Like most of the men in his home town of Noeux-les-Mines, French footballing legend Raymond Kopa started working down the local coal mines when he was 14. But even a strenuous job pushing coal trucks could not sap the youngster born of Polish parents' passion for football as he turned out for Noeux-les-Mines FC.
Losing a finger in a mining accident may have helped confirm to Kopa that life down a mineshaft was not for him, but it was still with some reluctance that he decided to enter the trials for French young footballers in 1949, the year that he celebrated his 18th birthday.
He won the northern competition and qualified for the national final, eventually finishing second. "The whole thing did not mean anything to me at the time, it seemed really artificial," he told Champions. "You had to kick corners, free-kicks and go through a clocked race like a slalom.
"I thought I would get a contract from one of the big northern clubs: Lille [OSC], [RC] Lens, Valenciennes [FC] or Roubaix (then first division sides)," he added. "So I was really disappointed when a second division side from western France, [SCO] Angers made me the only offer."
Angers was not a complete dead loss, though - it was where he met his future wife Christiane, and after two years in the second division, French Cup winners Stade de Reims Champagne signed Kopa for a transfer fee of FR1.8m.
Rather short with very strong legs, his dribbles were already dazzling the crowds. "I loved to dribble," he recalled. "Dribbling was my key ability, where I could really make a difference. The media and public at first thought I dribbled too much. But what could I do? This was my main weapon, my way to play the game."
On 5 October 1952, a year after joining Reims, he won his first cap for France against West Germany. His international career spanned ten years and two FIFA World Cups and he earned 45 caps and scored 18 goals. Meanwhile, his domestic career continued to go from strength to strength.
"Reims were a great team, we played wonderful attacking football, so-called 'champagne football', and we were popular all over France," he remembered. "In 1953, we beat AC Milan 3-0 in the final of the Latin Cup [a forerunner of the European Champion Clubs' Cup]. Milan had made me an offer, but I wanted to play for Real Madrid [CF] because they were the best club in the world."
Within a year, Kopa had signed one of the most lucrative contracts of the 1950s, tying him to Real Madrid for three years. Kopa said: "They were three fantastic years, we won three European Cups, two Spanish League titles and only lost one game at home in the whole period.
"Today the media call Real Madrid galácticos," he added. "I don't want to take anything away from the present team, but I really do believe we were a better team. The atmosphere at games was fantastic, 125,000 spectators waving white handkerchiefs. We had no sponsors, no television coverage, we had to play friendlies all over the world in order to make money for the club. They were definitely different times."
This is an edited version of an article that appears in issue 11 of Champions, the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League. Click here to subscribe.
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