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”.