Friday, March 3, 2017

Raymond Kopa, 1931-2017

The 1st great French soccer player -- and the greatest Polish Frenchman since Frederic Chopin -- is no longer with us. It is another reminder of the passage of time, as the heroes of the 1950s, in all walks of life, are reaching the ends of their stories.

Raymond Kopaszewski was born on October 13, 1931 (a week before Mickey Mantle) in Nœux-les-Mines, Pas-de-Calais, France. His parents were born in Germany, his grandparents in Krakow, the great city of ancient Poland. They left Germany during World War I and went to France, and the family name was shortened to Kopa when he was a boy. Like his father and grandfather before him, he became a coal miner -- at age 14. He lost a finger in a work accident.

In 1949, just 17, the midfielder was signed by SCO Angers, then in Ligue 2 (French soccer's 2nd division). By 1951, despite having grown to only 5 feet, 6 1/2 inches, he had attracted the attention of Stade de Reims, who had won the Ligue 1 title in 1949 and the Coupe de France in 1950. Kopa would help them win the league again in 1953 and 1955. Reims wore red shirts with white sleeves, reminiscent of North London club Arsenal.

In 1953, led by Kopa, Reims won the Latin Cup, a tournament for teams from France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, beating AC Milan in the Final. Reims were the only French team ever to win it. (Barcelona won it in 1949 and 1952, Benfica of Lisbon in 1950, Milan in 1951 and 1956, and Real Madrid in 1955 and 1957. It wasn't held in 1954, and by 1957 it was redundant.)

The Latin Cup, the Mitropa Cup (Central Europe except for Germany) and the European Railways Cup (Eastern Europe) were precursors to the European Champion Clubs' Cup, shortened to the European Cup and, since 1992, known as the UEFA Champions League. The 1st one was held in the 1955-56 season, and Reims got all the way to the Final, losing to Real Madrid 4-3 at the Parc des Princes in Paris.

That Madrid team already had the great Argentine forward Alfredo Di Stéfano. Through purchasing him, their president, Santiago Bernabeu had shown that he would spend whatever it took to bring the club additional glories. They had already seen him play for the France national team against Spain in Madrid in 1955, with Marca, Spain's leading sports-themed newspaper, calling him "The Little Napoleon." By 1959, they had, arguably, the 3 best players in the world: Di Stéfano, Kopa, and the great Hungarian star Ferenc Puskás -- the Napoleon of Football, the Blond Arrow and the Galloping Major.

Real Madrid won the 1st 5 European Cups, the middle 3 of these with Kopa: Defeating Florence, Italy's Fiorentina in 1957 in front of 124,000 people at their home stadium, the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu; beating Milan in 1958 at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium; beating Reims again, with the great Just Fontaine having replaced Kopa, in 1959 at the Neckarstadion in Stuttgart, Germany; and capping it in 1960, in front of 127,621 at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland, coming from an early 1-0 deficit to defeat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3.
Kopa and Di Stéfano, with the 1957 European Cup

Kopa was selected for the France team for the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, but they did not advance out of their group. In the 1958 edition in Sweden, he scored in France's Group Stage matches with Paraguay and Scotland. He did not score in their Group Stage match with Yugoslavia. Guess which one they lost. They won their Group, and defeated Northern Ireland in the Quarterfinal before falling to Brazil in the Semifinal. This would be France's best performance in a World Cup until winning it on home soil in 1998.
Kopa and Fontaine at the 1958 World Cup

Having won the European Cup and been the best European player at the World Cup, France Football magazine awarded Kopa the Ballon d'Or (Golden Ball) as world footballer of the year. He was the 1st French player to receive it.

He returned to Reims for the 1959-60 season, and helped them win the Ligue that year and in 1962. He remained with them through 1967. It shows the difference between Real Madrid and other European clubs of the 1950s: At Reims, Kopa is the greatest player ever; at the Bernabeu, he's simply one of many legends.

He married Christiane, the sister of an Angers teammate. He never returned to an official role in soccer after retiring as a player, moved to the French Mediterranean island of Corsica -- Napoleon Bonaparte's birthplace, somewhat appropriately -- and finally returned to Angers. He launched a successful sportswear line and wrote a memoir. In 1970, he became the 1st footballer to receive France's highest civilian honor, Le Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur.
Raymond Kopa died on the morning (overnight, our time) of March 3, 2017, in Angers, at the age of 85.

Noël Le Graët, the president of the French Football Federation, said in a statement: “The passing of Raymond Kopa plunges the federation into immense sadness. It’s a terrible loss for French football. Raymond Kopa is among the legends. He was a symbolic player and a forerunner. His career with his clubs, as with the France team, was exceptional."

Francisco Gento, still the only man to win 6 European Cups, was already the last surviving player from Los Blancos' triumph in the 1st European Cup in 1956. He is now the last survivor from their 1957 win as well.

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