Raymond Kopa, first great French footballer on the world stage ahead of Michel Platini and then Zinedine Zidane, has died at 85. Kopa scored 18 goals in 45 games for France but his footballing genius, fame and influence ran far beyond mere statistics.
Kopa was creative centre-forward of the fine Reims side who finished runners-up to Real Madrid in the first European Champions Cup final in Paris in 1956. He then won three cups with Madrid and laid on most of the record 13 goals for Just Fontaine when France finished third at the 1958 World Cup.
That same year he became the first Frenchman voted European Footballer of the Year.
A statement from son-in-law Willam Boucher said Kopa had died in hospital early today after having been admitted on Sunday.
Nicknamed by an English journalist as the “Napoleon of football,” Kopa was the son of Polish immigrants, family name Kopaszewski, who travelled west in search of work in the mining industry in the north of France.
He was born at Noeux-les-Mines on October 13, 1931 and was saved from a career as a miner after being spotted on finishing runner-up in a national young footballers’ competition in 1949. He spent two outstanding young seasons at Angers before being bought in 1951 by Reims.
Under the guidance of his coach and footballing guru Albert Batteux, Kopa won two French championships as well as starring in the 1955-56 European Cup run which created Reims’ ‘champagne football’ aura.
He and the club had already agreed his transfer to Madrid before the 1956 European final in which Reims led 2-0 and 3-2 before losing 4-3 in a dramatic finale.
Madrid’s iconic leader was Alfredo Di Stefano who was not going to give up his centre-forward role so Kopa won the 1957, 1958 and 1959 Champions Cups in the more frustratingly restrictive role of outside right.
In the 1959 final, against his old club Reims, Kopa was reduced to the role of passenger for much of the game after a bad tackle by his French national team colleague Jean Vincent. Kopa returned to Reims that summer and he and Vincent played together for several years but without ever apparently exchanging more words than was necessary.
Many veteran Madrid fans consider the five-man 1958-59 forward line featuring Kopa, Argentinians Hector Rial and Di Stefano plus Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas and Spanish left winger Francisco Gento as the greatest ever fielded by the club. Gento is now the only survivor.
Kopa won two more French league titles with Reims before retiring. Along the way he proved a thorn in flesh of the football estabishment. His outspoken criticism of the retain-and-transfer system once earned him a six-month suspension. The same fight as being taken up simultaneously in England by George Eastham and, in the world game much later, by Belgian Jean-Marc Bosman.
On retiring Kopa was the figurehead for a sportswear business bearing his name and he also played on in amateur football until the age of 70.