Kopa, who died last week at the age of 85, also won three European Cups and six league titles during his time at Reims and Real Madrid

8 March ~ It says everything about the esteem in which Raymond Kopa is held in France that sports daily L’Equipe dedicated its first 15 pages to him last Saturday, the day after the player’s death.

Kopa, 85, played for Angers, Reims (twice) and Real Madrid in a career that lasted nearly two decades and saw him win three European Cups (1957, 1958, 1959) and six league titles in two countries as well as the Ballon d’Or in 1958, the year he helped France finish third at the World Cup.

On page five, there was a lovely photo of Alain Giresse, star of France’s 1982 and 1986 World Cup teams, holding the signed photo Kopa had sent him when Giresse had been just eight years old.

“He was my childhood hero,” said Giresse. “One day my grandmother said, ‘We’re going to write to him!’ Some time later the autograph arrived. I think his wife must have written the ‘With best wishes to Alain Giresse’ message on the front, as his signature on the back had different handwriting and was in different ink. I always saved it – in fact, I still keep it in my bedside table.”

L’Equipe’s front-page headline – Forever the Pioneer – summed up the trailblazing reputation that Kopa has enjoyed since his playing days. He was part of France’s first successful national team in 1958, and by then already a star at Real Madrid, having made the move from France to Spain as European competitions took shape in the 1950s.

“I think Raymond was the first great French footballer,” said Michel Platini, one of only two players (Zinedine Zidane being the other) to generally rank ahead of Kopa in most people’s lists of France’s greatest-ever players. “He put French football in the shop window across the entire world.”

Local newspapers produced their own eulogies, with La Voix des Sports in north-east France adding a four-page pull-out to its traditional Monday morning edition. But perhaps the best tribute of all came on the evening of the day Kopa died, when his old club Reims travelled to Auxerre for a Ligue 2 match. Losing 1-0 with less than 10 minutes on the clock, substitute striker Grejohn Kyei equalised from close range before scoring an injury-time winner from the penalty spot to seal a 2-1 Reims triumph.

On Friday night, when Reims host Ajaccio, there will be more tributes for a player that, as Platini says, did more than any other to earn French football international recognition. James Eastham

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