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

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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.


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