PARIS (AP) — Raymond Kopa, a former Real Madrid attacking midfielder known as the “Napoleon of football” who became the first French player to win the Ballon d'Or, has died. He was 85.
According to family members who spoke to local newspaper Le Courrier de l'Ouest, Kopa died Friday morning after being hospitalized last week. The French soccer federation also confirmed his death.
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French President Francois Hollande said Kopa was “one of the most admired sportsmen in France.”
Small in stature like the French emperor, Kopa earned the “Napoleon” nickname after an incredible performance with France in a 2-1 win over Spain in 1955.
“Raymond Kopa's passing is plunging the federation into an immense sadness,” French federation president Noel Le Graet said. “This is a terrible loss for French football. Both his club and France careers were exceptional. Everybody has his feats in mind, and always will do. They will remain unmatched. His class, both as a player and a man, was unique.”
A graceful player with a magnificent eye for passing and for goal, Kopa won the Ballon d'Or in 1958 when he played for Real Madrid. He won the European Cup three times with the Spanish club, from 1957-59.
“Raymond Kopa was the embodiment of this institution and its values and as madridistas, we will always remember him as one of our icons,” Real Madrid president Florentino Perez said.
A versatile midfielder who could also play center forward, Kopa was also gifted with spectacular dribbling skills and speed, qualities that have often lead to comparisons with Lionel Messi.
Kopa, the son of Polish immigrants, worked in the mines as a child and lost two bones in his hand as a result of the strenuous work. He started in soccer with Angers before joining Reims, the club where he spent most of his career.
After winning four French titles with the eastern team and guiding it to a runner-up finish in the 1956 European Cup, Kopa joined Madrid for 52 million francs, a very high price at the time.
“Transfers like that were rare at the time,” Kopa said in an interview with FIFA four years ago. “I don't really know how much that would be today, but at the time it was the equivalent of three houses.
“Either way, Reims benefited from that money: they strengthened even more by buying three internationals in Just Fontaine, Roger Piantoni and Jean Vincent. So I managed to be of some use.”
The first big star of French soccer, Kopa was part of the great Real Madrid team that dominated Europe at the end of the 1950s, playing alongside Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas.
Crowned after Stanley Matthews and Di Stefano, Kopa won the Ballon d'Or 25 years before Michel Platini secured it three years in a row.
“He was a legendary character,” Platini told RTL radio. “He was harsh on us when we did not play well, so from time to time he was a bit annoying because of his critiques. You know, footballers don't like to be criticized. But we accepted (the critiques) because they came from Raymond Kopa.”
Two other French players have won the prestigious Ballon d'Or award, Jean-Pierre Papin and current Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane.
“To win the Ballon d'Or was a real high point,” Kopa said. “It's the trophy that's dearest to me because it capped a year filled with other trophies. I never would have received that magnificent honor without my Spanish title win, the European Cup and my third place at the World Cup. 1958 was my year.”
Kopa returned to Reims in 1959 and retired when he was 35 before embracing a successful career in the sports business.
Kopa played 45 times for France, scoring 18 goals. He led the French team to third place at the 1958 World Cup and was elected the tournament's best player after helping Fontaine set the record for most goals scored in a single edition of the tournament (13).
“He was like an older brother,” Fontaine told L'Equipe website. “In '58 we shared the same rooms, we'd spend nights talking about football. Raymond had a lot of character and so did I, which made for a magnificent partnership. He was a dribbler and he would only pass when he had finished his dribble. And I was always there when he did.”
Kopa's international career ended four years later following a tense relationship with then-coach Georges Verriest.