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”.

Soccer City: Vienna – where intellectuals played

AUSTRIAN football has been dominated by Red Bull Salzburg in recent years, but the city of Mozart has a long way to go before it can match the record of Vienna, in terms of trophies won and influence on the game.

Salzburg’s corporate football may represent the zeitgeist in being backed by the beverage company Red Bull, but despite having significant financial advantages from this relationship, the heart of the Austrian game belongs to Vienna.

The beautiful city has many distractions to compete with football, but it played a pivotal role in the development of central European football, combining one of the quintessential elements of the ornate capital, coffee houses, with intellectual inspiration to stamp its own style on the sport.

Football in central Europe flourished in cities like Vienna, Prague and Budapest, driven to a large degree by the Jewish communities and the liberal bourgeoisie, and by learned folk who were full of invention about the way the game should be played. Moreover, in Vienna, the sport’s popularity grew in working class areas where the city’s industrial workforce was concentrated – places like Favoriten, Hütteldorf and Medling.


Walk around the very affluent streets of Vienna today and it is hard to imagine it was once the percolator of progressive football in Europe. Sadly, compared to its heyday of the 1930s, and its late-1970s resurgence, Austria is something of a backwater.

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. Sit in Café Central on Herrengasse and slurp a mélange and you might just conjure-up images of pencil-bearded professors debating the W-M formation or the exploits of Das Wunderteam – perhaps alongside representatives from 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.

Action from FK Austria’s Europa tie this season.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the cognoscenti thrived in Vienna, a city that provided stimulation in abundance. There’s no football connection to be found in Café Central, or any other of the Viennese coffee houses today – Café Holub and Café Parisfal were both popular football haunts in days gone by – but it’s a warming thought as you scoop the frothy milk off your finest Arabica that you may be sitting where history may have been shaped.

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 cemeterytoday 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).

Sindelar played for FK Austria Wien, Die Veilchen (the Violets). They reside at the Generali Stadium, better known as the Franz Horr Stadium in the south of Vienna. FK Austria were last champions in 2013 but like their rivals, Rapid, have been pushed aside by the rise of RB Salzburg. In 2018-19, they finished fourth in the second stage of the Bundesliga and qualified for the UEFA Europa League, but their European campaign ended at the first hurdle, losing to Apollon Limassol in the third qualifying round.

They’ve not had the best of starts to the new season and after four games had just four points. Christian Ilzer is in his first season as coach of the club and already people are starting to question his methods. Ilzer came from Wolfsberger, but never stays too long in one place.

FK Austria have recently signed on loan the American centre back Erik Palmer-Brown from Manchester City. Most new arrivals in the summer have been free transfers and returning loan players. The only fee involved was the € 300,000 paid for Klagenfurt’s Benedikt Pichler.


The club attracted 10,000 per game to the Generali last season, a 48% increase on 2017-18. The best supported club in Vienna, indeed Austria, is Rapid, who averaged 16,000 in 2018-19.

Whereas FK Austria were always considered the club of the middle class, Rapid were very much favoured by the city’s working class. Rapid have been champions 32 times to FK Austria’s 22.

Rapid Vienna 1985. Back l-r) Peter Pacult, Karl Brauneder, Zlatko Kranjcar, Kurt Garger and Hans Krankl. (front l-r) Leo Lainer, Peter Hrstic, Heribert Weber, Michael Konsel, Rudi Weinhofer and Reinhard Kienast.

If there are “fanatics” among Austrian football’s patrons, they exist in the suburb of Hüttelsdorf, an area that is far removed from the dainty elegance of the Habsburg palace at nearby Schönbrunn. The area around Rapid’s ground suggests that not everyone in Vienna walks around in Hugo Boss clothing or gunslings a Prada handbag. It looks like a down-to-earth area, as evidenced by the graffiti sprayed by the “Ultras”.

Rapid rebuilt their stadium a few years ago, demolishing the old Gerhard Hanappi and temporarily relocating to the Ernst Happel in the Prater Park. The new ground, which has a capacity of 28,000 cost € 53 million to build.

Rapid didn’t have a great season in 2018-19 and lost two promising players in Mert Müldër and Boli Bolingoli to Sassulolo and Celtic respectively. Notable arrivals includes Japanese striker Koya Kitagawa and Max Ullmann from LASK. Kitagawa, who netted six goals in 20games for Shimizu in the J-League last season, has yet to play for Rapid as coach Dietmar Kühbauer is waiting for the 23 year-old Japan international to adjust to his move. Another new signing, Greek striker Taxiarchis Fountas, has bedded-in well, scoring four goals already this season. Rapid have started reasonably, with one defeat in their first four games, but already, everyone is chasing Red Bull Salzburg.

Vienna is more than just FK Austria and Rapid. Students of European football will remembers clubs like Admira Wien and SC Wacker Wien, but these clubs have been absorbed in the club that is now known as FC Admira Wacker Mölding, who are in the Bundesliga and from the small town of Maria Enzersdorf in the district of Mölding, some 14 km south of Vienna.

In the 21stdistrict, Floridsdorfer AC are currently in the second league. This is the club that discovered former West Ham United striker Marko Arnautović, who is now plying his trade in China. Floridsdorfer have won the Austrian title just once, in 1918.

Vienna was once awash with clubs and the oldest, First Vienna, was founded in 1894 by workers from the nearby estate of Baron Rothschild. The club is based in the Döbling district of the city at the Hohe Warte Stadium, which was Austria’s principal stadium until the Prater was built. First Vienna started life as a cricket and football club, but they were Austrian champions six times between 1931 and 1955. They also won the Mitropa Cup in 1931 with a team that included Josef Blum, an uncompromising defender who became part of the Wunderteam. First Vienna play in much humbler company these days but won the Wiener Stadtliga in 2018-19.

FC Hakoah was an all-Jewish club that, for a short time, became the talk of Austrian football. Jews were at the heart of central European football’s development, notably Hugo Meisl, the mastermind of the “whirl”, a forerunner of “total football”, and the creator of the Wunderteam.

Hakoah proudly wore the star of David on their shirts, long before the Nazis made a badge of incrimination out of it. They were a shrewd bunch and were the first club to make use of marketing themselves, at home and abroad.

Park life

The club was established by a cabaret artist, Fritz Loener (who later perished in a concentration camp) and was based on the “muscular Judaism” concept preached by Max Nordau, calling on Jews to demonstrate their vitality. It was not easy for Hakoah, who would often take the field to taunts of “Jewish pigs” from anti-semites. Hakoah won the Austrian league in 1925 and then went on tour to the United States, where they captivated the Baseball-hungry Americans. In 1938, the Anchluss put paid to FC Hakoah, but the club, now known as Maccabi Vienna FC, is alive today and they’re back at their home close to the Prater Park.

Prater Park has always played a part in the development of the game in Vienna. That’s largely due to the football stadium, which is now known as the Ernst Happel Stadium. The park is also famous for the huge wheel featured in the movie, The Third Man. The stadium, which bears little resemblance to its original appearance, has hosted four European Cup finals (1964, 1987, 1990 and 1995), and also six games in Euro 2008.

Vienna may not be an influential metropolis today in world football, but its role in the evolution of the European game cannot be denied. Furthermore, it is one of the continent’s most appealing cities, an intoxicating mix of the old and the new. And it is growing, the population is around 1.8 million but it’s rising at a rate of 20,000 people per year. The challenge for Vienna’s football fraternity is how to entice some of the new arrivals into watching Austrian Bundesliga games rather than turning to the likes of Bayern Munich.

Photos: PA/ Game of the People