The 1958 World Cup was marked by a number of outstanding performances, yet perhaps the best player in Sweden was France’s diminutive attacking midfielder, Raymond Kopa.
Kopa was born in 1931 in Noeux-les-Mines, a mining district in northern France. His family were Polish immigrants who had migrated to France via Germany. Initially following his father and elder brother into the mines, he began as a professional with Angers in Ligue 2 at the age of 18 before moving to Ligue 1 side Stade de Reims in 1951.
At Reims, he was part of a successful side that won the Ligue 1 title in 1952/53 and 1954/55 and the Latin Cup in 1953, scoring twice in the 3-0 defeat of AC Milan in the final. He also made a significant impression in the very first European Cup competition in 1955/56, as the French champions progressed to the final before going down 4-3 to Real Madrid.
The following season, he was playing for Madrid alongside some of the best players in world football. Kopa won two La Liga championships and three consecutive European Cups in his three seasons with Los Blancos. In the 1958/59 final, Real beat Kopa’s former club Reims 2-0 in Nuremberg.
Kopa was recognised across Europe as a fabulously skilled footballer. He was a technical player, particularly noted for his dribbling prowess and the incisiveness of his passing. His specialism was the final pass. However, Kopa was not always popular among French sports writers, some of whom noted his ‘contempt’ for defence and his celebration of the pleasure of playing over and above the business of getting results.
Those critics had to backtrack when the unfancied French squad built around Kopa performed so well in Sweden in 1958. Kopa scored three goals and set up most of Just Fontaine’s goals on the way to the semi-finals. Named in the team of the tournament, Kopa was also awarded the Ballon d’Or in 1958. Madrid president Santiago Bernabéu considered him to be the best player in the world at this time.
Kopa returned to Reims in 1959, winning another two French championships before retiring in 1967. But his impact on football in France and beyond was far reaching. In 1970, he was the first footballer to receive the Légion d’honneur while in 2018 (a year after his death), France Football named its award for the best player under the age of 21 the Kopa Trophy. The first recipient of the Kopa Trophy was fellow Frenchman Kylian Mbappé.
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