Raymond Kopaszewski was born to a Polish immigrant family on October 13th, 1931 in the heart of the mining region of Northern France. The small town of Noeux-les-Mines attracted many workers, particularly those from the old Eastern block, who came in search of jobs down the pits.
In 1924 Raymond’s grandfather and parents joined the exodus, moving to the region. His father and grandfather both worked in the mines. When Raymond was 14 he too went to work deep underground in the shafts. In his spare time he would practice his football and in particular his dribbling, a feature of his game that in time would make help him a footballing legend.
Being relatively short and close to the ground gave him superb balance and an ability to beat player after player. His visionary passing, combined with an ability to pop up in the opponents box, earned him some early recognition.
Local team Racing Club de Lens often benefitted by recruiting the football talent that came with the families from Poland and Hungary. However, the young Raymond Kopa, one of France’s greatest ever, slipped through their hands. Instead, at the age of seventeen, he signed for French second division side Angers SCO.
Kopa was only five feet six tall (169 cms) but his creative attacking midfield skills quickly established him as one of France’s most promising and versatile footballers. His goalscoring from midfield would become exceptional. In his early career at Angers he scored 15 goals from 60 appearances.
In 1951 he signed for the emerging Stade Reims, in the champagne region of France. There he benefitted from working under Albert Batteux who was quick to see the emerging genius. With Reims, who played in red shirts with white sleeves, he twice won the French Championship in 1953 and 1955.
He made his debut for the French national side in 1952 at home to Germany in a game which France won 3-1. He went on to win 45 caps for his country whilst scoring 18 international goals. He also appeared in both the 1954 and the 1958 World Cup finals, the second, held in Sweden, saw ten-man France finish in a respectable third place, having been beaten by Brazil.
During the 1954 World Cup he was awarded the Best Young Player of the tournament. He went one better in the 1958 competition by winning the Beat Player award itself. It was a remarkable acheivement when you consider the talent to choose from.
Reims also reached the 1956 European Cup Final which they narrowly lost to the giants of Spain, Real Madrid, complete with the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano, at the Parc des Princes, Paris, 4-3.
As a result of his impressive displays Kopa was transferred to Real the following year. In all he had played 158 games for Reims, scoring an impressive 48 times. In Madrid he joined forces with Hungarian international, the late, and great Ferenc Puskas.
It was a formidable line-up that pitched Kopa alongside Di Stefano and signalled a period that saw Real Madrid begin to conquer European football. At Real, Kopa added the Spanish League titles of 1957 and 1958 to his list of honours. He also helped the club win the European Cup again by beating Italy’s Fiorentina, 2-0 in the 1957 final. In doing so he became the first French player to lay hands on the trophy.
This proved to be merely the start and further European Cups were added in 1958, and 1959. The 1958 win came by virtue of a 3-2 win over AC Milan with goals from Di Stefano, Rial, and Gento securing the trophy in Brussels.
That year saw Kopa win the coveted Ballon d’Or, the European Footballer Of The Year award. The 1959 season saw Real Madrid win their fourth consecutive European Cup, again with Kopa on board, when they beat his old team Stade Reims in the Stuttgart final. Reims at that time were blessed with the goalscoring talents of Just Fontaine, another legendary figure of French football coming from French Morocco.
The following year Kopa, at the age of 28, returned to Reims in France. In his time with Real Madrid he had played nearly 80 games scoring 24 goals. His return to France helped Reims underline their near dominance of the French league and they won the championship in 1960 and 1962.
His second spell at the club resulted in nearly 250 games and a further 36 goals. However the glory days were coming to an end and in 1966, as Kopa’s career was drawing to a close, they were relegated. They returned by winning the second division championship. It was to be his last major award before retiring in 1967.
His honours total speaks volumes for this legend of French football.
• 4 French League Titles 1953, 1955, 1960, 1962 (and 1 Second Division Title, 1966) with Stade Reims
• 2 Spanish Titles with Real Madrid (1957, 1958)
• 3 European Cups with Real Madrid (1957, 1958, 1959) he was also runner up with Stade Reims in 1956 and therefore played in four consecutive finals.
• 2 Latin Cups (one each with Reims – 1953- and Real Madrid – 1957) he was also runner up in 1955 whilst still with Reims
Three years after he retired from playing, Kopa was awarded the Legion d’Honneur, a French order established by Napoleon. It was a huge honour, unheard of for a footballer and particularly so as it was awarded to one who had come from a Polish immigrant family. He was the first footballer ever, to be awarded the medal.
He is now aged 77 and is acknowledged of one France’s greatest ever players.