In the days before Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane, the darling of French football fans everywhere was Raymond Kopa. Small in stature (1.68m) but massively gifted, the prolific playmaker with a knack for beating defenders helped take Reims to the summit of the French game before tasting European success with Real Madrid in 1957, '58, and '59.
Player of the tournament at the 1958 FIFA World Cup Sweden™, despite the thrilling emergence of a certain Pele, Kopa shone alongside team-mate Just Fontaine and also won that year's Ballon d’Or. The legendary former player spoke to FIFA.com about his glorious career, from his early days at Angers to his time with Reims and Madrid, and shared his thoughts on the game today.
FIFA.com: Raymond, could you start by telling us what you are up to nowadays?
Raymond Kopa: Everything's going well. At the moment, I'm spending my retirement back and forth between Corsica and Angers. I'm a happy man. All that matters these days, given my age, is staying healthy – and everything's fine on that front, both for myself and those around me.
Do you still have a passion for football?
Naturally I keep a very close eye on football news, though I must admit that I've always preferred to follow my passion by playing rather than watching. Still, that doesn't prevent me from being the honorary President of Stade de Reims. They're my club in France.
Your name is indelibly linked with Reims, of course. What has it been like seeing the club back in Ligue 1 after a 33-year absence?
It's given pleasure to a lot of people – not just me but our many supporters as well. Of course, I was there to celebrate the promotion. We started the season well and were even fifth at one point, and everything was going well. Then we lost five out of seven matches and quickly found ourselves in trouble.
In your own heyday, Reims were a real powerhouse of the game. You won several French titles with the club and played in a European Cup final, but what is your most cherished memory of those years?
It's still my arrival at the club – being discovered by them at a time when I'd been playing for two years with SCO Angers in Ligue 2. Reims offered me the opportunity to play at the highest level for a good ten years. They were an exceptional club and provided more players to the France team than any other side.
After Reims, you played for Real Madrid. What was the background to your transfer?
Transfers like that were rare at the time. I was sold at a very high price – 52m francs. I don't really know how much that would be today, but at the time it was the equivalent of three houses. Either way, Reims benefited from that money: they strengthened even more by buying three internationals in Just Fontaine, Roger Piantoni and Jean Vincent. So I managed to be of some use! I say that because there were people who criticised me, saying that I'd abandoned Reims. I loved Reims, though, and at the time they were the second greatest club in Europe. Real were the only team ahead of them, so my decision to leave was logical. And it was the right one too, because I spent three wonderful years in Madrid.
You joined the likes of Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano and Francisco Gento. Which player impressed you most?
My idol has always been Ferenc Puskas. I found out about him very early on, while I was at Reims. When we finished as champions for the first time in 1953, the club's officials gave us a trip to London to watch the match between England and Hungary. It was our reward for having won the league and that's when I discovered Puskas. He found things tough when he first arrived in Madrid. He needed to settle in, of course, but the Spanish journalists were impatient and quickly started to criticise him. I used to say, 'Just wait, talent doesn't disappear overnight.' Everyone knows what happened after that. He was the top scorer in Spain. Every goalkeeper began to tremble whenever he got within 35 metres of goal. He didn't just have a superb shot, he could also strike the ball with incredible precision. But don't worry, I haven't forgotten Di Stefano either. In fact, he's the one people still talk about the most over there.
My Real team were at least as good as this Barça side. We were, quite frankly, unbeatable at the time.
You won the Ballon d’Or in 1958, three European Cups, two Spanish titles and several trophies in France. Which honour means the most to you now?
To win the Ballon d’Or was a real high point. It's the trophy that's dearest to me because it capped a year filled with other trophies. I never would have received that magnificent honour without my Spanish title win, the European Cup and my third place at the World Cup. 1958 was my year.
As a former Madrid player, do you still follow Spanish football?
Of course. I'll be particularly interested to see who wins the FIFA Ballon d’Or because it's between three La Liga players. I think [Lionel] Messi will win it, but you mustn't forget that he doesn't do what he does alone. To play well, you need quality players around you. That was true for me and it's also true for Messi.
The similarities between yourself and Messi do not end there either. Like you, he is not especially tall, but his dribbling skills and eye for goal often make the difference.
Yes, there are similarities. We're exactly the same height, and my strong points were dribbling, speed and precision. It's an honour to be compared to him. Some people also say that the Barcelona team of today are a little like the Reims team of old, but I can tell you that my Real team were at least as good as this Barça side. I only lost one match in three years with Madrid. Yes, it was the worst possible one to lose because it was a 1-0 loss to Atletico, but we were, quite frankly, unbeatable at the time.
What are your thoughts on the rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona?
Real are still a notch above! I think that Barça must wait a few years yet before they can match Real's list of honours. I have to admit that the Catalans play the better football at the moment, but that didn't stop us having a magnificent season last year. Things don't look great for us right now, though – 16 points between the teams is a lot.
Given that you refer to them as 'us', you seem to still be a Madrid player at heart.
Absolutely. I still love going to Madrid. I get on the plane as soon as I receive an invite. I always feel that the people there are happy to see me.
What do you think of the current France side?
For me, the most important thing is how you carry yourself. What's happened in the France ranks in recent years has been unacceptable, and I've been the first to criticise it. But France still have players who are capable of great things on a pitch, as they've proved recently. I hope with all my heart that that continues.
Over the years, France have been lucky enough to have yourself, Michel Platini and then Zinedine Zidane pulling the strings. Who do you see filling that role next?
I couldn't have done what Platini or Zidane did on a pitch, but then again they couldn't have done what Kopa did. Either way, I was a big admirer of those players. For me, the next in line hasn't been born yet.