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Goals, not coal, for Kopa

For the great French international Raymond Kopa, football was a way out of the northern coal mines – as he explained to UEFA's William Gaillard.

Raymond Kopa ©AFP

Raymond Kopa will receive the UEFA President's Award from Michel Platini on Saturday at his former club Stade de Reims. Ahead of that prestigious occasion honouring the one-time France and Real Madrid CF forward, UEFA.com picks from the archives an interview with Kopa that was conducted by UEFA's William Gaillard and published in Champions magazine in June/July 2005.

Coal mining shaped the landscape of eastern Pas-de-Calais. When Raymond Kopa was born in Noeux-les-Mines in October 1931, the horizon was obstructed in all directions by 1,000m dark-grey dejection cones and the black mine towers crowned by their characteristic lift wheels. Today, the coal mines are closed and the cones are covered by a thin layer of grass, giving them the regular shape of odd man-made hills.

Kopa's family came from Poland, just like the families of tens of thousands of coal miners in northern France. His real surname, Kopaszewski, was shortened to Kopa in elementary school. His grandparents came from Krakow via Germany where his parents were born and they emigrated to France after World War I. Polish was spoken at the Kopaszewski's home. Today, Kopa is no longer fluent in the Slavic language and admits a recent trip to Poland served to remind him how French he feels.

The young Kopa began working in the mines at 14 following his grandfather, father and brother. As a galibot – the Chtimi (northern French dialect) word for coal miner – his first job was to push the wagons in the galleries' narrow tracks. He got his first football licence when he was ten with Noeux-les-Mines FC; northern France and the Polish community were then the main supply area for the country's football elite. From the start, he was determined to do everything to get out of the mine and football was an option.

"I was always playing one age category above my own. As an Under-17, I was already with Noeux-les-Mines in the French third division," Kopa says. "The chief engineer of pit three where I worked was also the club's president, but he did absolutely nothing to help my football career."

Kopa's family paid a heavy price for working down the mines: his father died at 56, a victim of silicosis, his brother at 64 of the same disease, and Raymond lost a finger in what could have been a potentially fatal accident.

In 1949, Kopa reluctantly decided to enter France's young football player trial. He won the northern competition and qualified for the national final. "The whole thing did not mean anything to me at the time, it seemed really artificial. You had to kick corners, free-kicks and go through a clocked race like a slalom." Kopa finished second.

"I thought I would get a contract from one of the big northern clubs: Lille OSC, RC Lens, Valenciennes or Roubaix [then first division sides]. So I was really disappointed when a second division side from western France, SCO Angers, made me the only offer," Kopa recalls. Angers was not a complete loss, though – it was there he met his future wife Christiane, the sister of one of his Angers team-mates, and he still spends the winter there.

After two years in the second division, French Cup winners Stade de Reims signed Kopa for a transfer fee of 1.8 million francs (£1,300 at the time). At 20, his monthly pay jumped from £14.50 to £180 and he was out of the mines for good. Rather short, 1.69m (the same height as Maradona), with very strong legs, his dribbles were already dazzling the crowds. He was amazingly efficient in possession, as if the ball was tied to his foot.

On 5 October 1952, a year after joining Reims, he won his first cap for France against West Germany and good reviews in the press. But after an all-star match against a United Kingdom side in Belfast, British journalists called his dribbling skills "diabolical". His international career spanned ten years and two FIFA World Cups and he earned 45 caps and scored 18 goals. After a game for France against Spain in Madrid, on 17 March 1955, and a sensational display, his career rocketed and the Spanish sports daily Marca nicknamed him 'Little Napoleon'.

"Reims were a great team, we played wonderful attacking football, so-called champagne football, and we were popular all over France. When we played in Paris, we had twice as many supporters as the Paris clubs," he says. "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 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 CF for three years. With the record transfer fee of £38,000, Reims bought a trio of stars: Just Fontaine, Jean Vincent and Roger Piantoni. The Madrid crowd quickly warmed to their new recruit, affectionately calling him 'Kopita' – little Kopa.

"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 – unfortunately it was the one game we were forbidden to lose, a derby against Atlético, a real shame," Kopa remembers. "Today the media call Real Madrid galácticos. I don't want to take anything away from the present team because I believe Florentino Pérez has done a great job, but really I do believe we were a better team. We had the greats, Di Stéfano, Puskás, Gento etc. Our team was better balanced, our defence excellent with Marquitos, Santamaría, Santisteban.

"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.

"It was not easy to adjust to Real Madrid at the beginning. I was playing on the right and the team were used to playing more to the left side where Francisco Gento shone. So I was a bit lonely at first, but then our attack began to acquire more balance."

Many football critics have compared Kopa to another great dribbler, the Brazilian Garrincha. Like Garrincha, Kopa was not fast, unlike Gento, but they were both quick and agile over a very short distance. Garrincha was more of a pure winger; Kopa rapidly evolved into a versatile playmaker. He was perhaps, although he declines the honour, the first classical No10.

"I loved to dribble. 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."

His mentor, both at Reims and in the French side, was Albert Batteux, who left Kopa in no doubt, telling him: "Stop reading the papers and listening to the gossip. If you don't dribble, I will kick you out of the team!" Kopa adds: "I never dribbled for pleasure but in the interest of the team. I was the greatest collective individualist in French football!

"If I had to rank the best teams in football history, I would not hesitate: first, Brazil 1970; second, our Real Madrid side; third, Cruyff's Ajax; and fourth, Brazil 1958. I played against Brazil at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. France were their equal and the score was tied at 1-1 when our captain and central defender Robert Jonquet broke his leg just before half-time. With ten against eleven, we missed a historic opportunity.

"We were an excellent French side that had also played well at the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. In 1955, we beat the West German world champions, Spain and England in the space of a few weeks. The team included many great players, a majority were the sons of immigrants from Poland, Italy and North Africa. Football was always a powerful integration factor in French society."

When asked about the greatest players, Kopa fires a quick answer: "Three stick out immediately – Pelé, Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás. Pelé because he is Pelé; Alfredo because he is a great friend – joking; and Puskás because he has always been my hero. To celebrate our league title, Reims went to see England v Hungary at Wembley in 1953. I was dazzled by Puskás. He had an incredible shot and at 35 metres from goal he was an immediate threat. He was 31 when he arrived in Madrid and overweight but still top scorer in four Ligas.

"Michel Platini was also outstanding. He played in a position similar to me, a few steps behind the centre-forward. You also need outstanding partners to leave a mark – you cannot do it alone. My era coincided with the great Reims team [1952-62]. Then came a gap of talent before the Platini generation [1976-86] and then we had to wait almost ten years for Zidane. These three generations included dozens of excellent players without whom our trio would not be remembered the way it is today. Thierry Henry has also done great things at club level, mostly in England."

As for other stars, he says: "Garrincha, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff belong to the pantheon of great players, as does Stanley Matthews. I'll also name someone that not many readers will recognise, Larbi Ben Barek. He was 15 years older than me and his international career was spoiled by World War II, but he was a great striker with whom I was lucky enough to play for France once. Among more recent players, I've already mentioned Zizou and Henry and I would like to add Ronaldo and Ronaldinho – two exceptional talents."

Kopa's views on today's football are just as balanced as his ideas about the past. "The teams seem to play to avoid losing; we went on to the pitch with one objective: winning. Everything takes place at midfield, 20 metres above where the action took place in my time, many games are decided by free-kicks or corners, it's not as pretty as it used to be. There are many outstanding players but their talent is frustrated by the system, whereas we were freer.

"Perhaps there is too much money in the game. I don't want to sound old-fashioned, the game needs it just like it needs TV coverage, but it is not always managed properly.

"Today's professionals have an easier time when they retire. I was an exception in the late 1960s. I decided not to accept a second three-year contract with Real in order to come back to France and prepare the next phase of my professional life. I launched the Kopa sportswear brand, which was successful enough to enable me to hire a few of my less fortunate football friends as reps and salesmen. I settled in Corsica, finally retired in 1991 and now spend a lot of time tending a manicured Mediterranean garden."