Hall of Fame: Josef Bican

27 Mar

Josef Bican

Josef Bican is one of the greatest Czech footballers and also one of the most criminally underrated in the history of the game. A goal-scorer of almost superhuman proportions the centre-forward was equally talented with both feet and could run 100 metres in an impressive 10.6 seconds. Even more impressive when you consider that at the time the world record was just a shade over 10 seconds.

Due to him playing at a time when football’s records and structure were not what they are today his goals tally is disputed. In officially recognised games his total is 805 goals in 530 matches. If we include matches not recognised by FIFA Bican’s total rises to an estimated 1468 in 918. By either measure he is easily one of the most prolific centre-forwards in the history of the game both in terms of total goals and goals ratio and is regarded by many as the leading goalscorer of all-time.

Bican represented Austria’s legendary Wunderteam of the 1930’s and later Czechoslovakia in what was a golden age for Central European football. He is, however, unfairly forgotten when people think the greatest forwards in history

Bican was born on 25th September 1913 in Vienna to Czech parents in what was then the Austo-Hungarian Empire. In his early years he would live on the same street as future team-mate, and probably Austria’s greatest ever player, Mattias Sindelar.

Footballing ability ran in the family. His father, František, was also a footballer who played for Hertha Vienna. Unfortunately when he was kicked in the kidney by an opposition player he refused to undergo the necessary surgery and died. František was just 30 and his widow was left to provide for their 8 year old son alone. Bican’s childhood was one of terrible poverty. As a result, he would often play football barefoot (something which he would later attribute to his good ball control) with homemade footballs made out of rags called ‘hadraks’.

At 12 he started playing for the youth side of his father’s former team but it wasn’t long before he left Hertha and joined big boys Rapid Vienna at the age of 18. His mother, Ludmila, only watched him play on a few occasions but was fiercely protective of her son. On one occasion, so the story goes, she took exception to a foul on her son and then proceeded to attack the offending player with her umbrella.

In no doubt thanks to his opponent’s fear of being a beaten with an umbrella Bican became a star of the Austrian game. Rapid were keen to keep their star man and paid him well by the days standards.

Bican recalls, ‘In those days I got 150 schillings. That was a lot of money. A worker, a good worker, got 20/25 schillings a week. Rapid wanted to keep me so much that they started paying me 600 schillings. I was around 20 then.’

In the 1933-4 season he scored an incredible 29 goals in 22 league games to help Rapid to a 2nd place finish. It was enough to earn Bican a call-up to the Austrian national team and then for the 1934 World Cup.

One of the pre-tournament favourites Austria’s Wunderteam were led by innovative coach Hugo Meisl but were eliminated by hosts Italy in the semi-final in suspicious circumstances. The Swedish referee, Ivan Eklind, had dined with Mussolini. When the Austrian goalkeeper caught the ball three metres out of his goal only to be bundled over the line by the Italian forwards he allowed the goal to stand.  Bican even claimed that Eklind even headed one of his crosses to an Italian player. Mussolini, however, approved and Eklind took charge of the final were the rough Italians defeated another proponent of the Danubian school Czechoslovakia amid further refereeing controversy.

The next season he fell out with Rapid management because he did not feel the club were making the most of his talent. This would lead to him being left out of the side for much of their title winning campaign. This would also see him dropped from the national side for a period. As a result of his fall out with Rapid he moved to rivals Admira where he won two Austrian titles in two seasons.

In the spring of 1937, Slavia Prague made a bid for Bican and he left Austria for Czechoslovakia the land of his ancestors. After the annexation of Austria in 1938 he was pressured into playing for the German team. He refused and applied for Czech citizenship but unfortunately a clerical error prevented him from playing in the 1938 World Cup.

When his debut for Czechoslovakia came, in August 1938, he scored a hat-trick in a 6-2 win over Sweden. Bican scored eight in his first three games for Czechoslovakia before German occupation left the national team inactive for the war period. During this time he made one apperance for the ‘Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia’ making him one of the very few to play for three different national teams. Naturally he scored a hat-trick.

Bican playing for Slavia Prague

Bican’s first two seasons with Slavia saw them beaten to the title by their local rivals Sparta Prague. Bican would, however, dominate the scoring charts. He would finish as the Czechoslovakian league top scorer on 11 occasions to go with one time in the Austrian league. He won the Mitropa Cup (an international cup competition for central European club side and precursor to the European Cup) in 1938 and Slavia turned the tide in the league in 1940 to begin a run of four consecutive league title victories.

In the 1943-44 seasons Bican scored a barely believable 57 goals in just 26 league games. It was unbelievable to some as they did not consider those wartime goals to be ‘official’ when adding up his career total. It is a somewhat controversial issue to this day. With these ‘unofficial’ goals included Bican is the leading goal-scorer of all-time. Without them it is Pelé who takes this honour. It is a matter of what you regard as an ‘official’ match. This and the fact that his greatest playing days coincided with the disorder of wartime contribute to him remaining mostly forgotten to this day.

When the Czechoslovakian league ‘officially’ resumed following the war Bican stayed as prolific as ever. He scored 31 goals in 1945-46 as Slavia lost the title play-off to rivals Sparta and 43 the following season as they regained the title by a single point.

His free scoring attracted the attention of Italian giants Juventus. Had he joined he may have become better known today but turned them down fearing a communist takeover of the country. The takeover never materialised but in an ironic twist Czechoslovakia succumbed to communist rule. Bican refused to join the Communist Party, which has a history of manipulating sporting institutions and persons for their own means. His principled refusal to be used as a puppet and propaganda tool put him at odds with the Soviet authorities who spread lies claiming Bican came from a bourgeois Viennese background ignoring his very humble upbringing.

His position with the authorities wasn’t help by the fact that he was a hugely popular figure in Prague and thousands turned up just to watch him train. As the other players trained together, Bican’s training would resemble a circus act designed to entertain the paying crowd. He would place empty bottles on the crossbar of a goal and then proceed to knock them off one-by-one with shots from 20 yards away. It is said that he would maybe miss one in ten on a good day.

Not only popular with the people, Bican also mixed with the rich and famous of Prague society. However, in 1950 when in danger of losing his Prague apartment to a Communist Party official, he decided to leave Slavia (historically a middle-class club) for the steelworks team, Železárny Vítkovice, to try to improve his standing with the Communist authorities.

In 1951, he joined Hradec Králové but an incident at 1953 May Day parade would result in the Communist Party forcing him to leave the city.

‘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 Zápotocký, Long Live President Zápotocký!” 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!’

Bican also recalled how a group of 50 or so workers followed them to the station and asked if there was any problem. Bican replied there wasn’t and one of the workers said, ‘that’s okay otherwise we would have gone on strike.’ Bican was well aware of the situation he was in. Had he resisted he would have gotten 20 years in prison.

So he returned to Slavia Prague (renamed Dynamo Prague by the Communist regime) were he stayed until he retired from playing in 1955 at the age of 42. He took up a coaching career with some success managing Dynamo among others. Never happy under Communist rule, he lost most of his wealth during these years and retired altogether in the 1970’s and returned to Prague.

However, he was forced to work as a labourer at Prague’s Holesovice railway station and he drifted into obscurity and poverty. After the Velvet Revolution of 1989 overthrew Czechoslovakia’s communist rulers his standing in Czech football was restored once more and later received the Freedom of Prague in 2001. He died in the December of that year at the age of 88 knowing that his talent and standing in the game had finally been recognised.


Honours
and Records:

Team

4th place at 1934 World Cup with Austria

3x Austrian League Championship
1x Czechoslovakian League Championship
1x Mitropa Cup

Individual

1x Austrian League top scorer
11x Czechoslovakian top scorer
5x European top division top scorer
5x World top division top scorer

Austria: 19 caps 14 goals
Czechoslovakia: 14 caps 12 goals
Bohemia and Moravia: 1 cap 3 goals

Official total: 530 matches 805 goals
Unofficial total: 918 matches 1468 goals

IFFHS Golden Ball for being the greatest goalscorer of the 20th century

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