The Polish immigrant as hero: The case of Raymond Kopa

Raymond Kopa

Raymond Kopa after winning the European Cup with Real Madrid in 1957

It is the spring of 1959, the supremely gifted French international Raymond Kopa is hosting the Real Madrid official Raimundo Saporta in his Madrid home to discuss a contract extension.  It has been a gloriously successful couple of years for France, Real and Kopa himself.  The side from Madrid are on their way to winning their third successive European Cup and in 1958 Kopa had led his country to a sensational third place in the World Cup, collecting the Ballon d’or in the process.  Saporta’s discussion with Kopa was intense; the Real official sought to tie the French international to a long-term deal, whereas Kopa preferred to return to France sooner rather than later.  As the two men negotiated a deal, they did so over a delicious speciality prepared by Kopa’s wife Christiane.  But what food would the Kopa’s choose to sway Saporta?  Was Saporta serenaded with a fine coq au vin or a bouillabaisse? Were fine French cheeses paraded for his delectation?  The answer is none of the above but rather the Polish staple bigos, for Kopa came into the world as Raymond Kopaszewski, the son of Polish immigrants in the North of France.

How did the offspring of Polish migrants reach the very height of the world game?  How important was Poland and Polishness to Kopa?  The story that follows is one of migration, hardship and unprecedented success, all driven by the dancing feet of a football magician.

Poland migrates to France

Our story begins as the dust was still settling at the end of the Great War.  At this time the industrial areas of north-east France lay in ruins as a result of the German occupation of the region.  To get the area back on its feet, France desperately required workers to man its coal-mines; something they lacked due to the enormous loss of life during the conflict.  To find a new labour force France looked abroad and one of the primary directions was to the east.  In September 1919 France signed a treaty with the newly-established Polish state permitting Polish industrial workers to work legally within its borders.  Thus Polish miners flooded into France, at first from the German region of Westphalia, where many had worked before the war, but as the 1920s went on Poles also moved west from the Polish industrial region of Silesia.

Due to this movement a considerable Polish community developed in France.  Indeed in 1931 half a million Poles lived in France which was 20% of the entire foreign born population of the country.  Poles were primarily located in the north-east of France, in the region of Nord–Pas-de-Calais where France’s coal-mines stood.  Portrayed memorably by Émile Zola in his classic realist novel Germinal, this area of France was far removed from the romance of the city of light or the tree-lined roads of Provence.  Here Poles encountered a gloomy, grey and black land where life was tough and work was difficult.  In the mines their primary task was to do the work that French workers would not do but for worse pay.  This often meant dredging up coal from the mine floor; an activity which could, and often did, lead to tragic consequences.  The Polish community did however do its best to adapt, setting up shops, cafes and communal societies and their children in the main attended French schools and started to assimilate.

Poles scoring goals

Many Poles strived to improve their lot in France.  One way of escaping poverty was football.  Indeed players of Polish descent would go on to play an important role in the French football world.  In 1986 a L’Equipe survey found that 6% of all players representing the French national team from its inception in 1904 were of Polish descent.  In the 1938 World Cup two players of Polish roots were called up to the French squad, Ignace Kowalczyk and Martin Povolny, although neither got any playing time.

After the Second World War ethnically Polish footballers played more of an important role in France, this was particularly due to the policies of clubs in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais.  Marion Fontaine in her excellent social history about Racing Club de Lens explains how state mining companies sought to bind workers to the club as a means of social cohesion in an area known for its class tension.  As a result the club consciously recruited workers as players.  And, as Poles made up a considerable part of the local workforce, they also commonly represented Lens.  In the two decades after the war a host of players of Polish descent appeared for the club: Maryan Wisniewski, Theo Szkludlaski, Stephan Ziemczak, Arnold Sowinski and Georges Lech the most famous amongst them.  Indeed in the 1949 French Cup final between Lens and Lille nine of the players who initially took the field were of Polish descent.  Polish immigration thus had a considerable impact on French football as it became a mass sport after the Second World War.

Lens 1955-6

Lens club photo from the 1955-6 season.  The squad included Sowinski, Wisniewski, Oswarzak, Ziemczak, Ganczarzik

Kopa(szewski)’s beginnings

The Kopaszewski family’s move to France was like that of so many Poles at the end of the First World War.  In 1919 Raymond Kopa’s grandfather decided to emigrate with his wife and four children to the north of France in search of a better life.  The Kopaszewski family settled in the small mining town of Nœux-les-Mines, not far from Lille.  Kopa’s grandfather had been a miner in Poland and continued with this work in France.  Kopa’s father François (Franciszek) was also a miner by trade, along with his brother Henri.

Raymond Kopaszewski came into the world on 13 October 1931 to two parents of Polish origin, François and Hélène (Helena).  At home Kopa was brought up in a Polish environment, indeed his parents only spoke Polish with the young Raymond.  From an early age it was clear that Kopa was destined to carry on the family tradition and become a miner.  Raymond never excelled at school, something that he blamed in his autobiography Mon football on the fact he had not spoken French at home.  He was however not enamoured to say the least about the prospects of a career in the mines:

‘I saw my father and brother going to work…When they worked the morning shift they got up at four in the morning.  They woke my brother and I up and my mother made them coffee.  They got washed and dressed and went off to the mines.  And I watched them and noticed everything.  I knew that this horrible life would soon be my life too.  I wasn’t at all comforted by the prospect…. but I was 14 and I knew that my parents expected me to work, they needed the extra money.’

Kopa agreed to work in the mines but he desperately tried to find a new career.  His main hope was to become an electrician so he traipsed around the local area in an attempt to be taken on as an apprentice.  Unfortunately he soon found out that Polish immigrants were not expected to do anything else but work in the mines:

‘I visited five or six electricians and introduced myself the same way every time:

– Good day, I’d like to be an electrician’s apprentice.

That’s great.  What’s your name?

Raymond Kopaszewski

Immediately the smile disappeared from the man’s face and his countenance hardened.

I’m sorry but we don’t have anything for you.

There’s no chance at all?

Sorry, we really don’t have anything.  If something turns up we’ll get back to you.  Please leave your address with the secretary.

Of course I never received a reply.  In the end I realised that all hope was lost.  The place of a Pole was down the mines.  I had to give up my dreams.’

With his hope’s of a better job gone Kopa worked in the mines for two and a half years.  His job was to push coal carts along the bottom of a 600 metre-deep mineshaft for eight hours a day.  It was boring and exhausting work and Kopa was always afraid of accidents occurring; including that of falling rocks and gas explosions.  When he was 16 he was the victim of one such accident.  As he pushed an empty cart along the mine-shaft floor he noticed a crack in the ceiling.  Moments later a rock fell and took off half of one of his fingers.  Luckily a miner friend found him quickly and took him up to the surface.  After this Kopa had a six month break from the mines and, when he returned to work there, he was given a more comfortable job on the surface.  Kopa’s work in the mines would turn out to be an important formative experience for him.  In times of later success he always considered himself to be very lucky to have been able to avoid such a dangerous career.  Memories of the mines drove him on to succeed in other areas.

Kopa and football

Football was important to Kopa from an early age.  He remembered how when visiting his grandparents’ he had looked in awe at people playing football at the stadium close by.  His first experiences playing the game were however with a gang of local kids in Nœux-les-Mines:

‘When I was eight years old I created my first football team.  Most of my friends were of Polish descent, so we set up two teams and the Poles played against the French.  Most of the time we didn’t use a football but kicked around a bundled-up rag or even a tin-can.’

The young Kopa also did his best to play football at the town stadium.  Indeed his autobiography speaks of the battles that local youths had with the stadium’s security guard who tried to stop them from playing on, and thus as a consequence ruining, the turf.  Kopa spent all his free-time kicking a ball or thinking about kicking one; something which is of course common amongst those who make it far in the game.  But he never considered that his passion for football would lead anywhere – it was just something he loved to do in his free-time and helped him forget about his day-to-day worries.  His future was to be in the mines and seemingly nothing could prevent this fate.

Kopa was however unusually talented at the sport.  The first person to notice him was the coach of Nœux-les-Mines, Constant Tison, who told Kopa when he played in the club’s youth team at 14 that: ‘You little man will go far, just make sure to put enough effort in.’  His first big break was as an 18 year old when he took part in a competition in Lille to decide the best player in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais.  Kopa did excellently in the northern French city and made it to the final in Paris.  There he came in second place and caught the eye of the famous L’Equipe journalist Gabriel Hanot who was a judge in the competition.

This event put his name on the French football map and many clubs sought to acquire his signature.  It would have been natural for a club from the north to sign Kopa due to his miner background but for some reason neither Lens or Lille took a chance on him.  Kopa himself believed that these clubs saw him as: ‘too small, too thin and too much of an individualist…or too bolshie.’  Whatever it was the clubs missed out on the most talented player to ever come from their region and, in 1949, Kopa was swooped up by second division club SCO Angers.

Kopa’s career in full-flow

Kopa went on to have a glittering career in France with Angers, Reims and Real Madrid.  This has been exhaustively documented elsewhere. This article will instead focus on Kopa’s Polishness and his identity as an immigrant.  Despite this certain things should be explained.  First of all Kopa was seen as the greatest French player of his generation, leading the great Stade de Reims side to four French titles in 1953, 1955, 1960 and 1962 and to the final of the inaugural European cup in 1956.  In addition he played a key role in the France side which shocked the world by finishing third in the 1958 World Cup finals.  He also managed to win two Spanish championships and three European cups with Real Madrid in the late 1950s.

Final of the 1956 European Cup – Real Madrid 4 Stade de Reims 3

At Reims he was the leading light of a club which loved to play the game the ‘right’ way – the ball was to be caressed and moved between players via short passes.  Kopa flourished here under Albert Batteux, the most decorated French league coach ever.  Batteux was an inspiration to Kopa who trusted the coach instinctively, Batteux in turn saw Kopa as central to his way of playing.  Kopa’s main skill was dribbling;  from early in his career he was famed for taking the ball past an opponent in this way.

So intoxicating were Kopa’s ball skills that there were even heated debates in the press over his dribbling.  The Communist sporting press adored Kopa’s skills – seeing them as being redolent of a more romantic care-free age – whereas the more rightist press such as L’equipe often saw Kopa’s dribbling as running contrary to the modern quality of efficiency.  The player himself tended to stay out of political disputes but that did not stop newspapers from attaching political meaning to his actions on the field and off it.

For the French national team, Kopa is most known for his wonderful double-act with Just Fontaine during the 1958 World Cup finals.  In Fontaine Kopa found a centre-forward who instinctively read his passes, and was able to finish expertly.  In the semi-final against Brazil, which France lost 5-2, Kopa provided a beautiful assist for Fontaine’s goal in the ninth minute.

Kopa’s skills in the 1958 World Cup Semi-final

While playing for Real Madrid between 1956-9 Kopa, while important, was just one of an array of stars in the Spanish capital.  His autobiography recalls the intensity and leadership skills of Alfredo di Stefano and the supreme talent of Ferenc Puskás.  Kopa however did not feel entirely comfortable in Spain and returned to France and Reims in 1959.  He played the final years of his career for the side from the Champagne-Ardenne region.  Kopa as a player had thus come far from his humble beginnings in the mines of the Nord-Pas-De-Calais but how did he see himself in relation to Poland?

Kopa and Polishness

Kopa had a relatively unambiguous position towards his own nationality.  He felt that he was French and whenever he could stressed that this was the case, despite never disrespecting where he came from.  The main way Kopa underlined his Frenchness was his attitude to the national team.  For him it was self-evident that he would represent France, and he did not for a minute consider playing for Poland.  Kopa however could not officially opt for French citizenship until he was 21 years old.  In his autobiography he recalled the irritation he felt when he could not represent France at youth level despite being called up to the squad:

‘I had lots of problems because I was the son of a Pole…(The France youth team’s coaches) knew only too well that I wanted to be a French citizen, but they didn’t want to complicate matters by trying to sort out a passport for me.  Unfortunately this meant I was replaced by someone else.  Of course I was disappointed.  Appearing for the national youth team is especially important for a future professional.’

When Kopa finally became a French citizen and appeared for the national team he treated it almost as if it was a religious experience:

‘Every time I play for France I listen to the Marseillaise religiously.  My feet are rooted to the spot.  The words reverberate inside me.  The song grabs me and won’t let go.  It takes me a long time to come to my senses after it.  Without denying my Polish roots I tell myself that I will do my all for France.  I will play for her but also for me.’

In addition to the depth of feeling Kopa felt towards France in football terms Wahl and Lafranchi explain how publicly he made it very clear where his allegiances lay:

‘Numerous press photos of Kopa in his military uniform testify to this strong desire to be French. He was a more than willing partner in the publicity and endlessly and rather ostentatiously reiterated his pride in being French, of representing his country, of ‘defending the French colours to the limits of his powers’. His whole story was designed to show how well-integrated he was and, like many new French citizens, how happy to be so well accepted.’

While the above citations certainly suggest that French identity was a central concern for Kopa, if you look closely his Frenchness is a little more complex.  For example in his autobiography he speaks with pride about the resourcefulness of Poles:

‘Poles have always been a nation of travellers.  They are brave, hard-working and honest.  They’ve never been afraid of leaving their homeland to escape from poverty and ensure their family’s well-being somewhere new.  They’ve become good Frenchmen, Americans and Canadians…but in their hearts they’ve always maintained their love for their homeland, its traditions, songs and holidays….I’ve never denied my origins.  If I wasn’t Polish I wouldn’t have had to fight as hard as I did.’

In addition Kopa speaks warmly of other players in France who were of Polish origin.  One of these, Léon Glovacki, was his favourite partner-in-crime during his early years at Reims.  Kopa enjoyed playing alongside Glovacki even more than the great Just Fontaine.  He also states how he had once counted that eight ‘Poles’ had played for the French national team during his career and that: ‘Poles have really done their bit for French football!’  Finally in the after-word to the Polish edition of his autobiography (Published in 1975) he proclaims how happy he was to see Poland performing so well in the 1974 World Cup.  This is expressed as an outsider looking in but still illustrates that Kopa did not think of himself ‘purely’ as a Frenchman.


Léon Glovacki (1928-2009)

Raymond Kopa(szewski)’s story is primarily one of the immigrant social-climber.  From difficult beginnings Kopa was able to rise to the very height of the world game through a mixture of talent and hard-work.  In terms of Polishness, Kopa realised the importance of his upbringing but on the whole used his immigrant background as a spur to achieve success on the football field.  As soon as he could he consciously took on French citizenship and it became an important badge of honour for him.  Perhaps his greatest motivating factor though was his experience of working in the mines at a young age.  The fear that he might have to spend his life working in such unsafe conditions meant he fought for everything on the football pitch and pushed him onwards.  Every day he played football professionally he reminded himself of those 4am wake-ups and eight hour days down the mines.  Many Polish immigrants in France were not so lucky.

To write this piece I received assistance from Marek Wawrzynowski, Piotr Żelazny, Tristan Trasca, Régis Delanoë, Stefan Kubiczyn

I also consulted the Polish edition of Kopa’s biography Piłka i ja (1975), Marion Fontaine’s Le Racing Club de Lens et les ‘Gueules Noires’. Essai d’histoire sociale (2010), Pierre Lafranchi and Alfred Wahl, ‘The Immigrant as Hero: Kopa, Mekloufi and French Football.’ The International Journal of the History of Sport (1996), Xavier Béal ‘Football et immigration: Les figures de Kopa, Platini, Zidane dans les médias.’ (2007), Didier Braun ‘L’ÉQUIPE DE FRANCE DE FOOTBALL,C’EST L’HISTOIRE EN RACCOURCI D’UN SIÈCLE D’IMMIGRATION.’ (2000) and Ludwik Krzywicki (ed.), Pamiętniki emigrantów : Francja (1939).

5 thoughts on “The Polish immigrant as hero: The case of Raymond Kopa

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