, who had sold 239 million francs’ worth of false bonds from a pawn shop, buying off newspapers who tried to examine his affairs – this scandal caused far-Right riots that brought down the Republic’s socialist government, and led to the conservative Doumergue becoming Prime Minister. Officially, Stavisky killed himself that January, but neither I nor anyone else had believed this, and it was rumoured that the police killed him due to his closeness to so many senior officials. The court didn’t explore this further, though: it was more interested in Bonny’s downfall in 1935, when he was charged with falsifying evidence in the Seznec case and jailed for three years – when he met Lafont.
Then, trembling, I realised: Bonny must have been part of the force that blackmailed Lafont’s next recruit – Alexandre Villaplane. The court heard that Villaplane had no record of his parents other than that they were French, leaving the colony to move in with his uncles on the south coast aged 16. I thought back to that imperious first season at Racing Club as they discussed his football career, particularly its inglorious collapse at Antibes and his time in prison at La Santé and Fresnes. After his release in 1940, Lafont put him in charge of a bureau trading in gas, food and fine art, often procured from Jewish people. He specialised in smuggling gold and foreign currency, selling to and taking from anyone he could. In 1942, the Nazis recognised goods that he tried to sell to them, and he fled to Toulouse. After Cazal secured his return to Paris, the SS arrested him for stealing jewels. Lafont got him out: as the Nazis clamped down on the black market, he became Bonny’s chauffeur and head of one of five BNAsections founded by Lafont,attaining the rank of Untersturmführer.
Villaplane stood. He looked far less comfortable than the other times I’d seen him in a suit, but as he took the dock, he steeled his shoulders, held out his chest and assumed that tone which I’d heard in that village square, and on that garage forecourt.
“I have been accused of betraying my nation,” he said, putting his hand on his heart. “But anyone who likes football will know how much I love France, and how proud I was to captain my country – and it was my country. I got no education in Algeria, so I’ve always had to be a schemer, it’s true. Especially in my career – was it fair that the best player in the land was not allowed to make a centime? Of course not! But as soon as it became legal to pay us, Lévy decided I was no longer of use to him, and I had to live on my wits. I made mistakes, I admit, but I was punished, and yet I knew that the Germans would want to kill me because of them – and that the only way to help my countrymen was to work with them.”
His voice became louder, and I glanced around the court, trying to gauge who was convinced by his hand gestures, now wider and more frequent. “I stole from the Germans to give back to the French: for this I was even sent to the camp at Royallieu-Compiègne, with Resistance fighters and Jews. Would a committed Nazi be sent there, my friends? When I was released, I went to Périgueux. There, I would arrest members of the Resistance, telling my police chiefs not to shoot anyone until we’d found their weapons and we’d found out why family members had denounced each other, giving everyone else time to escape. Many came back to Périgueux to thank me, and by doing this, I saved more people than all of you in this court put together!”
He glanced at me, narrow-eyed, recognising me from Mussidan, and sat, to stunned silence. I tried not to return Villaplane’s gaze even as it turned into a half-smile. A witness stood, describing the scene after Villaplane asked for money to save the villagers in the square. “Villaplane burst into the house of Geneviève Léonard, a 59-year-old mother of six accused of harbouring a Jew. His men ransacked it: He seized her hair, shouting “Where is your Jew?” She refused to answer, so he pushed her into the farm, hitting her with his rifle butt, and forced her to watch the BNA torturing two peasants. After being beaten and set on fire, they were shot. Alex laughed. Meanwhile, the BNA had located Antoine Bachmann, the Jew, and brought him over. Alex hit him and arrested him, ordering Léonard to give him 200,000 francs.”
The bodies outside the farmhouse, I thought as I took the stand. “He stole from the peasants’ corpses,” I said. “He offered me money stolen from the pockets of the dead before I heard him give the order to shoot the maquisards at Mussidan, and although I was running away at the time, the bullets were fired so quickly that he must have pulled some of the triggers himself. I was spared as I support his old team, Racing Club. Because of that, I promised not to testify against him, but when I heard about Léonard, I knew I had to. As a boy, Alex was my hero, and I loved watching so much that I refused to believe those rumours about where he spent his money. But I should’ve done. He came to my father’s garage and I got his autograph. It was the happiest day of my life. Then he talked my father into going into business with him, sold our property and kept the money. The police told me there was nothing they could do. So I wrote to Lévy, thinking that he might do something where nobody else would, and days later, Alex was sold to Antibes. I don’t know if Alex knew M. Bonny back then, but I do know that just after Lafont got Alex out of prison, the police arrested my father and their gang killed him.”
I looked back at Villaplane as I stood down: as he finally made the link between me and Lévy’s decision to sell him, his shoulders dropped.
“Villaplane’s psychology was different to the other members,” said the prosecutor. “He himself admits that he is schemer. I would say that he is a born con-man, who seized the opportunity to get richer in a criminal society. 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 – throughout his life, exploiting the goodwill earned through his sporting brilliance, long after it allowed him to escape his difficult upbringing.”
On the tenth day, the jurors spent 45 minutes deliberating. Judge Auguste Ledoux read the guilty verdict and sentenced Villaplane and eight of his eleven-man team to death for “intelligence with the enemy” – the twelfth, Edmond Delahaye, had died of acute diabetes in Fresnes prison the day before. Bonny burst into tears, weeping for his lost honour, as did Lafont and some of the others, for what their lives had been. As I looked at Villaplane, I remembered his despair when he realised that Racing Club were beaten in that cup final, fourteen years ago. He just stared, expressionless: he must have realised that there was nothing more to be gained from putting on a show, and perhaps, when the third goal went against us on that April afternoon at Colombes, he’d just been cursing the loss of Jean-Bernard Lévy’s win bonus.
On 26 December 1944, I watched Alexandre Villaplane for the last time, at Fort de Montrouge. He led out his squad, Bonny and Lafont alongside him as if they were his half-back partners, and lined up in front of the firing squad, and I saw Villaplane’s eyes widen for a moment, almost certainly thinking of Montevideo as the order came to shoot.
About the Author:
Juliet Jacques is a writer, cultural critic and journalist. Her fiction has appeared in Five Dials, The London Magazine, 3:AM, Necessary Fiction and elsewhere. Her Transgender Journey series for The Guardian documented her gender reassignment between 2010-12 and was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011. She is a regular blogger for the New Statesman and her work has also appeared in TimeOut, The Daily Telegraph, The New Inquiry, The London Review of Books and other publications. She was the featured artist at UBUWEB in December 2013 and her book, Trans: A Memoir, will be published by Verso in 2015.