The footballer Raymond Kopa, who has died aged 85, is best remembered for a series of superb performances for France that helped his country to third place in the World Cup finals of 1958. But he was also a key member of the great Real Madrid side that won the European Cup three years running in 1957, 1958 and 1959.
Small but superbly balanced, with elegant control and a marvellous ability to make the killer through-pass from a central position, he was both a playmaker and a goal scorer. World Soccer magazine declared him one of the greatest 100 footballers of the 20th century, and he was certainly one of the best attacking midfielders of all time.
Kopa’s appearances in the 1958 World Cup finals were surely his zenith. Operating as a deep-lying centre-forward, he pulled the strings of the attack and made many of the goals with which Just Fontaine, his foil and partner, established a 13-goal World Cup finals record that is most unlikely to be beaten. “Those French inside-forwards are greased lightning,” said Scotland’s wing-half, Tommy Docherty, when sent to see France’s first game. They annihilated Paraguay at Norköpping, 7-3, with five goals in the second half, three for Fontaine. He, Kopa and the inside-left, Roger Piantoni, were irresistible. France went down 3-2 to Yugoslavia in their next game, but then, again in Norköpping, beat Scotland 2-1, Kopa getting the first goal.
In the quarter-finals, on the same ground, Northern Ireland were thrashed 4-0. Who knows what would have happened had Bob Jonquet, the elegant French centre-half, not been injured and forced off the field in the semi-final against Brazil in Stockholm? Kopa had been running rings around an uncertain Brazilian defence and, despite giving away a second-minute goal, France were 2-1 up at half-time. Immediately after Jonquet departed – no substitutes in those days – Didi equalised. The prolific 17-year-old Pelé followed up with a hat-trick – and France were out.
There was some consolation in the third place match, played in Gothenburg, where West Germany had no answer to Kopa’s devastating passing or Fontaine’s dynamic running, and were annihilated 6-3. Time and again the German defence was breached, with Kopa dribbling, dummying, tormenting.
Kopa, whose original surname was Kopaczewski, was born in Noeux-les-Mines in northern France, the son of a French mother and a German father of Polish origin who had moved to France to work in the coalmines. Kopa himself went down the mines as a youth, lost a finger in an accident, and thereafter took the escape route of professional football, joining Angers in 1949. From there he moved to Reims in 1951, inspiring them to two French championship titles (1953 and 1955) and a European Cup final in 1956, which was lost 4–3 in Paris to Real Madrid, to whom he transferred straight afterwards.
Kopa made up for his European Cup disappointment at Reims by winning the competition with Real Madrid over the next three seasons: 2-0 in the 1957 final against Fiorentina, with the second goal made for Paco Gento by Kopa; 3-2 versus Milan in 1958; and 2-0 against his old side Reims in 1959.
After that last victory, having also won two Spanish league titles at Real Madrid (1957 and 1958), he returned to Reims to play out the rest of his career, winning another two French league titles in 1960 and 1962 and playing his last game for them in 1967. Across his career he made a total of 541 appearances in league football, scoring 123 goals, and for France he won 45 caps, scoring 18 goals, until his retirement from international football in 1962 after France had failed to qualify for the World Cup finals in Chile that year.
In 1970 Kopa became the first footballer to receive the Légion d’Honneur, and after leaving the game he launched his own successful Kopa sportswear brand, eventually settling in Corsica, where he retired in 1991 to tend his Mediterranean garden.
He is survived by his wife, Christiane (nee Bourigault), a basketball player whom he met when he first joined Angers, and by their two daughters, Sophie and Nadine. Their son, Denis, died of cancer at the age of four in 1963.
• Raymond Kopa, footballer, born 13 October 1931; died 3 March 2017