A central European odyssey: The life of Josef Bican

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.

There 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”.

How Red Bull took flight in football

THE Red Bull football franchise is not popular among certain fan groups, and yet there are far worse activities going on in the game the masses should be worried about. The Austrian drinks company may not sit comfortably among other club ownership models, particular in Germany, where RB Leipzig have upset the 50+1 model, but they should not be roped into the same bracket as clubs that throw cash around signing big name players.

Karan Tejwani’s book, Wings of Change (Pitch Publishing, 2020), provides some insight into the Red Bull world. Anyone visiting Leipzig will be aware of the friction between the followers of traditional clubs like Lokomotive and Chemie and RB, but it is hard not to be impressed by a club that has brought Bundesliga football to the eastern part of Germany once more. Advocates of the 50+1 system have a legitimate point, but the German Bundesliga is somewhat dysfunctional in that Bayern Munich have won the title for nine consecutive seasons.

However, new kids on the block are never welcomed in any walk of life, especially if there is money behind their surge to prominence. What Tejwani’s book reveals, or at least confirms, is that Red Bull’s move into football has a strategy, a long-term approach and has been carefully formulated to cover most bases. In other words, it is about player production and shrewd transfer activity. It’s important to remember, though, the Red Bull clubs have benefitted enormously from the financial backing of Dietrich Mateschitz’s energy drinks company.

The system created by Red Bull has produced a cadre of football coaches and technicians that are influencing European football. For example, Manchester United’s current interim coach, Ralf Rangnick, was director of football at Leipzig and then went on to coach the club. He has left a mark a number of managers around Europe, such as Jesse Marsch (Leeds), Julian Nagelsmann (Bayern), Thomas Tuchel (Chelsea), Marco Rose (Dortmund), Ralph Hassenhüttl (Southampton) and Jürgen Klopp (Liverpool). What’s more, Red Bull clubs have produced or nurtured coaches like Niko Kovač, Oliver Glasner, Adi Hutter and Achim Beierlorzer.

The Red Bull football empire is like a multinational company and that’s why they are so unpopular, even though other German clubs, such as Bayer and Wolfsburg have corporate backing, and three of Bayern’s shareholders are Adidas, Allianz and Audi, all giants of Deutschland AG. Critics would say Leipzig and Salzburg do not operate in the spirit of the environment in which they operate.

This book may not give you the inside track (that is another book to be written at some point), but it does explain why the likes of Leipzig and Salzburg have been so successful, and it is not purely down to money, although hard currency does give you options in life. In a football world where the elite are steam-rollering the rest, the Red Bull project provides an alternative, even if some would claim Leipzig are just a trophy or two away from joining the top bracket. There’s much to admire, but you sense that RB Leipzig will never be accepted in Germany as one of the gang. A worthwhile read and one that can be absorbed fairly quickly.

The enduring romance of Mitteleuropa’s football

THE BUDGET airline revolution made Continental Europe very accessible for tourists and football fans alike. A return trip for barely more than £100 has made it possible for the curious spectator to extend his or her horizon beyond the 92 and non-league. As a result, we have seen the arrival of the football tourist, map-wielding obsessives who go in search of foaming beer, floodlights and fun.

A year or two ago, I bumped into a Brit from Macclesfield at PSV Eindhoven. The following day, coming back from Feyenoord, I saw him again. We had ploughed the same furrow, a Dutch double bill. We nodded at each other, acknowledging our spirit of adventure, we intrepid members of the cognoscenti.

An element of the happy wanderer is in all of us. Some are inspired by the books of people like Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin and Patrick Leigh Fermor, but from a football perspective, I look to the Rough Guide to European Football (which I helped with back in the late 1990s), Simon Inglis’s Football Grounds of Europe and regular helpings of World Soccer.

The 1966 World Cup broadened the minds of many people to the idea of European football, although Real Madrid had done a pretty good job when they lit up Hampden Park in that famous European Cup final of 1960. For many of us, European football looked as though it was played in the dark – when English teams played abroad, the photos invariably looked as if they had been taken in a pitch black stadium, such were the technical limitations of the age.

As we became more accustomed to European competition, words like “aggregate” and “away goals” became part of our vocabulary as we welcomed the relative exotica that was European club football. We learned that some English clubs, when travelling abroad – particularly behind the “Iron Curtain”, a grey, totalitarian world comprising bread queues, ersatz coffee and vodka – took their own food and, sometimes, a chef (such ventures provided great photo opportunities for the likes of Monte Fresco and other tabloid snappers). When European teams visited London, we greeted them as if they were visitors from outer space.

We now know that Russians do not have two heads, that Frenchmen do not cycle around in Breton shirts with onions draped around their neck like baubles, and that Italians and Spaniards are not the only people in Europe that use garlic in their cooking.  Reassuringly, we are aware that Germans do not stalk the streets of Munich, Berlin and Frankfurt dressed in lederhosen. Well, not all of them, anyway. Likewise, we’d like to think that our neighbours across the English Channel no longer believe we all wear bowler hats in London.

Removal of stereotyping is one thing, but the romanticisation of the body Europe is another matter, especially in the time of Brexit and a floundering European Union. Some of us have always been Europhiles, feeling a slight twitch of anticipation in the bowels at the thought of cobbled streets, cloisters, dark rye bread, church bells ringing and the hum of a tram snaking its way through Austro-Hungarian streets or down broad Gallic boulevards. And oh yes, peculiar floodlights signposting the way to the nearest football stadium.

Of course, for every quaint “altstadt” or historic centre, there is municipal ugliness and standardisation, or in the case of old Soviet states, drab concrete homes for the proletariat – all against a backdrop of financial hardship and marginalised economies. You see very little of that in the travel brochures, although a trip to a football ground more often than not takes you to parts of town that are off the tourist trail.

Students of the game will be aware of the importance of central Europe its development. It’s a region that has a number of interpretations and boundaries, but to me, it is all about Austria, Czech Republic and Hungary with guest appearances from Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland. Germany is also central, but I have always regarded Germany as just that – Germany.  Poland is also frequently included but is often viewed as the far east of Europe.

Trans-European travel has always had an idealistic, somewhat romantic side to it. Getting on a train in Paris and ending up in central Vienna fills some people with excitement and satisfies any spirit of wanderlust. But getting off that train and heading to somewhere like the Ernest Happel Stadium in the Prater Park makes it even more appetising.

Walk around the very affluent streets of Vienna today and it is hard to imagine that it was once the percolator of progressive football in Europe. Austrian football today is a backwater compared to its hey-day of the 1930s and late-1970s resurgence and having seen Austria take on Hungary in Euro 2016, it is clear that Unsere Burschen are very average these days.

It is easy to stumble across culture and academia in a city like Vienna and it’s a rather nice idea that bohemian scholars and the artistic element played their part in developing the Danubian approach to football in the inter-war years. I have sat in Café Central in the heart of the Austrian capital, slurped a mélange and conjured up images of pencil-bearded professors debating the W-M formation or the exploits of Das Wunderteam – perhaps alongside the learned folk of the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivists.  Football’s a simple game, but those of us who like to think it is more than an old pig’s bladder being kicked around by ruffians gain some satisfaction from the belief that a higher order, a more cerebral world of soccer intelligentsia, exists somewhere beyond the terraces and stands. In the 1920s and 1930s, the cognoscenti thrived in Vienna, a city that provided intellectual stimulation in abundance. There’s no football connection to be found in Café Central or any other of the Viennese coffee houses today, but it’s a warming thought as you scoop the whipped milk off your finest Arabica that you may be sitting where history may have been shaped.

It is part of football’s rich heritage, however, that the names of Austrian teams like Rapid Vienna and FK Austria Wien live on in the game’s folklore. They’ve both been overtaken in modern times by the likes of Red Bull Salzburg, a case of new lamps for old, but we will always remember Rapid, if only because of their unusual name. Rapid were not the club of café society, though. That privilege belonged to the violet shirts of Austria Wien, a favourite of Vienna’s Jewish community. This made them a target and the club was persecuted as National Socialism swept Germany and Austria.

The talisman of coffee house football was Matthias Sindelar, a charismatic figure who perished in suspicious circumstances in 1939, probably at the hands of the Nazis. Visit Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof today and you will find that Sindelar’s grave receives fresh flowers on a regular basis. His flame burns on in Viennese literature, too, as captured in Friedrich Torberg’s poem, Auf den Tod eines Fußballspielers (On the death of a footballer).

In those inter-war years, the best teams in Europe not only came from Austria, but also Hungary and Czechoslavakia. Just as in the 1970s, the Dutch and Germans developed a Western European style that would dominate, the old Habsburg Empire stood head and shoulders above the rest of Europe. This was partly attributable to the coming of professionalism but also the innovations of one Hugo Meisl, the coach that “invented” the Mitropa Cup.

The Mitropa brought together clubs from the region with the first competition, in 1927, including two teams apiece from Hungary, Austria, Czechoslavakia and Yugoslavia. It wasn’t the first time that such a tournament had emerged, for going back in time, the Austro-Hungarian Cup took place between 1897 and 1911.

I caught a glimpse of the Mitropa Cup when I visited Budapest’s Ferencvaros and became quite animated with excitement at the sight of a cup that represented the first real attempt at a cross-Europe competition. In its day, between 1937 and 1939, it was won four times by Hungarian teams, three times by Czechs, twice by Italians and four times by Austrians. That competition, along with the Latin Cup, was one of the forerunners of the European Cup.

If football fans can sometimes get misty-eyed about the heritage of the game, railways often invoke similar sentiments among nostalgists. Vienna to Budapest is a three hour journey today, linking two cities that were at the heart of one of the most powerful empires in European history – the architecture of the Hungarian capital tells you that much.

Budapest was once one of Europe’s football capitals. Sadly, that is no longer the case and Hungary’s status is much diminished from the glory days of the Mighty Magyars. In 2015-16, Ferencvaros won the Hungarian league for the first time since 2004 becoming only the second club from Budapest in the past 13 years (MTK were the other, in 2008) to lift the title.

Naturally, the aura surrounding Hungarian football history is down to the 1953 team that thrashed self-appointed world champions England. Ferenc Puskas is so legendary in Hungary that even folk with the same first name, who may never have seen or known of the “Galloping Major”, feel honoured to be called Ferenc. There’s no more symbolic feature of central Europe than the Danube, and from the Buda hill that overlooks the river, reached by the Castle Hill Funicular, you can just see the distinctive floodlights that tower over the old Nep Stadion, now called the Ferenc Puskas Stadium.

Vienna has its Prater, but Budapest’s Nep strikes fear in English football historians, the ground where the Magyars beat 7-1 in 1954. A giant socialist bowl in its day, it was in poor shape when I visited, crumbling and in need of more work than might be financially viable. But just walking around this iconic edifice of football history revived the ghosts of the past. So sad that it could not be saved.

That said, there is great momentum in bringing Hungary’s football stadia up to scratch. Fradi have their gleaming green home on the main drag into town from the airport.

Hungary’s recent history has been so bereft of highlights – Euro 2016 was an unqualified success – that 1953 is still remembered fondly, although there can be few people who were around at the time. There’s a bar in downtown Budapest called 3:6 named after that game at Wembley. It is in an area that looks a little run-down and bohemian and when I visited it, I had to check that it was still open. It was once owned by Nandor Hidegkuti, the famous deep-lying centre forward. The elderly chap manning the fort was engrossed in his newspaper and a filthily strong cigarette – I must admit, he reminded me of my own father when he ran a social club – before he looked up to see us standing in his doorway. We asked about the Hungarian team and he swept his arm across the room, pointing to a statesmanlike photo of Hidegkuti and some yellowing press cuttings. We forced a bottle of beer out of him and didn’t outstay our welcome, heading for the nearest restaurant for some goulash.

It’s not difficult to conclude that Hungarian football is way off its glory days. The Mighty Magyars were effectively killed off by the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the Iron Curtain, and although during the 1960s and 1970s, Hungary’s best sides were difficult, Glasnost signalled the long decline of the game in one of its heritage nations. It’s hard not to feel sad about this, but Hungary is certainly not alone in this context.

If there is an air of romance about Budapest’s Danubian landscape, then Prague – the other member of the Habsburg triumvirate –  is the classic tourist destination. Like Hungary’s domestic football, the Czech Republic has declined since Europe’s map changed. Unlike Hungary, where Budapest clubs had to make way for provincial rivals, football is dominated by the capital: Sparta, Slavia, Bohemians and Dukla. Sparta are the Czech Republic’s Manchester United, if there is such a thing, but clubs like Bohemians and Dukla have more of a cult following. And these two clubs also offer something more than a standard football ground setting – Bohemians’ Dolicek ground is surrounded by housing and perched high on Dukla’s ground, you get a fantastic view of the city of Prague.

Like Vienna, Prague’s footballing brains discussed their ideas in the coffee houses across the city, especially the smoky environs of Cafe Slavia, which still exists today. Czech football between the two world wars was richly entertaining and the Czechs were strong on the international stage, reaching the World Cup final in 1934.

My abiding memory of discovering Prague was limping through the cobble-stoned side streets after tripping over as I left my taxi and finding myself staring right into the window of Sparta Prague’s club shop in the heart of the old town. I had been deep in conversation with a taxi driver who had explained to me that Czech football was a bit “Kafkaesque”. The pseud in me liked this reference, but at the time, Dukla were playing outside Prague, which seemed somewhat strange. Later, in a Prague cellar-cum-restaurant (Hungarian, by chance), I engaged in conversation over some fine Czech beer with a Slavia Prague fan who spouted conspiracy theories by the dozen as to why Sparta dominated Czech football. Perhaps Kafkaesque was a good description, after all.

As it stands today, the football of Austria, Czech Republic and Hungary has seen better days. It’s hard for them to compete when you’ve got the all-consuming leagues from England, Spain and Germany. But there’s something very special about the capital cities of these central European countries that deserves to be preserved, and I not just talking about ornamental spires, ornate bridges, majestic rivers and bowls of goulash. I have been accused of being an arch-romantic when it comes to travel and to football. I’m afraid my critics are correct. Messrs Sindelar, Puskas and Masopust…your names live on.

The author’s book on football in Europe, Mittel, is available here