During his spell in Spain, Real Madrid legend Raymond Kopa established himself as the foremost No 10 in Europe and paved a path for others to follow.
As the creative heartbeat of the great Stade Reims team of the mid-1950s, Frenchman Kopa developed his reputation after winning the Ligue 1 title in 1953 and 1955. During the inaugural European Cup in 1955-56, he led Reims to a final showdown against Real Madrid where the Spanish champions prevailed 4-3 in Paris. Despite the defeat, Kopa did enough to convince Madrid to add the ‘Napoleon of Football’ to their growing collection of talent.
In the Spanish capital, Kopa further demonstrated his versatile playmaking skills. Initially an outside-right at SCO Angers and Reims, he moved into the centre where his nimble dribbling ability and capacity to spot a pass enabled him to have a greater impact. Never blessed with great speed, he was nonetheless sharp over short bursts and, as an inside-right, offered a complementary threat to the sheer pace of Francisco Gento on the left wing.
It was during 1957-58 that the 26-year-old Kopa enjoyed the outstanding season of his career. In a talent-laden attacking line, he became a pivotal presence in a unit that steamrolled its way to continued domestic and continental success. Fans nicknamed him ‘Kopita’ in respect of his small frame that allowed him to wriggle through the tightest of midfield situations. Getting on the end of the French player’s assists was Alfredo Di Stefano, whose goals fired Los Blancos to another European Cup title.
During the summer of 1958, France were considered as one of the favourites for the World Cup in Sweden. Kopa had an outstanding tournament, with the French forward creating for top scorer Just Fontaine. In the semi-finals, they met a Brazil side that Kopa would later regard as the fourth greatest in the history of the game. With the scores tied at 1-1 and the match in the balance, French captain and central defender Robert Jonquet broke his leg and ‘with 10 against 11, we missed an historic opportunity,’ lamented Kopa.
Whether it was Di Stefano, Fontaine or Ferenc Puskas who would join Madrid that summer, Kopa got the best out of them all. Michel Platini later described Kopa as ‘the precursor of the modern No 10’, who was ‘one of the first to attempt the great adventure of moving to another country’. In doing so and, in winning the Ballon D’Or in 1958, the Reims and Real Madrid star set a blueprint for the likes of fellow countrymen Platini and Zinedine Zidane to follow.