Raymond Kopa – France’s ‘Little Napoleon’, who conquered Europe with Real Madrid.

The player who would ascend to legendary status as one of the outstanding footballers of the late fifties, accumulating three European Cup winner’s medals, multiple league titles in both France and Spain, numerous continental trophies and a Ballon d’Or award in 1958 – as well as being runner-up in 1959 and placed third in both 1956 and 1957 – was born on 13 October 1931, and christened as Raymond Kopaszewski. 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, therefore.,the young Raymond became the third generation of the family, each to have been born in different countries.

Some 36 years later however when he retired from professional football, Raymond Kopa – his name was shortened during his school years – would be lauded as a hero of France, thanks to his performances on the football field, and his life off it. His native country 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 Platini and Zidane, and in 2010 he was given the UEFA President’s Award.

All of this for a son of immigrant parents, born in Nœux-les-Mines, a small commune and part of Pas-de-Calais department 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 coalmining industry, the country would rejoice that it did little to dissuade the young Raymond Kopa from pursuing a career in football.

He would join the local US Nœux-les-Mines club in 1941, in wartime conditions, and continue his learning process of the game there until 1949. At 17 years of age, and following a successful time during the French football trials, 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 following the player’s death, Les Scoïstes changed the name of their home from Stade Jean-Bouin to Stade Raymond Kopa.

By this time, his game had matured. Perhaps pre-dating the ‘false nine’ often now cited as some kind of tactical revolution, Kopa’s play was built around a game 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 assets for a player wonderfully adept at prompting attacks by both intuitive passes and a love of dribbling with the ball to disrupt opposition defences and create chances for his team-mates. None of which should, of course, be allowed to detract from his own goalscoring ability.

Across in the north of the country, this was the 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 on to new and uncharted glories. Under previous manager, Henri Roessler, Les rouges et blancs had secured their first ever league title in the 1948-49 season, but Batteux would eclipse such singular triumphs and build Stade de Reims into one of the continent’s foremost footballing powers, with the new acquisition to his squad as one of its prime components.

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

In the final, played at Lisbon’s Estadio Nacional de Portugal, 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 that would lead first to hope, then expectation and finally disappointment, before a run of glorious success.

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

On 17 March 1955, France played a Friendly against Spain. The visiting French team, along with Kopa, had a number of Stade de Reims players in the line-up, including the defensive pair of Robert Jonquet and national captain Roger Marche. In the forward line, les rouges et blancs players, Rene Bliard and Leon Glovacki were both looking to profit from their club mate’s play. For Los Rojas, there was also strong representation from one club. Luis Molowny, Marcos Alonso (Marquitos), Rafael Lesmes, Miguel Munoz and Héctor Rial all formed part of the strong Real Madrid team. At the time, of course, no-one knew it, but just over a year later, Kopa would be part of that same Los Blancos line-up, and the game was played at Real Madrid’s home ground of Chamartin – still 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 Raymond Kopa’s new home.

If this was an opportunity for Kopa to impress the watching Spanish fans, media and the officials of Real Madrid, either by design or merely fortuitous outcome, it was delivered upon. 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, and 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 ‘sweet’ finish by Jean Vincent gave the French victory after 73 minutes, 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 international. The game would take place 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 Stade de Reims, Raymond Kopa’s transfer to Real Madrid would have already been signed and sealed.

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

Real Madrid cantered past Servette of Switzerland in the First Round, before a 4-0 home leg victory was in grave danger of being insufficient when Partizan of Belgrade won the return leg 3-0. In the Semi-Final, a 4-2 home win, was sufficient to outweigh a 2-1 defeat in the San Siro and see the Spanish club past Milan and into the final. Stade de Reims defeated a replacement Danish club Aarhus in the opening round before eliminating another replacement club – Vörös Lobogó stood in for Honved – in a goal-laden Quarter Final encounter. A three-goal margin over the Scots of Hibernian confirmed their place in the showdown to be played at the Parc des Princes in Paris.

Despite playing consistently throughout the tournament, Kopa had failed to find the net ahead of the final. His abilities however meant that a value to the team’s progress could not only be measured by the times the forward found the back of the net. In any number of occasions throughout the run to the final, it was Kopa’s cool approach play and ability to prise open the stubbornest of defences that saw Stade de Reims through to the match up with Los Blancos.

The Spanish club had coveted the Frenchman’s abilities for a while, and the international game played the previous year in their own stadium 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 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 had brought him 13 goals. Club president, Santiago Bernabéu was resolved on bringing the Frenchman to the Spanish capital and, ironically, mere days before the final, the deal was completed. Reportedly, a sum of £38,000 being exchanged for his services. It’s a scenario that would hardly be tolerated in the modern game, and indeed, was unusual even then. Should he not deliver a good performance against the club he had agreed to join – indeed, had joined – all sorts of questions and inevitable criticism would surely follow. Batteux however, had no qualms about including Kopa in his selected eleven, trusting the commitment of a player that had hardly ever come up short in terms of dedication or ability when the stakes were at their highest.

When the final got under way, it certainly seemed as if the manager’s choice would be vindicated. Inside ten minutes, Les Rouge et Blanc were two goals clear and 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 Di Stéfano steered home after a through ball had split the French backline. On the half hour, the seemingly impregnable lead had disappeared when Héctor Rial scored Madrid’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. The French would lead again. A cross from the left was headed home by Michel Hidalgo, the man who would ascend to the managership of Les Bleus, 20 years later, and inspire the legendary Carré Magique. Would the goal square this particular circle though?

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. Stade de 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 would not come again, and when Rial side-footed home the fourth goal entering the last ten minutes of the game, Real Madrid had the lead for the first time in the entire game. It would be enough. The French bolt had been shot and Raymond 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 was placed third in the Ballon d’Or voting in 1956, and this in spite of competition from members of the team that had just destroyed his dream. Alfredo Di Stéfano had scored in the final. His team-mates Francisco Gento and Miguel Muñoz were also strong candidates. 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 Miguel 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 winner’s medal. He would also win the La Liga title twice, and the Latin Cup again, when his new club defeated Benfica by a single goal in the 1957 competition. The final time that the tournament was held. He would play just more than 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 team-mates.

Kopa himself was fully aware of the precious moments of his successful 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 though, walking into a group of acclaimed stars, the complexity can be ratcheted up by a notch or three. Arriving at the ground, Raymond Kopa saw Alfredo Di Stéfano bending down to tie a lace. Seeing an opportunity, he walked over to greet his new team-mate. The Argentine though, either because he didn’t notice the approaching Frenchman, thought it was a way to underscore to the new player that he was still the main man at the club, or perhaps because he decided the timing wasn’t right, practically 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 field.

On 4 October 1956 Real Madrid arranged a game against the 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 the grand manner, with Kopa helping himself to a hat-trick. Just over two weeks later he made his La Liga debut in the 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 the shape of things to come, as Madrid 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 also feature goals against, Atlético Madrid, Osasuna, Valladolid and Athletic Club 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, that 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 play-off – away goals had no added value in those days. In front of 100,000 fans at the Santiago Bernabéu, Los Blancos won out 2-0, with 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 a wide role, was followed up with 2-3 win in France.

The Semi-Final 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-heal pass 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. Raymond Kopa, now wearing white rather than red, had his chance of redemption.

The final, against Fiorentina, would be played in the Madrid’s own Santiago Bernabéu, offering them 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, a huge sum of some £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 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 than pure footballing talent as robust challenges flew in from all quarters. The physical nature of the game hardly helped the home team’s normal flowing game, and unsurprisingly heading towards the final quarter, the score remained goalless. Then, in what turned out to be the turning point of the game, 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 penalty 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.

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 the injustice. At such times, cool heads prevail, and Raymond Kopa had an ice cool demeanour.  Six minutes later, he calmly set up a second goal, completed by Francisco Gento. Real Madrid retained the trophy and Raymond Kopa had his first European Cup winner’s medal.

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

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 1-2 victory. A further six goals, without reply, were added in the home leg, with Kopa joining the party and netting the penultimate strike. If six goals had looked impressive. In the home leg of the Quarter-Final, Los Blancos fired eight past a hapless Sevilla team, this time Kopa helped 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 that their 2-0 victory in Budapest was well short of the required total. Real Madrid, together with Raymond Kopa would contest their third consecutive European Cup Final.

The game would take place in the Heysel Stadium, Brussels, with Los Blancos facing the Rossoneri of 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 CA Peñarol for 52million Lire, and he repaid another 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 the inevitable Di Stéfano, who controlled before firing home. With just fifteen minutes now remaining, the next goal could well 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 the seconds ticking away.

Just 120 of those seconds had passed though, when a ball into the box found Kopa who, with outstanding dexterity controlled and contrived to pass to 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 defence 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 the Milan 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 Raymond Kopa now had two winner’s medals in what was becoming a Madrid dominance of the footballing continent.

At home though, things were a little different. Under the famous Argentine manager Helenio Herrera, Barcelona unseated Madrid from the La Liga title, seizing the crown by four points from Kopa and Los Blancos. 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, the Hungarian Ferenc Puskás. 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 display that inspired Kopa and when Puskás arrived in Spain, it was like a dream come true for the Frenchman – and the Madrid 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 was not right. Rial struggled to adapt to the inside-right role, and Kopa would only play a total of eleven games in the same line-up as his hero. Despite it being the first, and only, season that Kopa did not win the league title during his time in Spain, conversely, he enjoyed his most prolific season with Los Blancos, scoring ten league goals. His most memorable game came in the Madrid ‘Derby’ against Atlético. Leading the line, he netted a brace and led the Los Rojiblancos defenders Chuzo, Callejo and goalkeeper Pazos, 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 league 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 Raymond Kopa. Just a few weeks after his performance, against Atlético, news broke that he was to be awarded the Ballon d’Or as the best footballer on the continent. 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 in June, as the 1956 edition of the final was reprised.

The path for Los Blancos towards that assignment in Germany began with a First Round tie against Beşiktaş, with Kopa scoring the important second goal in the home leg to give Madrid a 2-0 lead to take to Turkey. A draw in Istanbul saw them on their way. The Quarter-Final tie against Wiener Sport-Club looked to be a potentially 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 Madrid front line of Kopa, Mateos, Di Stéfano, Rial and Gento, rattled in seven goals between them. Strangely, Kopa was the only one of the quintet’s members not to score, although his assists were instrumental in his team-mates strikes.

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 Madrid, 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 Santiago Bernabéu were quietened when Chuzo exacted a measure of revenge for the chasing 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 leg had passed, and when 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 however, and with the ‘away goals’ rule still some way off, a Play-Off game was required to decide which of the Madrid clubs would carry the Spanish flag into the final.

Six days later, at the neutral venue of Real Zaragoza’s La Romareda stadium, the deadlock would be broken. Having restored Kopa to the line-up, Carniglia stayed with the Frenchman and sent Los Blancos out with their ‘famous five’ forwards, Kopa, Rial, Di Stéfano, Puskás and Gento. The 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 the Hungarian, two minutes before the break settled the issue though. Real Madrid would contest their fourth consecutive European Cup Final. They would face Les rouges et blancs of Stade de Reims, and the tournament’s top scorer Just Fontaine, whose ten goals had largely been the key to Albert 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. Stade de 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 however. Puskás was injured and wouldn’t make the starting eleven, 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 Mateos who stepped up to score, but Colonna plunged to his right to push the ball around the post and keep the French club’s interests alive.

The game was still in the balance, and things swung towards the French club a little when a not so ‘sweet’ 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 let it be known 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 fully committed performance. The opinion would be given a measure circumstantial credence by events later, but was surely just as wide of the mark as 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 powerfully 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 Madrid defence and with Fontaine firing only blanks, their challenge dwindled away. Real Madrid had their fourth European Cup, and Raymond Kopa had his third winner’s 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 was not the main driving factor. Kopa would say that, “the three years I was at Real Madrid were unforgettable” and he had played the best football of life whilst in the Spanish capital. His wife however, a sister of a team-mate 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, Raymond 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.

At 27 years of age, Raymond Kopa was hardly entering the veteran stage of his career, but he would never truly reach the heights of club football again 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 however, suffering relegation to France’s second tier. With Kopa still active in the team though, after two seasons at the lower level, they would secure promotion in 1965-66 as champions of Ligue 2. Kopa would spend one more year with Stade de Reims before retiring just short of his 36th birthday, in 1967. Across his club career, he played a mere eight games short of 600, scoring 139 goals. There are no statistics to record the amount 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.

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 for the French team, in Switzerland during the 1954 tournament whilst with Stade de Reims, and then in Sweden in his Real Madrid incarnation four years later. France would finish in third place in the latter tournament, only losing out in the Semi Final to a rampant Brazil side after losing skipper and Stade de Reims stalwart Robert Jonquet, who suffered a broken leg after a clash with Brazil’s Vava. 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 out 5-2, with Pelé netting a hat-trick. One of the French goals was netted by Just Fontaine, another Stade de Reims team-mate. 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 Raymond Kopa.

Retirement from playing brought a brief period as a coach, but like so many players gifted with an abundance of natural skills, the ability to guide perhaps 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 1931, Raymond Kopa died in Angers, Western France. He was aged 85. French football, indeed French sport and the whole of France lost one of their true sporting heroes on that day. 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 Stade de Reims team that had come so tantalisingly close to being crowned as the first club champions of European football, and then reached the ecstatic heights with the great Real Madrid team of the late fifties that stood unchallenged as the aristocrats of the continental game. He had also worn the French national shirt with honour. Outside of the game though, Kopa also 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 very young age.

Sporting success can bring renown and wealth. Great sportsman, among whom Raymond Kopa must surely be numbered, can have such things in quantities undreamt of by us 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 disposes themselves, the way they pay back the debt they have incurred by their glory. Raymond Kopa passes 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 to former France legend. “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, though such opinion should surely be somewhat different.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times’ website).

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