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Born: Tuesday 13 October 1931, Nœux-les-Mines, France
Position: Inside Forward/Midfielder
One of France's most naturally gifted players, Raymond Kopa was a pivotal member of two of Europe's best club sides of the 1950s as well as the France team that reached the World Cup semi-final in 1958. Nominally an inside-right, he played a starring role both for Stade de Reims at home in France and then Real Madrid, becoming one of the first players to be given a genuine free role to express himself as a midfield playmaker.
Kopa was born Raymond Kopaszewski in the small mining town of Nœux-les-Mines in northern France, on 13 October 1931. The son of Polish migrants, his surname was shortened to 'Kopa' during his school days. From the age of 14, he joined his father and brother in working in the mines but also played junior football for local side US Nœux-les-Mines, displaying considerable talent from an early age. After losing part of one of his fingers in a mining accident in 1947, he began to pursue the idea of a career in football more seriously.
In 1949 he was entered in the 'Concours du Jeune Footballeur' competition, where young players' skills were judged by professional coaches. The 17-year old Kopa finished in second place and earned himself a contract with Division 2 side Angers, although he was a little disappointed not to get an offer from a bigger club. Despite playing in a struggling second tier side, he caught the eyes of Stade de Reims coach Albert Batteux who signed him in the summer of 1951.
Up until that point in his career, Kopa had often played on the right wing but Batteux moved him to inside-right and deployed him in an unusually deep role, believing that was the best way to take advantage of Kopa's remarkable dribbling skills. Although some felt he had a tendency to keep hold of the ball for too long, Batteux allowed him free rein to play his natural game. Also an extremely accurate passer of the ball, Kopa developed a role for himself akin to a modern attacking midfielder, creating numerous goalscoring chances for his team-mates.
Reims finished fourth in the league in Kopa's first season, his performances earned him a first international call-up early in the 1952-53 season, his debut coming in a 3-1 win over West Germany. That season also brought a first league title, as Reims finished four points clear of nearest rivals Sochaux. Reims also won the Latin Cup, a forerunner of the European Cup, beating AC Milan 3-0 in the final with Kopa scoring twice. Milan tried to sign him, but he turned them down because he harboured dreams of joining Real Madrid.
Although Reims lost their league title in 1954, Kopa was selected for the French team which went to the World Cup in Switzerland. With the format giving each team only two group games, France's hopes suffered a huge blow when they lost their opening game 1-0 to Yugoslavia. Having to beat Mexico to retain hope of a quarter-final place, they let slip a 2-0 lead before Kopa's late penalty earned a 3-2 win, but the result was in vain as a draw between Brazil and Yugoslavia took those sides through to the last eight.
Helped by 11 goals from Kopa, Reims won the league title back in 1955 and despite a poor domestic campaignin 1955-56, enjoyed a fantastic run in the first season of the European Cup. Reims beat AGF Aarhus, Vörös Lobogó and Hibernian to set up a final against Real Madrid. In the final they led 2-0 and 3-2, but two goals in the last 25 minutes won the game for Real. Despite the heartbreaking loss Kopa had played well enough to earn his dream move to Madrid, as Real moved to sign him that summer.
Being the first French player to move to a big foreign team, his transfer was controversial at first but playing alongside superstars including Ferenc Puskás and Alfredo Di Stéfano, Kopa enjoyed great success in Madrid. Due to the presence of Di Stéfano in the team, Kopa was moved back out to his original position on the right wing but still earned a reputation as one of the teams' most reliable goal creators. His first season brought a league title, won by three points from city rivals Atlético, as well as a successful defence of the European Cup.
Real won both Spanish and European titles again in 1958 and that summer Kopa was selected to appear in his Second World Cup. With France being coached by his former club manager Albert Batteux, the team's style ideally suited Kopa and he went on to be one of the stars of the finals in Sweden. He scored in the 7-3 thrashing of Paraguay in France's opening game and after they had lost to Yugoslavia, got a crucial early goal to set up the 2-1 win over Scotland that sealed a quarter-final place.
France crushed Northern Ireland 4-0 in the last eight and were holding favourites Brazil at 1-1 in the semi-final when their captain Robert Jonquet suffered a bad injury. They were unable to recover from that blow and lost 5-2, but recovered to beat West Germany in the Third Place Play-Off, Kopa on target from the penalty spot in a 6-3 win. At the end of the year, his performances for Real and for France earned him the 'Ballon d'Or' award as European Footballer of the Year.
Real lost the league title to Barcelona in 1959 but did reach another European Cup final, where they faced Kopa's old side Stade de Reims. Just as in 1956 Real came out on top, this time 2-0, but the match would prove to be the end of Kopa's career with the club. Looking to the future, he decided that it was best for him to return to France and he rejoined Reims ahead of the 1959-60 season. His first season back brought another league title, his third with the club.
In 1960 Kopa helped France to reach the last four of the inaugural European Championship, but had to miss the final tournament with injury. He won another league title with Reims in 1962, but his international career came to a disappointing end later that year. With France having failed to qualify for the World Cup in Chile, Kopa was disappointed at being pushed out onto the right win in the 3-2 defeat to Hungary in November 1962 and retired from the international game.
In 1963, Reims surprisingly sacked Albert Batteux as manager having lost the league title and paid the price in spectacular fashion, suffering relegation to Division 2 in 1964, just two years after being champions. Now 33, Kopa stayed with the club in the lower division and in 1966 helped them to return to the top flight as Division 2 champions. He played one more season back at the highest level before bringing his professional career to an end in 1967. In all he appeared in more than 400 league games for Reims, almost 350 of them in Division 1.
In retirement he continued to play amateur games for many years, and in his early 40s turned down an offer to play for Paris St Germain in Division 2. Kopa launched his own sportswear brand and worked on television and radio as a pundit, before eventually retiring to Corsica. He has publicly criticised the tendency in modern football to worry more about not losing than about trying to win games.
References (all accessed 14 October 2012):
- Published on Sunday, 14 October 2012 22:52