The uniquely talented Raymond Kopa was blazing a trail for French football long before the likes of Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane came on the scene.
Standing only 5’6, Kopa made up for a relative lack of stature with some prodigious dribbling skills, and played an instrumental role in three of Real Madrid’s first five victorious campaigns in Europe.
Yet the pinnacle of his career arguably came at the 1958 FIFA World Cup Sweden, where he was recognised as the player of the tournament, a not inconsiderable achievement given the goalscoring feats of team-mate Just Fontaine and the exploits of an emerging teenager by the name of Pele.
Born in the northern French town of Nœux-les-Mines to Polish immigrants, Raymond Kopaszewski – to give him his real name – endured a tough upbringing. He honed his gritty determination and will to win in his teenage years when he earned his keep by pushing coal-laden wagons in a mine.
It was the loss of a finger in an accident that prompted him to pursue a career in football, a sport he had already showed a considerable talent for from the age of ten.
From coaldust to stardust
In May 1949 he took part in the Young Footballer Competition, a national event open to budding professionals and followed closely by the country’s foremost coaches. Finishing second overall, he signed a contract with Angers shortly afterwards.
His career would take off two years later when he bumped into Albert Batteux, the legendary Stade de Reims coach, at a friendly match. “He had a gift for assessing players’ abilities and fielding them in the right positions,” said Kopa. “Without him, a lot of players would never have been able to express their skills, starting with me.”
To make the most of his prodigy’s close dribbling skills, which were aided by a low centre of gravity, Batteux deployed Kopa just behind the strikers in a withdrawn No10 role that marked a departure from the conventions of the time.
“I absolutely loved dribbling,” commented Kopa. “Some people told me off for it, saying that I held on to the ball for too long and that I slowed the game down. My coaches always insisted that I stick to my style of play, though.”
Those bewildering dribbles invariably ended with pinpoint passes to well-placed team-mates, who made the most of Kopa’s gift for slowing the game down to find space for themselves or make a run.
After joining Reims in 1951, Kopa quickly became the orchestrator-in-chief of a brilliant team that took the French championship by storm and lost in a seven-goal thriller to Real Madrid in the first European Champion Clubs’ Cup final in 1956.
Within a few weeks of that memorable encounter, Kopa caused a sensation by agreeing terms with the newly crowned European champions. “I was the first French player to leave the country,” he later recalled. “At the time a lot of people saw me as a traitor. It was just my misfortune to be a pioneer.”
It was during his time in Madrid that he acquired the nickname of Napoleon, teaming up with two living legends in Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas to conquer Europe and forge his own glittering reputation.
“They were three fantastic years,” said the fabled Frenchman. “For three whole seasons we won the lot. We were also voted the team of the century by the fans in 2000, the club’s centenary year. There was an incredible atmosphere whenever we played, with 125,000 fans shaking their white handkerchiefs. We didn’t have any sponsors and there were no games on TV, so we had to play friendly matches across the world to keep the club going. They really were different times back then. I won three consecutive European Cups with Real, and in three years we only lost one home match in all competitions.”
The king of Sweden
Along with five other new boys – Cesar Ruminski, Lazare Gianessi, Armand Penverne, Thadee Cisowki and Joseph Ujlaki – Kopa made his France debut in a 3-1 defeat of Germany on 5 October 1952. This new generation would propel the French into the international elite, with the peerless Kopa playing an integral part in that process over the next ten years.
Though the 1954 FIFA World Cup Switzerland came too early for France’s young bucks, who departed the competition at the end of the first round, they were more than ready when the world’s finest came together again four years later.
“That tournament prepared the ground for the 1958 World Cup,” explained Kopa. “Nobody was expecting us to do well in Sweden, but we started off with a 7-3 victory over Paraguay, who were regarded as one of the three teams tipped to win the competition. After losing to Yugoslavia and defeating Scotland, we beat Northern Ireland before coming up against Brazil in the semi-finals, where a new boy called Pele scored a hat-trick in a 5-2 win.
“We were the two strongest teams at the time,” he continued. “And the reason they won so easily was because our captain Robert Jonquet got injured and we had to play with ten men (substitutes not being allowed at the time).”
Les Bleus claimed some consolation in their final game of the competition, when a scintillating attacking display by Kopa inspired them to a 6-3 defeat of Germany in the match for third place. Kopa’s finest hour in blue actually came three years earlier, in a friendly against Spain in Madrid in March 1955, the French wizard astounding the 125,000 crowd with an amazing display.
He made what was to be his final appearance for his country in a 3-2 defeat to Hungary at the Stade Colombes in November 1962. Stationed in an unfamiliar position on the right flank, a disgruntled Kopa was unable to exhibit his usual flair, subsequently falling out with national coaches Henri Guerin and George Verriest before deciding to end his international career.
His club career continued for some time after. Returning to Reims following his three seasons in Madrid, he won his fourth and last league title with them in 1962. Powerless to prevent them dropping out of the top flight two seasons later, he finally announced his retirement from the professional game on 11 June 1967.
A keen amateur player up until the ripe old age of 70, he has maintained close contact with the football world, and also found time to launch a sports apparel brand and appear on radio and TV as an expert summariser. A resident of Corsica since 2000, he sees his former team-mates on a frequent basis, no one more so than former sidekick Just Fontaine. Having now turned 80, he has no regrets about the path he took: “Football changed my life. Leaving my job in the mine for the stadiums made a man of me.”
Date of birth: 13 October 1931
Place of birth: Noeux-les-Mines
Position: Attacking midfielder
Clubs: SCO Angers (1949-51), Stade de Reims (1951-56), Real Madrid (1956-59), Stade de Reims (1959-67)
National team: 45 appearances (18 goals)
* 2 participations à la Coupe du Monde de la FIFA (1954, 1958)
* 3 Coupes d'Europe des Clubs Champions (Ligue des champions de l'UEFA) (1957, 1958, 1959)
* 2 Coupes Latine (1953, 1957)
* 4 Championnats de France (1953, 1955, 1960, 1962)
* 3 Championnats d'Espagne (1957, 1958)
* 1 Trophée des Champions (1955)
Together with Fontaine, Kopa would help found the National Union of Professional Footballers (UNFP) and bring in fixed-time contracts. Up until the late 1960s players in France belonged to their clubs for life.
On 29 August 1973, some six years after his retirement, Kopa scored a hat-trick for Paris Saint-Germain in a pre-season warm-up match against Saumur. Though PSG were at the time coached by his friend Just Fontaine, the 42-year-old Kopa politely declined their offer of a place in the team.
Struck by his mastery of the ball and his small stature, the English journalist Desmond Hackett called Kopa “the Napoleon of football” after watching him in action against Spain.
Raymond Kopa twice featured in international representative teams. In 1955 he played for the Europe side that beat England 4-1, and in 1963 he lined up against the English once more, this time for a Rest of the World XI.
Kopa featured in the top three of the Ballon d’Or for four years in a row, coming third in 1956 and 1957, pipping Alfredo Di Stefano to the prize in 1958, and taking second in 1959.