In the history of French football, before the exploits of Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane and others, there was Raymond Kopa. Small in stature but immense in talent, the attacking midfielder played a decisive role in three of Real Madrid's first five European campaigns. Above all, Kopa will be remembered as the best player of the FIFA World Cup Sweden 1958™, alongside his compatriot Just Fontaine, in a tournament that marked the emergence of a certain Pele.
On 3 March 2017, French football lost one of its legends. Kopa, who passed away at the age of 85 following a long illness, had become the first star of French football, claiming the Ballon d'Or before the likes of Platini, Jean-Pierre Papin and Zidane.
Kopa, who scored 18 goals in 45 appearances for Les Blues, was born to a family of Polish immigrants – his birth name being Raymond Kopaszewski – and began his youth career with hometown club, US Nœux-les-Mines, while still working as a coal miner in northern France.
He began his professional career at the age of 17 with SCO Angers, before moving to Stade de Reims in 1951 and, later, Real Madrid in 1956 – where he would lift three European Cups – before returning to Reims three years later ahead of hanging up his boots in 1967. Kopa claimed two Spanish league titles and four French championships during his illustrious career.
But his legacy goes far beyond titles and crowns. “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,” he said during an interview with FIFA.com in 2013.
"It is a very sad day for football, Raymond Kopa was an exceptional player, an inspiration for many generations and a man whose commitment to the service of football was flawless throughout his life. Our thoughts are with his family and loved ones,” said FIFA President Gianni Infantino.