PARIS, France (AFP) - French football legend Raymond Kopa, who won the European Cup three times with Real Madrid in the 1950s, died on Friday (March 3) aged 85 after a long illness.
Tributes poured in for the player who was the first to blaze the trail from the French league to Europe's glamour sides that has since been followed by Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane and now Paul Pogba.
The French Football League said a minute's silence would be observed before all weekend games (March 4/5) in honour of the man who rose from a poor mining family in northern France to become one of Europe's greatest players.
At the pinnacle of his career in the 1950s Kopa played in a Real Madrid team alongside Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas.
On top of the European Cups, he took the Ballon d'Or player of the year award in 1958, the same year that he was a central part of the French side beaten by Pele's Brazil in a classic World Cup semi-final.
"He died at 8.15am after his illness worsened. Raymond had been in hospital since Sunday," his son-in-law William Boucher said.
French President Francois Hollande said in a statement Kopa, who scored 18 goals in 45 games for his country, was "one of France's most admired sportsmen."
France national coach Didier Deschamps said: "Without exaggeration, France has lost a legend."
For Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, "Kopa was the embodiment of this institution and its values."
Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said: "He showed us the way, as a man and a person. He was one of our own and we are deeply saddened."
The attacking midfielder, whose real name was Kopaszewski, embarked on a career in football after he failed to qualify for a mining job.
The youth could not become a miner because of an accident which led to the amputation of part of two of his fingers. He was rejected by several northern clubs because at 1.68m he was considered too small for top flight football.
But he made a name for himself as a teenager playing for Angers and moved to Reims in 1951 aged 19. Reims lost to Real Madrid in the 1956 European Cup final, but Kopa made his mark. He moved to the Spanish capital weeks later, linking up with another legend, di Stefano, in one of the greatest Real teams of all time.
"I was the first French player to leave the country. A lot of people called me a traitor," he said later. "My only fault was to be the precursor."
With Real he won the European Cup in 1957. He went on to win two more European Cups in 1958 and 1959 with the Spanish giants. He scored 30 goals in 103 games over three seasons with Real.
"We got crowds of 120,000 in those days at the Bernabeu stadium. It was something unique to be the centre of attention of all those people and alongside such great players," he said.
The team was so good, he said, "we could have played on one leg and it would still have been enough." He became the first French player to win the Ballon d'Or as Europe's player of the year, after placing third in 1956 and 1957. He was second in 1959.
Kopa remains one of only three players, along with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, to have figured four times in the Ballon d'Or's top three.
In 1959, he returned to Reims and continued to play until 1967. The city announced on Friday they planned to erect a statue in his honour.
In retirement, Kopa became a passionate advocate for greater player power in their contracts with clubs.