Josef Pepi Bican – The Lonely Man at the Top
We often get drawn into animated discussions or debates surrounding the greatest footballer of all time. Invariably the list narrows down largely to a handful of goal scorers, since their action culminates in the most important aspect of a football match (supposedly)– goal. But we sometime tend to overlook the bigger picture. What if there was someone who did not have the privilege of playing in a team as good as that of Pele’s? What if someone had to fight oppression just like Maradona but limelight evaded him? Debojyoti Chakraborty at Goalden Times brings to you the story of one such man; a man who conquered Europe but had to live in obscurity.
Outscoring Messis and Ronaldos
Goal scoring seems easy nowadays. That is because we are really privileged to witness two of the greatest footballers of all time play at their peaks. Day in, day out, whenever Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, in no particular order, feature in a match, they are more than likely to score than return empty handed. And such has been their goal scoring prowess over the years that every goal they score now, they reach some new landmarks. But even for these two extraordinary gentlemen, there is a man who is more likely to remain in a league of his own.
On 25 September, 1913, in Viena, Josef Bican was born in an Austrian-Czech family. His father František was from Sedlice in Southern Bohemia, Austria and mother Ludmila was a Viennese Czech. Josef was the second of three children in the Bican family. Because of his mixed heritage, Josef inherited traits of both Viennese and Prazak (from Prague). As explained by Romana Horaka, from the Vienna University of Applied Arts, “Although grew up on the outskirts of town and went to school there, but in the summer for grandparents used to go to Sedlec near Prague.” 
Soon, the family had to endure days of fear and anxiety when František went to World War I. But to great relief of everyone near and dear to him, he returned unscathed from the war. That relief was short lived though. František used to play football for Hertha Vienna. He sustained an injury in his kidney during a match and then neglected doctor’s advice to get it cured through operation. As a fatal consequence, the man who had conquered the World War I, died of that freakish injury in 1921 at the ripe age of 30. The consequences of the war were looming large over the imperial city; food and basic necessities were short in supply and people were dying out of starvation. Drenched in stark poverty, Ludmila had to work in a restaurant kitchen to raise her family. But this tragedy had a silver lining. František had passed on his love for the game to his second child. And Josef Bican continued to play “all day, from morning to evening”  even under abject poverty. Unable to afford a proper ball, children in his neighbourhood used to tie up a bundle of rags known as “hardrak”. Boots were things of luxury for the Bican family, and hence he went barefoot. This eventually would improve Bican’s ball control and sharpen his dribbling skills.
This Boy is Special
Bican’s growth was meteoric. Even before his teens, he started playing for his father’s beloved Hertha Vienna club in their junior team, Hertha Vienna II. His knack for scoring goals caught imagination of everyone around. One of the club’s sponsors was so impressed, he offered to award Bican with a shilling for every goal. Thus, football opened up an avenue for the poor Bican family. Barely at an age of fifteen, he had made his senior debut for Schustek. Bican was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. Football was really popular in Austria in those days. Everyone was passionate about the beautiful game and people from different strata – politics, academics, media – everyone was involved for the betterment of the game. Football being the centre of attraction of all activities, was gradually becoming a matter of national pride. And Bican had a supportive family, too. One story goes like that his mother once invaded the pitch when an opponent fouled her son and began beating him with her umbrella. Maybe the memories of her husband’s injury on the football field was too much for her to bear with and she abandoned the idea of watching Bican play live after couple of visits.
Bican’s dazzling rise was not going unnoticed and before his eighteenth birthday, he was snapped up by the biggest Austrian club Rapid Vienna. Initial signing amount was a meagre 150 shillings but Bican’s scintillating form forced Rapid to dish out a contract of 600 shillings within couple of years. Put into context, that amount would be worth £12,270 in today’s date.  Seems incorrigible, considering the astronomical wages players are getting nowadays. But in those days, a skilled worker would have been very happy if he could get 25 schillings a week. So Bican was earning a pretty decent amount by playing football, still not considered very highly as a career option. During his four-year-stint in the club, Bican averaged almost one goal per match as he netted 52 times in 49 appearances. Still, in 1935, soon after helping Rapid Viena win the Austrian Championship, their beloved “Pepi” – nicknamed after his short stature in his young days – decided to move on. His departure was mourned by the supporters alike and it was rather more controversial as Bican moved to city rivals Admira. However, Bican’s goal-scoring exploits continued as he amassed 18 goals in 26 appearances.
Bican was a powerfully built lad. His shooting ability with both the feet and superb ball control – thanks to his growing up years when he had to master the skill of playing barefoot – made him a complete footballer. To top it all, he was a superb sprinter. It is said that he could time a 100 metres sprint in 10.8 seconds, which was as fast as many sprinters of the time. No wonder he was a nightmare for all the defenders and he scored for fun – be it tap-ins or 30-metre-volleys. Bican had great composure in front of the goal, sometimes averaging nearly two goals a match and it is said that he missed only once out of 20 chances! And that was not by fluke, he used to train really hard to achieve this kind of perfection. Bican used to put ten bottles on top of the cross bar and hit them one by one. Generally, he was spot on with his accuracy, and even on his bad days he would definitely go on to hit nine out of ten bottles.
Bican had great composure in front of the goal, sometimes averaging nearly two goals a match and it is said that he missed only once out of 20 chances! And that was not by fluke, he used to train really hard to achieve this kind of perfection.
The Inevitable: Journey with Wunderteam
By the time Bican was 20, he was inducted in Wunderteam, the famous Austrian team of the 1930s, helmed by the legendary football manager Hugo Meisl. Between April 1931 and June 1934, the Wunderteam lost just three out of 31 games, and scored 101 goals.  They were considered one of the favourites for World Cup 1934 going into the tournament. Everything went as per plan till semi-final which saw Austria in a face-off with the hosts Italy. The tournament also showcased the dominance of central Europe, four of the three teams in the last four – Czechoslovakia and Hungary being other two – coming from that region.
But Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy, had earmarked this tournament to be his propaganda machine. Not a football lover by a mile, Mussolini had pulled all the strings to ensure Italy gets every possible advantage to clinch the title. It was rumoured that the Swedish referee Ivan Eklind, nominated to officiate the semi-final match of Italy vs Austria, was invited for dinner with Mussolini. The next day, when the Austrian goalkeeper had the ball under his control a good three metres out of his goal, he was pushed over the line by the Italian forwards. Eklind whistled for the goal, notwithstanding huge protest from Bican and his teammates. Austria tried hard to come back but their smooth passing game was hampered by a muddy pitch, another home advantage strategically utilized to the fullest. Austria bowed out of the tournament being one of those great teams not to win the World Cup. Eklind was awarded with the responsibility of the final and amidst further refereeing controversy in that match, Mussolini’s Italy were crowned the World Cup champions.
War against Oppression
Bican had a short but stellar career with Austria. He scored 14 goals in 19 matches but 1934 was his only World Cup appearance. May be that is one of the reasons why his name is not so much popular with common football enthusiasts. Bican had attracted European superpowers like Juventus with his astonishing goal scoring feat. Had he accepted the offer, many feel that he might have achieved the legendary status like another fellow talisman from Central Europe, Ferenc Puskas. But he refused to go to Italy, partly due to his bitter experience during the 1934 World Cup and partly due to their communist overtone. As luck would have it, ironically the fascist regime followed Bican. Just before the next World Cup in 1938, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi gang seized control of Austria, an event known as Anschluss in history. By that time, Austria had qualified for the World Cup but Germany forced them to send a united team comprising of both German and Austrian players. Bican, and many others from the famous Wunderteam team refused to represent an oppressing government. The next World Cup would come twelve years later due to the commencement of World War II and by then Bican was past his prime. One war demolished his childhood; the other deprived him of the biggest stage to showcase his talent.
Following Nazi invasion, Bican, a staunch adversary of fascism, left Vienna for his father’s homeland Czechoslovakia. The next episode of Bican’s folklore was to be written in Prague as he joined Slavia Prague. Sešívaní was a colossal team in those days already having won eight of the inaugural thirteen editions of Czechoslovak league – and never ever finishing outside of top two. It was not easy for a new player to come in and establish himself in such a successful team. And boy, did Bican establish himself! Bican created a never-dying legacy for himself there during an eleven-year-stay by scoring 534 goals,  including 57 in 24 matches one particular league season. That is even after his playing days were hampered by World War II in this period. All this success, however, was a bitter pill to swallow for some of his team-mates. Bican was continuously harassed, often called by names such as Austrian bastard pointing to his unpretentious roots. But all these, if anything, made Bican more determined as he went on his merry goal scoring spree. Unperturbed as he was, he carried on his goal scoring spree. And his stats were incredible, to say the least! Three times in this period, Bican scored seven goals in a game.  First year in the 1939-40 league season, Bican netted seven against Zlín en route a 10–1 win. Next year Bican repeated the same feat. The victim was the poor Zlín once again, as Slavia won by a margin of 12–1. The last of Bican’s seven-star-performance came in the 1947-48 season when Slavia thrashed České Budějovice by a whopping 15–1 score line. Bican helped Slavia Prague clinch the Mitropa Cup – the predecessor of the Champions’ League – in 1938. Domestically, Slavia Prague went neck to neck with their fierce rivals Sparta Prague – both winning the league five times during Bican’s tenure.
On the national front, Bican had applied for Czechoslovak citizenship, but the request was not processed in time for him to participate in the 1938 World Cup. However, he started to play for his father’s native country later in 1938, but then World War II hampered his international career. He could only manage fourteen appearances till 1949 and was on the score sheet twelve times. In between, he represented Bohemia and Moravia, the ethnic-Czech protectorate of Nazi Germany once in 1939 and scored a hat-trick.
Goals, Glamour and Trouble
Bican was one of the most popular footballers of the 1930s and his legacy grew day by day in Prague. He was so much valued at the club that his wife Jarmila vividly recalls, “Chairman Valousek always said we have 14 sections Josef. You have to make money for them all. And there weren’t sponsors in those days. And he said don’t forget we have an equestrian section and you’ve got to make money for hay for the horses. I think today’s footballers wouldn’t be able to support 14 sections – or pay for the hay for the horses!”  Basically, Bican had to earn the bread for the entire club!!! Apart from enthralling the crowd with his sublime skills, there were other facets of his eventful life too. Bican had chosen an extravagant, conspicuous lifestyle. It might appear very ironic but while the entire Europe, or even a good part of the world, was at war, Bican was making his presence felt amongst the social elite class of Czechoslovakia. This fact is more lucidly conveyed by the writing of Ian Willoughby on Bican. According to Willoughby, the prolific scorer “… played tennis with the famous actor Vlasta Burian, dined with the actor Jan Werich and knew the film star Adina Mandlova.” This inspiring story of growing up from the wrecks of war-rigged Vienna to becoming one of the most sought after celebrity in Prague had captured the imagination of entire Central Europe. It was a great morale booster for a huge stratum of population who were still very much unsure what the future held for them with a war not very far away. Josef Bican’s larger than life image had established him as one of the biggest name in the country. But his happy days were soon to be over.
Trouble was brewing from the socio-political issues which unfortunately Bican could not overcome. Throughout his life, Bican had tried to be as far away from the communist regime as possible. But however good he was at escaping the tackles from defenders, he was never half decent at avoiding the political infringement in his life. In 1948, communism came to Czechoslovakia. Bican was left frustrated. Things were not turning up according to his plan, he was facing a tremendous moral dilemma. He had turned down a great career opportunity in Italy only to avoid such political environment and now he found himself exactly in the same position.
Bican’s iconic stature lured the communist government and they approached Bican to appear as the public face of KSC party leader, Klement Gottwald. Quite predictably, Bican stuck to his ideologies and declined the offer. He though had to pay the price for going against the government. The Czechoslovak authorities picked up his association with Slavia Prague, a club traditionally popular among the middle-class, and accused him to be a bourgeois Viennese. They simply turned a deaf ear to Bican’s plea that his origins were humble. 
Bican feared that he was about to lose everything. To protect himself, his family and all of his hard-earned wealth, Bican left Slavia. At the same time, he was becoming conscious of “resurrecting” his image as a common man and hence in 1949, he joined Železárny Vítkovice. Vítkovice, a club run by the steelworkers and hence it was a perfect move for Bican to play for them and portray himself as a person closer to the working class. Bican carried his goal scoring boots with him to his new club. 58 official matches for his new club saw him racking up 74 goals.  But Bican was unsettled, he again packed his bags to Skoda Hradec Králové in 1952. Králové was trying their luck in the second division but Bican’s goal scoring feat continued. Records are incomplete particularly for this period, but still it can be safely said that Bican had scored at least eleven times in eight matches. But it was an off the field incident here which made an everlasting impression in his life.
It was 1 May, 1953. May Day parade was organized with full gusto and Bican was forced to join the parade. Little did the organizers know that this decision to include a star figure in their propaganda event would backfire! While the loudspeakers were screaming “Long Live President Zapotocky, Long Live President Zapotocky”, the crowd on the street shouted “Long Live Bican, Long Live Bican”. It was a tight slap on the face of the Communist Party. Inevitably he had to face the consequences. Even though Bican was not at fault, to cover up for the goof up, Bican was ordered to leave the city immediately with his family. Within an hour, Bican with his family were escorted to the station by two comrades. En route, a group of 50 workers happened to see them and they sensed foul. They were anxious of Bicans’ safety but he assured that everything was fine. That was a narrow escape. Had the workers not been convinced by the reply, they would have gone on strike. And then Bican would have been sentenced to at least 20 years of imprisonment for inciting a strike. The two guards did not take it lightly though and they remained stationary till the train carrying Bicans had left the station. 
While the loudspeakers were screaming “Long Live President Zapotocky, Long Live President Zapotocky”, the crowd on the street shouted “Long Live Bican, Long Live Bican”.
The End and Beyond
Next stop for Bican was his beloved city Prague. And as destiny had it, he was re-united with his old love Slavia Prague, now known as Dynamo Prague under the communist influence. Even in the twilight of his career, Bican was scoring for fun. Incredibly Bican scored the most number of goals (57)  in a season in 1953-54, which happened to be his penultimate one. He doubled up as coach in the last phase of his footballing career. Soon he hung up his boots in 1956, at the age of 42 being the oldest footballer in the league, as a living legend in Czechoslovakia.
Life went on a topsy-turvy course for the Bican family. He coached quite a few clubs across the country but could not make any significant impact. Bican was a gentleman out and out and hence he found it difficult to cope up with average players and their coarse behaviour. Actually, he was a broken man by then. Pepi valued his life style a lot, having come from a humble background and worked his shocks off to achieve all the glory. Under the Communist regime, much of his properties were seized. Ideological differences always put him at a crossroad with the ruling party. Even his friends and well-wishers too turned their back on him. These things hurt him very badly. Devoid of his wealth, left stranded by their friends, dumped by the Czechoslovak Physical Exercise Union, Bican wondered if his entire past has been wiped out. He had no choice but to work as a roadside labour at Prague’s Holesovice railway station as his life drifted into obscurity and poverty.
During the spring of 1968, Bican impressed the visiting Belgian team Tongeren and got a contract to coach them. This was the first time he had ventured out of Central Europe during his club career. Ironically the legendary Pele was nearing his 1,000th goal and thus Bican’s name popped up. His ex-teammate Franz Bimbo Binder claimed that Bican had netted close to 5,000 goals. Though this figure – an average of 185 goals each season – is highly unlikely, it can be assumed that Bican might have reached very close to the four-figure mark excluding the friendly matches.
Back home, things started to change for good with the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The communists were gone. Bican got some of his property back. More than that, he cherished that his reputation was restored in public.
Bican had an illustrious playing career to say the least. His goal scoring exploits earned him the top-scorer of league twelve times – one more than couple of greats from Brazil namely Pele and Romario – during his resplendent career spanning 27 years. More significantly, from 1939-40 to 1943-44, he was Europe’s top scorer for five consecutive seasons. While some would argue that most of the young and physically fit players were involved in the war in that time frame, no one can take away the goal-scoring panache from Bican.
In those days, little did people care about keeping records of all the matches. So, by the time Bican hang up his boots, God knows how many of his achievements had been lost in the isle of time. This is exactly what happened during an award ceremony organised by International Federation of Football Historians and Statisticians (IFFHS), when they failed to count his wartime goals. Bican, though being invited, opted to spend the evening with his wife in their hotel room having tea from a thermos flask, claiming they had “stolen” his goals.  Later IFFHS recognised the 229 goals he scored during the World War II, even though Czechoslovakia was not independent at that time. And subsequently Josef Bican was awarded the “Golden Ball” as the greatest goal scorer of the last century. He played for clubs and nations not considered to be elite in Europe. But still, scoring those many goals are no mean feat even in amateur leagues.
Bican was honoured with the Freedom of Slavia Prague in 2001, in remembrance of his contribution to the club and the city. Finally, Bican was content with his life. However, he was hospitalised in the winter of 2001 and was hoping that he could be back home for the Christmas. Tragically he breathed his last on 12 December, 2001, but after knowing that his achievements have been duly recognised. He was buried in Vyšehrad cemetery, a place reserved for some of the most prolific figures in Czech history. Footballing statistics page Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation (RSSSF) made an effort and finally estimated that Bican scored about 800 goals – 805 at least  – across all competitive matches, excluding friendly ones.
This statistic places Bican comfortably atop of the scoring charts in football history. A chart that consists of great Brazilians like Pele and Romario, a chart comprising of legends of the game Ferenc Puskás and Gerd Müller, a chart continuously changed by the heroics of Messi and Ronaldo. Bican has been lonely at the top for more than 60 years now. And it does not look like anyone would come close to greet him soon. The wait at the top, rather a lonely wait shrouded with honour and dignity, continues for Pepi.
Featured Image Source – FOOTY FAIR