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Posted in July 2013.

Pelé, Di Stéfano, Puskás, Romário: if asked to name the greatest goal-scorers of all time, these names would trip off the tongue of most knowledgeable football fans. But as is often the case, a player with less of a reputation, playing for a club not considered amongst Europe’s established elite, often seems to fall below the radar. For according to statistical organisation the IFFHS (International Federation of Football History & Statistics), the greatest goalscorer of the last century is not Pelé or Romário, but Josef ‘Pepi’ Bican, Slavia Prague’s greatest ever player.

Born to a Viennese-Czech mother and Czech father in Vienna in 1913, Bican grew up with the consequences of World War One, which left the imperial city under an entente embargo, severely limiting supplies to the population, leaving many starving or in poverty. Playing barefoot and using a bundle of rags known as a ‘hadrak’ for a ball as leather footballs were too expensive, Bican and friends from the neighbourhood would play football “all day, from morning to evening”, while their parents lived on the breadline, plotting their way out of a life of poverty.

In 1925, with Vienna only now emerging from the devastation of the war, Bican joined the junior ranks of his father’s club, Hertha Vienna, earning a schilling for every goal he scored. At the age of 18, Bican’s talents were spotted by the city’s biggest club, Rapid Vienna, and it was there that Bican was able to truly showcase his ability on the big stage. In his four years at the club, Bican scored 52 goals in 49 appearances and earned 30 caps for Austria, notching an impressive 19 goals. In 1935, Bican made a controversial move to city rivals Admira, where he scored 18 goals in 26 appearances.

In 1937, with Hitler’s Nazi party seizing control of Austria, Pepi decided to leave Vienna for his father’s homeland of Czechoslovakia, joining the all-conquering Slavia Prague, winner of seven of the previous ten Czechoslovak league titles. It was here that Bican would truly establish his legend. In his 11-year stint at Slavia, Bican would play 217 games for Sešívaní, scoring an extraordinary 395 goals, including an even more remarkable three 7-goal hauls.

As a result of his record-breaking exploits, Bican was named Europe’s leading marksman for five consecutive seasons from 1939 to 1944. While this is unquestionably an astonishing record, Bican’s ability when compared with the likes of Pelé and Alfredo Di Stéfano is called into question by those who believe that his achievements were artificially high due to the state of war across Europe during Bican’s most prolific seasons weakening the Czechoslovak league, and removing some of the biggest stars from other leagues across Europe. Indeed, while Bican was scoring at a rate of almost two goals per game, top players from some of Europe’s strongest nations were otherwise engaged on the battlefield.

“When I talk to young reporters, they always say, ‘Mr. Bican, scoring was easier back in your day’. But I ask them, ‘How come? Look, are there opportunities today?’ And they tell me, ‘Of course there are, many of them’. And I say, ‘There you go. If there weren’t opportunities, it would be difficult.”

Nevertheless, Bican’s prolific finishing can never be called into question. Two-footed and with an unerring composure in front of goal, his shooting ability was legendary, with it being said that Bican would only miss one out of every 20 opportunities which fell his way. During his time at Slavia, his training sessions would be attended by thousands of spectators eager to witness Bican’s favourite party trick, whereby he would place empty bottles on top of the crossbar and aim to hit as many as he could from 20 yards. Legend has it that at his very best, Bican would manage to hit nine of every 10 bottles he placed on the crossbar.

When added to his ability to run the 100 metres in 10.8 seconds despite his very powerful frame, it becomes clear that in any league in any era, Pepi would be a formidable opponent for any defence. Upon retirement in 1955, Bican had an official tally of 805 goals in 530 games in domestic football, and 31 in 44 for Austria and Czechoslovakia on the international stage.

But it was not only his prodigious ability on the field that made Bican a Slavia hero. Unsurprisingly, Pepi’s feats on the football fields of Czechoslovakia did not go unnoticed by Prague’s social elite. Ian Willoughby’s excellent piece on Bican’s life states that “he played tennis with the famous actor Vlasta Burian, dined with the actor Jan Werich and knew the film star Adina Mandlova” while the rest of Europe was at war. Bican had become unquestionably one of the biggest names in Czechoslovakia, and a demi-God in the eyes of many Slavistas. His ascent from the ruins of post-war Vienna to fraternising with Prague’s great and good was an inspiring tale for those enduring the instability of Central Europe during Bican’s life. However, it was this ascent to fame which would ultimately lead to the end of his playing career at Slavia.

For in 1948, communism came to Czechoslovakia. Having turned down a lucrative move to Italy due to the possibility of a communist uprising, Bican was dismayed by the rise of communism in Czechoslovakia, and refused to be any part of Gottwald’s KSC. Faced with the prospect of losing everything he had earned during his career, Bican decided that he had to leave Slavia for his own safety, and joined steelworks club Železárny Vítkovice, before moving again to Hradec Králové in 1953, where he scored 19 goals in just nine appearances. It was here that Bican recalls an extraordinary event which threatened to end his career:

“It was May Day and they persuaded me to take part in the May Day parade. From the loud speakers you could hear Long Live President Zapotocky, Long Live President Zapotocky. But people came out on the streets and shouted Long Live Bican, Long Live Bican! But you know, I myself wasn’t responsible for that. The factory Communist Party committee called me in to the office and said these two comrades will escort you to the train station and in one hour you’ll be out of Hradec Králové. I hadn’t moved so fast in a while. I packed my suitcase and they really went all the way to the station with me and waited till the train had gone. It’s a wonder they didn’t wave.”

Encountering a group of workers while being escorted to the station, Bican was asked if there was a problem, to which he said there was not. The workers said that they were glad, for otherwise they would have gone on strike, for which Bican could have faced a twenty-year sentence for inciting a strike. His exit from Hradec Králové was to pave the way for his return to Slavia, now renamed Dynamo Prague in accordance with communist naming laws, where he would score another 22 goals in 29 appearances before retiring in 1955 at the age of 42 as big a hero on the field as off it.

Despite his retirement, Bican’s legend now preceded him wherever he went, and without realising it he had become a famous figurehead for the counter-communist movement in Czechoslovakia. Given his fame and refusal to join the movement, the KRC government saw Bican as a potentially dangerous figure, and sought to defame the superstar in any way they could. The Czechoslovak authorities decided that the most effective means of defamation would be to brand Bican a bourgeois Viennese, despite his humble beginnings. Bican’s situation was not helped by his legendary status at Slavia, a club traditionally supported by Prague’s middle classes. His reputation scarred and his career over, Bican was forced to work on the Holešovice railway until the 1989 Velvet Revolution, sliding into poverty in the process.

With the revolution ridding Czechoslovakia of communist rule, Bican returned to public life as a hero, and was granted the Freedom of Prague by the city’s mayor in 2001. Having been allowed to once again take his standing as one of the most influential figures in the history of the Czechoslovak game, Bican was able to live out his remaining years in relative peace, content that his astonishing achievements had been recognised. After suffering from heart problems for several months, the legendary figure passed away on 12 December 2001, and was buried in Vyšehrad cemetery, where he lies alongside some of Prague’s most famous figures of centuries gone by.

With 2013 marking 100 years since Bican’s birth, Slavia made sure that they celebrated the life of the club’s greatest ever player, marking it with a day of celebration coinciding with the derby against rivals Sparta. Players from both sides of the city divide were invited to Eden to celebrate Pepi’s life, before Slavia ultras seized the mantle with two magnificent choreographic displays to honour his memory.

The first of these displays unveiled a large banner accompanied by a drawing of Chuck Norris which declared “Only Bican scored more goals than me!” It was appropriate given the nigh on mythological status of the great striker. The second display unveiled a huge poster of Bican, accompanied by a mosaic simply stating ‘PEPI’ in huge golden letters. This time the banner at the front of the stand unveiled a far more serious message. “Pepi Bican – the greatest Slavia man ever”, it proclaimed. Rarely will a group of ultras present a message more difficult to dispute.

By Simon Cripps @AI_Football




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A Central European Odyssey: The Life Of Josef Bican.


Good article on Bican.  August 2017.

pa-17260985-bican.jpg?w=840   Josef Bican leads out Slavia in 1945. Photo: PA

IN 1928, the Olympic men’s 100 metre sprint was won by Canada’s Percy Williams. He ran the race in 10.8 seconds. Over in Vienna, a young footballer could run 100 metres in the same time, but he was wearing heavy boots and a football kit. That player was one Josef Bican, known as “Pepi” to his friends.

We should all be aware of Bican as he was named the greatest goalscorer of all time a few years ago. But generally, we are not familiar with his exploits, either in the early years of his career or in the second phase in Czechoslavakia. If he had been Italian, German or even French, we would probably list him among the greats of the world game, but for many years, the name Josef Bican was lost behind the Iron Curtain.

Bican’s life was a central European tale. From a humble neighbourhood in the Austrian capital to sumptuous dinners with movie stars in cosmopolitan Prague and then back to scratching a living. He defied two regimes, the Nazis in Austria and the Communists in his adopted home of Czechoslovakia. And while he did this, he scored goals for fun.

Born on September 25, 1913, Josef Bican had a tough upbringing in Vienna. His father, Frantisek, who came from southern Bohemia, played for a little-known Viennese club called Hertha and died at the age of 30. His mother, Ludmila, was a Viennese Czech and to make ends meet, spent her time working in a kitchen. Josef Bican attended a Czech school in Vienna and lived in an area that was notable for its high level of poverty. His only respite came during the summer months when he visited in grandmother in Bohemia, travelling by train along with hundreds of other children.

His football skills were not honed with a leather ball, but with an improvised version made from rags. At the age of 12, he followed in his father’s footsteps and played for Hertha, but Rapid Vienna soon recognised that a young talent was emerging. Bican played firstly for Schustak and then Farbenlutz before signing for Rapid in 1931.

He was just 17 when he made his debut for Rapid, on September 6, 1931. And from that moment, it was clear that his goalscoring prowess would be highly coveted. Bican netted three times in the first 28 minutes as Rapid raced into a 3-0 lead at Austria Wien’s Hohe Warte stadium. They eventually won 5-3.  Rapid just missed out on the title that season, but Bican had already made his mark. In his first two seasons, he netted 10 and 11 goals respectively, but in 1933-34, Bican scored 29 as Rapid went close once more to winning the championship.

He was chosen for the 1934 World Cup squad, featuring with other members of Das Wunderteam. At 20, he was the youngest member of a star-studded group of players who won the hearts of the Austrian public. But he was not overawed by being in the presence of the likes of the great Matthias Sindelar. At Rapid, he was familiar with big names and had fierce competition for a place in the team – this was the age of Mathias Kaburek, Franz “Bimbo” Binder and Franz Weselik, all of whom were prolific goalscorers.

If Italy were the hosts and eventual champions in 1934, Austria were the “people’s favourites”, losing to Italy in the semi-final. Bican had scored earlier in the competition as Austria beat France 3-2. Strangely, when he returned to domestic football in 1934-35, he seemed to be out of favour at Rapid. He played almost no part in the club’s title dash, scoring twice in three games before disappearing from view.

Bican was one of the first of his kind – a player who knew his worth and his unique offering. He fell-out with the Rapid management and, feeling unloved, moved across town to the Jedelsee neighbourhood, where Admira Vienna were located. The supporters of the club were unhappy, especially as he was now playing for a rival.

bican.jpg?w=360&h=360&crop=1There were another side to the story. Austria, in 1934, was a country that was edging close to the increasingly menacing Germany. There had been attempt to cement a relationship in the form of a coup in 1934 and the general consensus was that sooner, rather than later, Austria would become part of the German Reich. Bican was opposed to the growing right-wing movement in Vienna and with clubs from other countries showing an interest in the Viennese goal-machine, there was the opportunity to get out of Austria.

But his stint with Admira was successful for the club if not quite as prolific for the still very young Bican. In 1935-36, the first of two titles for Admira, he scored eight goals in 15 games in the league. He started 1936-37 in good form, netting 10 in 11, but in the winter break, he departed Austria a year or so before Adolf Hitler annexed the country.

Bican headed for Czechoslavakia and decided to seek Czech citizenship. The Bican family made the journey to Prague, presumably to avoid what was about to happen. Not for the first or last time, however, fate conspired against Bican.

Eventually, German troops would march into Prague as Czechoslavakia became Hitler’s next target. Bican was already installed in his new home town and playing for Slavia Prague, a club that had tried to secure his services when he was with Rapid Vienna. It was at Slavia that the goalscoring legend was really born and he became something of a celebrity in late 1930s Prague. He would mingle with actors, play tennis with leading sportsmen and be courted by the great and the good of café society. Everyone wanted to know Josef Bican, the poor boy from Vienna.

In 1938, he led Slavia to a Mitropa Cup triumph, beating Hungary’s Ferencvaros in the final. At the same time, Bican sought to play for Czechoslavakia in the 1938 World Cup, but a very convenient “clerical error” prevented him from turning out for his new country. He had refused to play for a “German” national team that included Austrians, a decision also made by former team-mates from Das Wunderteam. If Bican had been allowed to play for the Czechs in France that year, who knows what might have happened. It is not inconceivable that he was prevented from playing to permit fascism to triumph over the rest of the world. Satisfyingly, the German Reich team flopped miserably, but Mussolini’s Italy won their second consecutive World Cup.

He did turn out for Bohemia & Moravia following the separation of Czechoslakia, and played in their last international in 1939 in Breslau. He scored a hat-trick in the Hermann Göring Stadion against Germany in a game that ended 4-4. Another former Rapid man, Franz Binder, also scored a treble – for the Germans.

Bican continued to score goals at a consistently alarming rate during the war years and between 1937-38 and 1947, he was the top scorer in Czech football, netting 50 in 1939-40 and 57 in 1943-44.

After the war, foreign clubs came looking for him again, but he was now in his early-1930s and when  Juventus returned a decade after first showing an interest, there were concerns that Italy might follow other parts of Europe and turn to Communism. The irony of it all is that in 1948, that was exactly what happened in Czechoslavakia. Bican was no lover of the manifesto and was also concerned that the riches he had gained from his successful career would be taken away under the new administration.

They were certainly not keen on Bican or indeed middle-class Slavia, claiming the player represented bourgeois Austrian society even though his early life was far from privileged. It was an attempt to turn the public against the popular Slavia player, who would occasionally be referred to as “the Austrian bastard”. Slavia, meanwhile, were stripped of their name by the communists and for a while became associated with the secret police and known as Dynamo.

Concerned about his safety and well-being, Bican tried to raise his credibility by signing for Vítkovicé Železárny, a club from a Moravian working class area in Ostrava. He didn’t stay too long but moved to Skoda Hradec Karlove in 1952. Although goals kept coming, his career was starting to wind down, although his reputation and legacy meant he was as popular as ever, evidenced by an incident in a May Day parade in 1953 when the crowd started to chant his name rather than follow the prescribed narrative. As a result, he was told to leave town with his family. This could have gone very badly for Bican as the crowd sensed that the former Czech-Austrian superstar was being badly treated and industrial action could have broken out. If that had in fact taken place, Bican would have been sent to prison for 20 years and we would know even less about him than we to today.

Sadly, his life deteriorated despite a coaching career that extended into the 1970s. When the Velvet Revolution took place in 1989, Bican had some of his property restored to him. His reputation was also repaired and in 2001, he was given the freedom of Slavia Prague. It was too late, for the man who scored more than 800 goals died that year.

There are million of people who have seen their lives shaped by history and equal numbers who have suffered from twists of fate. Josef Bican was a child of his time, an era that saw extreme politics, geographies shaped and political upheaval. He lived through some of the most turbulent years in European history. Simultaneously, he did what he was best at – scoring goals by the truckload. Thanks to the people that document the past, we should be thankful that we now know much more about “Pepi”.

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