Raymond Kopa’s lasting legacy
Raymond Kopa lifted league titles, European Cups and the Ballon d’or, but his greatest legacy to the game was as its most formidable activist
Raymond Kopa learned early on that he was an outsider. Born in 1931 to Polish immigrant parents drawn from Krakow to France’s industrial north to work down the mines, as a teen he discovered his name made him a second-class citizen.
“I visited five or six electricians and introduced myself the same way every time,” he remembered of his attempts to earn an apprenticeship in the 1940s. “I would say, ‘Good day, I’d like to be an electrician.’ They’d reply, ‘Great, what’s your name?’ ‘Raymond Kopaszewski...’
“Immediately, the smile disappeared and the countenance hardened. ‘I am sorry, we don’t have anything.’ So I had to give up on my dreams.”
In post-war France, Poles were seen as good for heaving coal but little else. They came to help a nation depleted of manpower after the Second World War, but were hardly welcomed in the bleak landscape of Nord–pas-de-calais. Down the pits, the newcomers’ role was to do jobs the locals didn’t much fancy, often scraping fuel fragments from the floor.
Kopa, his name shortened at school to make it easier for French people to pronounce, soon worked with his dad and almost died as a result.
Aged 16, while pushing a cart along a deep shaft, the ceiling cracked and rocks tumbled upon him. He escaped with just a severed finger and wouldn’t work well with his hands again. Luckily, there was magic in his feet.
But as Raymond progressed through a sublime football career, the injustices experienced in his youth never left him. He went on to become one of the most remarkable players in European history, but perhaps the most incredible thing of all about Kopa was that his off-field actions were just as notable.
Imagine Leo Messi crossed with union agitator Bob Crow or a game-changing revolutionary like Jimmy Hill with Johan Cruyff’s talent, and you are some way to conceiving France’s sporting maverick.
Kopa’s firebrand nature grew through football. As with England’s North East, French mining firms played a key role in the development of sport and political activism. Clubs recruited workers, and the Poles could play: in the 1948 French Cup Final between Lille and Lens, nine starters were of Polish origin.
Kopa was an obvious prospect. “I was always playing one age category above my own,” he stated. But his personality marked him out. An aggressive player who loved to dribble, he was dismissed as “too much of an individualist or too bolshie”. Whether through his attitude or politics remains unclear.
He played for Noeux-les-mines, in the French third tier, aged 17. The president was also chief engineer at the mine, yet Kopa noted bitterly that he “did nothing to help my football career.” As a result, he missed out on joining a powerhouse club, as his talent justified, and had to settle for a Second Division side in 1949. “I thought I would get a contract from one of the big northern teams – Lille or Lens,” he recalled. “I was disappointed when Angers made me the only offer.”
Two seasons of stellar performances would eventually secure him a transfer to Stade de Reims – then the best team in France. There, he ran riot. Just 5ft 6in, Raymond was a Stanley Matthews-style wizard of the dribble, deceiving players with ease and supplying pinpoint passes. He pulled the strings as Reims won the title twice, in 1953 and ’55.
During a 1955 international friendly which France were expected to lose to Spain, Kopa equalised before creating the winner in Madrid, making the wider world sit up and take notice. “He is the Napoleon of football,” wrote the British journalist Desmond Hackett.
His brilliance guided Reims to the first ever European Cup final in 1956, where they were beaten 4-3 by Real Madrid in Paris. Raymond had already agreed to join Real the following season – making him the first Frenchman to play abroad – but fought hard for Reims at the Parc des Princes to avoid any accusations of favouring his new employers.
“I left the second best team in Europe to join the best team of all time,” Kopa later explained, and few could dispute the majesty of his Madrid team-mates.
He felt Brazil in 1970 were the only XI in football history finer than their side. “The media call Real Madrid Galacticos,” he stated in 2011, “but I do believe we were a better team. We had the greats: Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano [both top left with Kopa] and Francisco Gento, with an excellent defence in Marquitos, Juan Santisteban and Jose Santamaria.”
Kopa was central to three consecutive European Cup triumphs and also widely considered the best player at the 1958 World Cup – which featured Pele – even though France eventually fell to Brazil in the semi-finals. Raymond laid on many of Just Fontaine’s record-smashing 13 goals – the two were room-mates and had a relationship often described as telepathic – and he went on to scoop the Ballon d’or in 1958.
It proved to be Kopa’s zenith. In ’59, he returned to Reims where he’d reap two more league titles.
However, it was here that the political animal in Kopa would properly emerge. In 1963, the midfielder co-founded the French Players’ Union – annoyed at the lack of say that he and his team-mates had in their own freedom of movement. French clubs held ‘property rights’ over players until they were 34: their ability to choose a transfer often only arrived when they were well past their prime.
“Players are slaves,” he said during his campaigns. “The professional footballer is the only man who can still be bought and sold without consent.” Authorities became agitated, and Kopa was given a six-month playing ban.
It didn’t deter him, though. In 1968, with industrial unrest sweeping across Europe, France came to a standstill as more than 10 million workers went on strike. In Paris, nearly a million students and workers marched, desperate for an end to Charles de Gaulle’s authoritarian rule, and for increased pay and hours.
Leading a small band of professional footballers was Kopa. And the pressure worked – settlements were eventually made across the board and, by ’69, the system changed to favour footballers. The UNFP Players’ Union gave contract rights back to players. Kopa had helped force one of his most famous victories.
Raymond remained inventive for the rest of his life, developing his very own sportswear brand as well as marketing all manner of products such as clothes and fruit juice. All the while, he indulged his lifetime’s greatest passion: fishing. Nowhere was Kopa more content than on a remote lake with rod in hand (left).
He died in March this year, aged 85. His impact was so vast, L’equipe chose to dedicate its first 15 pages to Kopa’s legacy. France Football rank only Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane – perhaps not coincidentally, sons of immigrants too – as better players.
In 1970, Kopa had been the first ever footballer to earn the Legion d’honneur: quite the journey for someone who had initially started with nothing. And he never forgot his roots.
His father and brother had both died early from the miner’s disease silicosis, but over his long life workers’ rights had improved. “Today’s professionals have an easier time,” said Kopa in retirement, and it was in no small part down to him.
IMAGINE A GAME-CHANGER LIKE JIMMY HILL WITH CRUYFF’S TALENT AND YOU GET AN IDEA OF FRANCE’S SPORTING MAVERICK