Obituary: Raymond Kopa, French football legend

Raymond Kopaszewski, French football legend. Born in Noeux-Les-Mines, Northern France, 13 October, 1931. Died in Angers, Western France, 3 March, 2017, aged 85.

Raymond Kopa, left, and Alfredo Di Stefano hold the European Cup in the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid after Real's victory over Italy's Fiorentina in 1957. Picture: AFP

RAYMOND Kopa – he shortened his birth name while at school – who has died, aged 85, is up there alongside Michel Platini and Zinadene Zidane as arguably the greatest French footballer.

The grandson of a Polish immigrant, he followed his grandfather and father down the coal mines of northern France, aged 14, losing a finger in a mining accident, before his football talent rescued him from that tough life. He was already starring for the colliery team at Noeux-Les-Mines in the French Third Division when, in 1949 he was persuaded to enter the French Football Academy trials, at which the leading French clubs cherry-pick young talent.

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Already a fantastic dribbler, a talent which he would refine throughout his career, Kopa finished second, but the big French clubs thought, at under 5ft 7in and around eight stones, he was “too small” for professional football. Angers, a Second Division team in western France, took a chance on him. It was here that he met and married his wife Christiane, prior to his transfer to Stade Reims in 1951.

With Kopa pulling the midfield strings, Reims won the French championship in 1953. The same year they won the Latin Cup, an end-of-season tournament for the champion clubs of France, Italy, Portugal and Spain, beating AC Milan in the final. Then, in 1955, Reims was one of the 16 clubs to contest the inaugural European Cup. They beat Danish side AGF Aarhus in the first round, Hungarians MTK Budapest in the quarter-finals and faced Hibernian in the semi-final. Hibs had done their homework and in the first leg, John Grant was highly praised for the man marking job he did on Kopa, but this failed to prevent the French side from winning 2-0.

Hibs threw everything at Reims in the second leg at Easter Road, but, a wonderful solo run by Kopa, demonstrating his wonderful dribbling, set-up the only goal of the game and a 3-0 aggregate win for Reims, who qualified to face Real Madrid in the final in Paris. Real won 2-1, the first of their five straight wins, but, more importantly, they decided to make a £38,000 offer for Kopa, which was accepted, so he moved to the Bernabau. Here he formed a wonderful inside forward trio with Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas, as Real won the European Cup again in 1957, 1958 and 1959.

Kopa then decided he wanted to return to France, rejoining Reims, whom he continued to serve until hanging up his boots in 1967.

He won the first of an eventual 45 French caps in 1951, but, initially, his dribbling was criticised. By 1958, however, he was the main man for France as they left for Sweden and the World Cup finals. With Kopa supplying the ammunition, the French – and in particular his Reims team-mate Just Fontaine – were scoring goals for fun as they topped a group which also included Yugoslavia, Paraguay and Scotland, against whom Kopa scored the opener in France’s 2-1 win which knocked the Scots out.

They then saw off a crippled Northern Ireland team 4-0 in the last eight, before being torn apart by a Brazilian team for whom a 17-year-old Pele scored a hat-trick in a 5-2 semi-final defeat. However, the French eventually finished third after beating dethroned World Champions West Germany 6-3 in the third-place play-off. Kopa was named in the FIFA All-STar Team of the Tournament which comprised Northern Ireland’s Harry Gregg and Danny Blanchflower, Kopa and Fontaine from France, Gunnar Gren from host nation Swede and six Brazilians. Later that year he would win the Ballon d’Or as World Footballer of the Year.

He returned to Reims, to add two more League titles, and a Second Division title, to the two he had won in his first spell, before, after over 600 games, he retired in 1967.

Kopa then formed and ran his own successful Kopa Sportswear company, before, in 1991, retiring to Corsica. He was awarded, among many football honours, the Legion d’Honneur and treated as a respected father figure in French football.

He continued to winter in his wife’s home town of Angers, where he died on Friday, 3 March, plunging France into mourning for one of their greatest sporting figures, arguably the man who invented the modern number ten role in football.