The rare genius of Raymond Kopa

The rare genius of Raymond Kopa

The player who would ascend to legend as one of the outstanding footballers of the late-1950s, accumulating three European Cup winners medals, multiple league titles, continental trophies and a Ballon d’Or award in 1958, Raymond Kopaszewski was born in October 1931.

His grandparents had lived in the Polish city of Kraków, near the Czechoslovakian border, before emigrating to Germany, where his parents were born. Following the First World War, the family then moved to France. In the Autumn of 1931, the young Raymond became the third generation of the family to have been born in a different country. His family’s new nation didn’t know how lucky it was.

Some 36 years later, when he retired from professional football, Kopa – his name was shortened during his school years – would be lauded as a hero of France thanks to his performances on the football pitch and his unique life off it. Indeed, his native land would recognise his achievements with the Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1970 and the Officier of the Légion d’Honneur in 2007.

The wider world would also offer honours: World Soccer included him in the list of their 100 Greatest Footballers of All Time, as would Pelé in his FIFA 100 list. France Football placed him third in their list of the best French players of the 20th Century, behind only Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane, and in 2010 he was given the UEFA President’s Award. 

All of this was for the son of immigrant parents, born in Nœux-les-Mines, a small commune in the Hauts-de-France, who would follow his grandfather, father and brother into the coal mines of the area at a tender age, and lose a finger from his left hand in an accident there. Although the injury would compromise any potential for prolonged employment in the dark and dangerous depths of the French coal-mining industry, the country would rejoice that it did little to dissuade a young Kopa from pursuing a career in football.

He would join the local US Nœux-les-Mines club in 1941, in wartime, and continue his learning of the game there until 1949. At 17, following a successful stint on trial, he was signed as a professional by Ligue 2 club Angers, based in France’s Loire Valley. His stay in western France would be relatively short, comprising just two terms in which he would play 60 league games, scoring 15 times. As a mark of respect, however, on 27 March 2017, three weeks after Kopa’s death, Les Scoïstes changed the name of their home from Stade Jean-Bouin to Stade Raymond Kopa.

By 1951, his game had matured. Perhaps pre-dating the false nine, often cited as some kind of tactical revolution, Kopa’s play was built around an intelligence many years ahead of that of his contemporaries. Often adopting a slightly withdrawn role from the forward line, the extra time and space it afforded him were invaluable for a player wonderfully adept at prompting attacks by both intuitive passes and a love of dribbling. Despite that, it rarely deflected from his own goalscoring prowess.

In the north of the country, Kopa was a player that new Stade de Reims manager Albert Batteux had identified as the ideal asset to add to his squad, as he sought to drive the club to new and uncharted glories. Under previous manager Henri Roessler, Les Rouges-et-Blancs had secured their first-ever league title in 1948/49, but Batteux would eclipse such singular glory and build Stade de Reims into one of the continent’s foremost footballing powers.

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A Latin Cup victory was gained in 1953, with the club comprehensively defeating the AC Milan in the final. As well as a triumph for Reims, it was also a victory for French football. The previous three finals had seen clubs from Ligue 1 defeated: Bordeaux were beaten by Benfica in 1950; the following year Milan humiliated Lille, running in five goals without reply; while Barcelona defeated Nice by a single goal in 1952. 

In the final, played at Lisbon’s Estadio Nacional, Batteux deployed Kopa in a midfield role, much as he had for most of the previous season, with his influence spreading across the team. The move brought further rewards when Kopa opened the scoring just past the half-hour mark. Wide man Bram Appel doubled the lead just after the restart, but it was Kopa again, delivering the coup de grâce, with the third goal as the game entered the last 15 minutes.

It made the Frenchman the competition’s second-highest scorer, and whetted an appetite for triumph in European competition that would lead first to hope, then expectation and finally disappointment, before a run of glorious successes.

Further league titles followed in 1953 and 1955. The latter of these would see Reims invited to take part in the inaugural European Cup competition the following season. By now, Kopa’s play had inevitably led to a debut with Les Bleus, selected by national coach Pierre Pibarot, a role Batteux would inherit some years later. Following on from success in the Latin Cup, it was in the blue shirts of France that Kopa’s ability and value would become acknowledged south of the Pyrenees. 

On 17 March 1955, France played a friendly against Spain. The visiting French team, with Kopa included, had a number of Reims players in the line-up, including the defensive pair of Robert Jonquet and captain Roger Marche. In the forward line, René Bliard and Léon Glovacki were both looking to profit from their teammate’s play. For La Roja, there was also strong representation from one club: Luis Molowny, Marcos Alonso (Marquitos), Rafael Lesmes, Miguel Muñoz and Héctor Rial all formed part of a strong Real Madrid team. No-one knew it at the time but, just over a year later, Kopa would be part of that same Los Blancos.

The friendly was played at Real Madrid’s home ground of Chamartín – at the time, often referred to by that name, despite the decision to rename it in honour of club president Santiago Bernabéu a couple of months earlier. The stadium would be Kopa’s new home.

If this was an opportunity for him to impress the watching Spanish fans, media and the officials of Real Madrid, either by design or merely fortuitous outcome, it was delivered emphatically. Home skipper and Athletic Club stalwart Agustin Gainza gave the Spaniards the lead after ten minutes, but with Kopa in full puppeteer mode, pulling the strings for Les Bleus, they were always in the game. It came as little surprise when he delivered the equaliser ten minutes before the break. The second half continued much in the same vein, and when a smart finish by Jean Vincent gave France victory, it was no more than they deserved. 

The following day, Marca lauded Kopa’s performance, dubbing him as ‘Pequeño Napoleon’ (Little Napoleon). The next time there was a gathering of so many players from Real Madrid and Stade de Reims, the occasion would be much more prestigious than a friendly. The game would take place on 13 June the following year, when the two clubs faced each other in the inaugural European Cup final. By then, however, despite still appearing in the red shirt of Reims, Kopa’s transfer to Real Madrid would have already been sealed.

Hardly the polished money-laden tournament of contemporary times, the first European Cup was contested not by national champions but by clubs selected by French magazine L’Equipe. Even then, withdrawals compromised things, Chelsea, for example, the champions of England, were heavily leaned on by the FA to withdraw in case inclusion compromised or in any way devalued the domestic game. An insular attitude is hardly a new phenomenon. The first round of matches were also assembled by design rather than chance, handpicked by the organisers. 

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Real Madrid cantered past Servette, before a 4-0 home leg victory was in grave danger of being insufficient when Partizan Belgrade won the return leg 3-0. In the semi-final, a 4-2 home win was sufficient to overcome a 2-1 defeat in the San Siro and see the Spanish club past AC Milan and into the final.

Reims defeated replacement Danish club Aarhus in the opening round before eliminating another replacement club in Vörös Lobogó, who stood in for Honvéd, in a goal-laden quarter-final. A three-goal victory over the Scots of Hibernian confirmed their place in the showdown to be played at the Parc des Princes in Paris.

Despite playing consistently well throughout the tournament, Kopa had failed to find the net ahead of the final. His ability, however, meant that his value to the team’s progress could not solely be measured by the times he found the back of the net. In any number of occasions throughout the run to the final, it was Kopa’s cool approach play that saw Reims through to the match up with Los Blancos. 

The Spanish club had coveted the Frenchman for a while, and the international game played the previous year had merely confirmed earlier impressions that he would be an invaluable addition to their squad. His skills had been underscored in the international arena, marking Kopa out as the finished article, capable of playing, and indeed excelling, at the highest level.

Aside from the game in the Spanish capital, at the time, Kopa had excelled for Les Bleus, his 23 caps bringing him 13 goals. Club president Santiago Bernabéu was resolved on bringing him to the Spanish capital and, ironically, mere days before the final, the deal was completed. A reported sum of £38,000 was exchanged for his services.

It’s a scenario that would hardly be tolerated in the modern game – and was unusual even then. Should he not deliver a strong performance against the club he had agreed to join, all sorts of questions and inevitable criticism would surely follow. Batteux, however, had no qualms about including Kopa in his team, trusting the commitment of a player that had rarely come up short in terms of dedication when the stakes were at their highest. 

When the final got underway, it certainly seemed as if the manager’s choice would be vindicated. Inside ten minutes, Les Rouge-et-Blanc were two goals clear with Kopa appearing to be in inspired form, directing play, probing and prodding the French club’s attacks forward. All seemed lost for the Spaniards. It was, however, a false dawn.

Just four minutes after falling two behind, the comeback was launched when Alfredo Di Stéfano steered home after a through-ball had split the French backline. On the half-hour mark, the seemingly impregnable lead had disappeared when Héctor Rial scored Real’s second to square the game up. 

At the break, the game remained in the balance. With Kopa still prominent, Batteux knew his team could score again, but could they also prevent the Spaniards from doing the same? One thing seemed certain: there would be more goals to come. Fifteen minutes of the second period had ticked by when the next goal came, and the French would lead again. A cross from the left was headed home by Michel Hidalgo, the man who would ascend to the hot seat of Les Bleus 20 years later and inspire the legendary Carré Magique. Would the goal square this particular circle, though?

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The answer was not long in coming. Marquitos, a defender by trade, found himself in a forward position. Unaccustomed to such scenarios, he struggled to control the ball as it fell to him but managed to prod it towards goal, and an unlucky deflection defeated René Jacquet as the ball apologetically found its way into the net. Reims had led twice, once by two goals, but each time they had seen the dream of European glory snatched away from them. It felt like a fateful moment.

Their chance wouldn’t come again, and when Rial side-footed home the fourth goal in the last ten minutes of the game, Real Madrid had the lead for the first time. It would be enough. The French bolt had been shot and Kopa’s hopes had turned to disappointment. For him, if not for the other players wearing red on that June day in Paris, redemption would follow in the next three years as his move to the Spanish capital proved highly beneficial.

How good was Kopa at this time? Suffice to say that, despite losing the final, he placed third in the Ballon d’Or voting in 1956, in spite of competition from members of the team that had just destroyed his dream.

Inevitably, back in France, there were many who blamed him for the defeat, citing the transfer as, at best, unsettling him and, at worst, provoking a lack of effort. Given that he had been a strong feature of the French club’s forward play throughout a game where they had scored three times – despite him having to deal with the suffocating presence of Muñoz being detailed to limit his involvement in the game – such assertions were surely fatuous and brought on by melancholy and the morose moods of disappointment. 

In Spain, though, things would be very different. During his three seasons with Los Blancos, Kopa would return to the European Cup final on three successive occasions, each time earning a winners medal. He would also win LaLiga title twice and the Latin Cup again, when his new club defeated Benfica by a single goal in 1957, the final time that the tournament was held.

He would play just over a century of games across all competitions for Real Madrid and, if his goal return of 30 may appear a little low – considering the collection of goals the star-studded line-up accumulated over that time – it’s worth mentioning that his dribbling, intuitive play and crosses contributed to so many other goals netted by his illustrious teammates. 

Kopa himself was fully aware of the precious moments of his period at the club. Few would doubt it was the highlight of his career. Kopa certainly thought so: “I was playing for the greatest team in Europe,” he would claim. Few would demur from such an opinion. If it was a triumphant time, however, Kopa’s first day with his new club was hardly a portent of the success to come.

The first day in any new job can be difficult. If you’re the new kid in town, walking into a group of acclaimed stars, the complexity can be ratcheted up by a notch or three. Arriving at the ground, Kopa saw Di Stéfano bending down to tie a lace. Seeing an opportunity, he walked over to greet his new teammate. The Argentine, perhaps because he didn’t notice the approaching Frenchman or thought it was a way to underscore to the new player that he was still the main man at the club, completely ignored him. It was the sort on non-verbal rebuke that can sting, but later it was all forgotten and the two players built up a strong relationship, both on and off the pitch.     

Order  |  European Cup

On 4 October 1956, Real Madrid arranged a game against French club Sochaux as a way of presenting their new player to the fans. In what became a 14-1 romp, it was completed in a grand manner, with Kopa helping himself to a hat-trick. Just over two weeks later, he made his LaLiga debut in a home fixture against Jaén, featuring in the frontline alongside Marsal, Di Stéfano, Mateos and Gento. Los Blancos would win 7-1 and Kopa would net a brace.

It was a shape of things to come as Real retained the league title, finishing five points clear of Barcelona and Sevilla. In his debut term with the club, as well as the pair against Jaén, Kopa’s 22 league appearances would feature goals against Atlético Madrid, Osasuna, Valladolid and Athletic in the intimidating atmosphere of the San Mamés in Bilbao. There was also the European Cup to defend. 

Initially, it seemed that the holders could well disappear in the first round. Drawn against the Austrians of Rapid Wien, Kopa featured in a 4-2 home victory, thanks to a brace each from Di Stéfano and Marsal, which seemed to be sufficient for progress. The return at Vienna’s Praterstadion was a nightmare for the Spanish club, however. Before half-time, a hat-trick from Ernst Happel was pointing to the exit door, before a strike on the hour mark from Di Stéfano forced a playoff. In front of 100,000 fans at the Bernabéu, Los Blancos won 2-0, Kopa netting the decisive second goal.

The quarter-final against Nice was much less fraught. A 3-1 victory at home, with Kopa featuring effectively from out wide, was followed up with a 3-2 win in France.

The semis pitched Kopa’s new team against the rising Busby Babes of Manchester United, who would be cruelly cut down by the Munich Air Disaster just a year later. A 3-1 home victory was underscored back in Manchester when Kopa netted after an astute back-heel from Stéfano put him clear to run in and flick the ball past Wood. Rial added a second to ensure the tie was safe, before two home goals made it a draw on the night. Real Madrid were through to their second consecutive European Cup final, and Raymond Kopa, now wearing white rather than red, had his shot at redemption.

The final against Fiorentina would be played in the Bernabéu, offering Real home advantage, but before a ball was kicked, controversy erupted about the timing of the game. The club had invested what was, at the time, the huge sum of £100,000 to have the world’s best floodlight system installed for the game. The Italians, however, were insistent that the game should be played in daylight, infuriating the home club’s officials. Eventually, it was decided that kick-off would be at 5:30pm. It was a foretaste of the less than sedate atmosphere that would wrap itself around the game. 

After Dutch referee Leopold Horn got the game underway, it quickly became clear that it would be more a battle of attrition and aggravation rather than talent as robust challenges flew in from all quarters. The physical nature of the game hardly helped the home team’s normal game, and unsurprisingly heading towards the final quarter, the score remained goalless.

Then, in what turned out to be the turning point, Enrique Mateos fell to the ground in the Italian penalty area after a clear trip. Horn eagerly pointed to the spot. The Italians were incandescent with rage, insisting that both the linesman had flagged for offside moments earlier and that the offence had taken place outside of the area. The video of the game, albeit somewhat grainy, certainly offers credence to the second of those assertions. With 124,000 fans baying for the spot-kick, however, Horn would not be persuaded and Di Stéfano converted to give Los Blancos the lead. 

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If the pace and passion had been running high previously, now the Italians were convinced they had been robbed and the temperature was raised even further by their perceived righteous indignation. At such times cool heads prevail, and Kopa had an ice-cool demeanour. Six minutes later, he calmly set up the second, scored by Gento. Real Madrid retained the trophy and Kopa had his first European Cup winners medal. 

The following season would be one of continued triumph. Under new Argentine manager Luis Carniglia, changes would always be likely, but Kopa would remain a key part of the team. The title was retained, with Atlético Madrid trailing as runners-up by three points. Kopa would feature in 27 of 30 games, contributing eight goals – one netted with a rare header on his birthday against Barcelona – and towards double that in assists.

The European Cup campaign swung back into action on the last day of October. Real Madrid travelled to Royal Antwerp, returning with a more-than-useful 2-1 victory. A further six goals without reply were added in the home leg, with Kopa joining the party and netting the penultimate.

If six goals had looked impressive, in the home leg of the quarter-final, Los Blancos fired eight past a hapless Sevilla, Kopa helping himself to a brace. A 2-2 draw in Andalusia locked out qualification for the last four. In the semi-final, Hungary’s Vasas conceded four goals without reply in Madrid, meaning their 2-0 victory in Budapest was well short of the required total. Real Madrid, together with Kopa, would contest their third consecutive European Cup final. 

The game would take place at the Heysel Stadium, Brussels, with Los Blancos facing Milan. In a predictably tight game, the first half was goalless but, just short of the hour mark, the Italians struck. Juan Alberto Schiaffino had become the world’s most expensive footballer when Milan brought him from Uruguayan side Peñarol for 52m Lire, and he repaid a slice of that money by firing home the first goal from outside the box.

Fifteen minutes later, Joseito tantalised two Milan defenders on the right flank before crossing to Di Stéfano, who controlled before firing home. With just 15 minutes remaining, the next goal would be decisive, and when it came, just three minutes later, it was the Italians celebrating. Another shot from distance, this time from Ernesto Grillo, deceived Juan Alonso, and Real Madrid were behind again with seconds ticking away.

Just 120 of those seconds had passed when a ball into the box found Kopa who, with outstanding dexterity, controlled and contrived to pass it Rial, all in one fluid movement. Justice was done to the skill of the assist when the forward buried the chance. The Spanish club had equalised again and, for the first time, the European Cup final would go to extra-time.

With both teams tiring, inevitably it was a defensive mistake that decided the issue. A shot fired in from Gento needed to evade any number of Italian defenders’ legs, not to mention the attention of Narciso Soldan in goal, but as each seemed to leave it to the other, the ball found its way, unmolested, into the net. Real Madrid were champions of Europe for the third time, and Kopa now had two winners medals in what was becoming a Madrid dominance of the continent. 

In Spain, things were a little different. Under Helenio Herrera, Barcelona unseated Real from the LaLiga title, seizing the crown by four points. They would retain the title the following year as well, but by then, Kopa would have left Spain. Despite losing out to the Blaugrana, Kopa’s season in 1958/59 was enhanced by the arrival at the Santiago Bernabéu of one of his footballing heroes – Hungarian Ferenc Puskás.

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The Frenchman had been present at Wembley in 1953 when the Magical Magyars, led by Puskás, dismantled England and cast to the four winds any inflated miscalculations of invincibility that the Three Lions may have jealously harboured. It was a display that inspired Kopa and, when Puskás arrived in Spain, it was like a dream come true for the Frenchman – and the fans. 

Real Madrid could now field a front five of Kopa, Rial, Di Stéfano, Puskás and Gento. Like so many things that look good on paper, though, the chemistry wasn’t quite right. Rial struggled to adapt to an inside-right role, and Kopa would only play a total of 11 games in the same line-up as his hero. Despite it being the first and only season that Kopa didn’t win the league title during his time in Spain, conversely, he enjoyed his most prolific campaign, scoring ten league goals. His most memorable game came in the derby against Atlético. Leading the line, he netted a brace and led Los Rojiblancos defenders Chuzo, Callejo and goalkeeper Pazos on such a merry dance that, at the end of the game, they may well have needed one of those mattresses produced by Los Colchoneros.

The title may have been lost but the European Cup was a different story, and the final, played on 3 June 1959 in Stuttgart’s Neckarstadion, would mark a particularly poignant moment for Kopa. Just a few weeks after his performance against Atlético, news broke that he was to be awarded the Ballon d’Or. The voting in France Football magazine had him finishing ahead of the German forward Helmut Rahn and compatriot Just Fontaine, who had been recruited by Stade de Reims to replace him and who he would meet in that Stuttgart final.

The path for Los Blancos towards that assignment in Germany began with a first-round tie against Beşiktaş, Kopa scoring the important second goal in the home leg to give Real a 2-0 lead to take to Turkey. A draw in Istanbul saw them on their way. The quarter-final against Wiener Sport-Club looked to be a tricky encounter, an assumption hardly dispelled when a goalless draw was played out in Austria. Back in Spain, however, it was an entirely different story as the forward line of Kopa, Mateos, Di Stéfano, Rial and Gento rattled in seven goals between them.

With just a last-four hurdle to pass, it seemed like another final was on the cards, but when the draw pitted them against city rivals Atlético, the semi-final looked anything but predictable. Puskás was now at the party, however, and the Hungarian’s input would be vital in deciding the tie.

Playing the first leg at home, the reported 120,000 fans crammed into the Bernabéu were quietened when Chuzo exacted a measure of revenge for the turmoil he had endured at the hands of Kopa earlier in the season by putting Atleti a goal up after 13 minutes. Di Stéfano would equalise before Puskás gave Los Blancos a slender lead to take across the city to the Estadio Metropolitano. Kopa had been absent from the line-up due to injury, and without his silky skills, a single goal lead was all the home team could muster.

Carniglia reinstated the Frenchman for the return leg, but the chance to build a more commanding lead had passed. When Enrique Collar put Atleti ahead just before the break, the tie was level and another goal for the home team would see the champions vanquished. There were no more goals: a playoff was required to decide which of the Madrid would carry the Spanish flag into the final. 

Six days later, at the neutral venue of Real Zaragoza’s La Romareda, the deadlock would be broken. Having restored Kopa to the line-up, he sent Los Blancos out with their famous five. It hadn’t always succeeded, but in this game it did. Di Stéfano put them ahead just past the quarter-hour mark, but Collar equalised two minutes later. A penalty by Puskás two minutes before the break settled the issue, though: Real Madrid would contest their fourth consecutive European Cup final.

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They would face Stade de Reims, and the tournament’s top scorer in Just Fontaine, whose ten goals had been the key to Batteux’s team returning for a second attempt to ascend the summit of European club football. 

If the final of 1956 between the clubs had been a feast of attacking football, with the outcome in the balance until the final minutes, this encounter was very different. Reims had rattled in no less than 13 goals on the way to the final and, in Fontaine, they had the tournament’s most potent weapon. Sadly for the French club, that weapon would misfire.

Real Madrid were not without problems of their own. Puskás was injured and wouldn’t make the starting team, but Carniglia was fortunate to have the reliable Enrique Mateos to call and slot into the forward line instead. The coach’s faith in the Spanish forward would pay early dividends.

The game was less than 100 seconds old when Mateos picked up the ball on the left-hand side of the field, cut into the box, and hit a shot with the outside of his foot across Dominique Colonna in the Reims goal, finding the far corner of the net. In the first final, Los Blancos had needed to wait until the closing stages of the game before heading their opponents – this time they had struck early, and still inside the first quarter-hour, the game could have been done and dusted.

German referee Albert Dusch had little hesitation in pointing to the spot when Mateos wriggled free in the area, before being tumbled by a clumsy challenge. With Puskás absent, it was the Spaniard who stepped up to score, but Colonna plunged to his right to push the ball around the post and keep Reims’ interests alive. 

Things swung towards the French club a little when a challenge from behind by Jean Vincent floored Kopa, causing him to leave the field for attention. He would return, but for the rest of the game was merely a passenger. Carniglia later said that he thought the Frenchman had been making far more of the injury than was really the case, with perhaps an implication that it offered a blanket of convenience to wrap around a less than committed performance. The opinion would be given a measure of circumstantial credence by events later, but was surely just as wide of the mark as the French fans’ and pundits’ accusations had been after the final in 1956. 

Just after the break, the issue became mute anyway as Di Stéfano fired home from the edge of the area, giving Colonna little chance. The French team struggled gamely but were kept at arm’s length by the Real defence, and with Fontaine firing only blanks, their challenge dwindled away. Real Madrid had their fourth European Cup, and Kopa his third winners medal, but his time with Los Blancos was coming to an end. 

The club wanted him to sign another deal and offered to substantially raise his salary, but at this stage of his career, money wasn’t the driving factor. Kopa would say: “The three years I was at Real Madrid were unforgettable,” playing the best football of life whilst in the Spanish capital. His wife, however, a sister of a teammate from Angers, had never become accustomed to life in Spain and wished to return to France. It was the deciding factor.

After 103 official games, scoring 30 goals and weighed down by a collection of medals and awards, Kopa packed his bags, bid adios to Real Madrid and headed back home to rejoin the club he had helped to vanquish in Stuttgart. He signed for Stade de Reims.

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At 27, he was hardly entering the veteran stage of his career, but he would never truly reach the heights of club football that had almost become de rigueur in Spain. He would play a further eight seasons back in the red and white shirt and win two more league titles, in 1960/61 and 1961/62. The club would then fall into decline, suffering relegation to France’s second tier.

With Kopa still active in the team, though, after two seasons in the lower tier, they would secure promotion in 1965/66 as champions. Kopa would spend one more year with Reims before retiring just short of his 36th birthday, in 1967. Across his club career, he had played a mere eight games short of 600, scoring 139 goals. There are no statistics to record the number of goals his play created for others, but it would surely be a conservative estimate to put the total at least as high as the ones he scored for himself. The reality is that it could have been double.

Wearing the blue shirt of France, he appeared 45 times on the international stage, scoring 18 goals. He would also play in two World Cups, in Switzerland during the 1954 tournament whilst at Reims, and then in Sweden in his Real Madrid incarnation four years later. France would finish in third place in the latter, only losing out in the semi-final to a rampant Brazil side after losing skipper and Reims stalwart Robert Jonquet, who suffered a broken leg after a clash with Brazil’s Vavá.

At the time, the scores were tied at 1-1, with the French holding their own against the South Americans. Down to ten men, however, and without their inspirational captain and defender, they lost 5-2, with Pelé netting a hat-trick. One of the French goals was netted by Just Fontaine, another Reims teammate. The striker would score 13 times in the tournament, a record that stands to this day. No less than seven of those goals were crafted by the skills of Kopa.

Retirement from playing brought a brief period as a coach, but like so many players gifted with an abundance of natural ability, guiding less talented players was a far different challenge. He also served time as an advisor to the national team, before removing himself from active attention in football. Later in life, he spent much of his time, and money raised from auctioning some of his trophies, supporting the fight against cancer, a disease to which he had lost his young son. 

On 3 March 2017, Raymond Kopa passed away in Angers, aged 85. The whole of France lost one of their true sporting heroes. A man born to immigrant parents had been an illuminating light in the game for a glorious career spanning 18 years. He had been part of the first flowering but ultimately fated Reims team that had come so tantalisingly close to being crowned as the maiden club champions of Europe, and then reached the ecstatic heights with the great Real Madrid team of the late-50s that stood unchallenged as the aristocrats of the continental game. He had also worn the France shirt with honour.

Outside of the game, Kopa revealed a human side to his character so often absent in successful sportsmen. He turned his back on almost guaranteed further fame and fortune in Spain for the good of his family and unstintingly gave time, money and effort to fight the insidious disease that had taken a precious child from his family at a young age.   

Sporting success can bring renown and wealth. Great sportsman, among whom Kopa must surely be numbered, can have such things in quantities undreamt of by mere mortals. The measure of such stature, however, should be weighed not only by the success on the field, where such accolades are earned, but also by the way in which a person pays back the debt they have incurred by their glory. Kopa passed such a test with the same ease with which he caressed a football, adroitly directing its path and passage.  

A few days after his passing, FIFA president Gianni Infantino paid tribute: “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.” Many would argue that FIFA get so many things wrong. On this occasion, they were spot on.

By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze

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