Now I’m sure you thought this was going to be about Ian Rush, but it isn’t, it is about a man named Josef.
Josef ‘Pepi’ Bican was born on 25th September 1913 in Vienna, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was born to a poor Czech family and spent most of his childhood playing street football with a rolled-up sock, which gave him great technique, a knack for improvisation, and the ability to score with both feet.
Bican was powerfully built and could run the 100m in 10.8 seconds, which was faster than many athletes of the time.
In 1931, he started his career with Rapid Wien. He scored 10 goals in 8 appearances in his first season and went onto win the first of his three Austrian Championship medals in 1935. In all, with Rapid, he scored 68 goals in just 61 matches. He moved onto Admira and won a further two Championship medals up to 1937.
During this time, Bican became an important part of Austria’s ‘Wunderteam’, which could’ve won the 1934 World Cup in Italy. They were beaten by the hosts in Semi-Finals, as it was rumoured the referee was a friend of Mussolini. Bican later claimed the referee headed one of his crosses to an Italian. Remarkably, the same referee took the final too, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Italy won.
.The Second World War had a dramatic effect on Austrian football, as it did the rest of Europe, but Austria became part of Germany, their league disbanded and many players fled the country. Bican was one of those players. He fled to Czechoslovakia, where he played for Slavia Prague. He won 4 consecutive league titles during the war. He had scored 14 goals in 19 appearances for Austria, but only appeared in the one World Cup.
Between 1937-1948 he played in 274 matches for Slavia, scoring, an eye-watering, 534 goals. These were in official matches, and records show that he also played in 153 ‘friendly’ matches scoring 298 goals. In two seasons, between 1945-1947, he scored 74 goals in 39 games.
He won the Mitropa Cup, the Champions League of its day, with Slavia and applied for Czechoslovak citizenship, but this was not processed in time and Germany invaded his adopted country too. He turned down the Nazis’ demand to represent Germany, and also refused a move to Juventus as he feared Italy would become communist too. When the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia, his chance to move abroad had gone.
The Czechoslovak government used him as a propaganda pawn and tried to make out he was middle-class, whereas Bican’s childhood had been especially poor, having to play barefoot as boots were unaffordable. He was made to work as a labourer at Prague’s Holesovice railway station and then drifted into obscurity and poverty. When the 1989 revolution overthrew the communists, Bican was given the Freedom of Prague.
Bican’s goalscoring record makes impressive reading. In terms of League matches, he scored over 600 goals, compared to Romario (546), Pele (538) and Puskas (517). In official matches he scored at least 805 goals (part of his record in 1952 is missing), compared to Romario (772), Pele (767) and Puskas (746). In all matches during his career he is recorded as scoring 1,468 goals in 918 matches.
He played right up to 1956, aged 42, as he finished his career back at Slavia, then known as Dynamo Prague. In his last three seasons with them he scored 22 goals in 29 appearances.
In January 2001 the International Federation of Football Historians and Statisticians awarded Bican the ‘Golden Ball’ as the greatest goalscorer of the last century. This was judged by the number of times a player had been top scorer in his domestic league. Bican managed this feat 12 times. Pele and Romario managed this 11 times during their careers.
On 12th December 2001, Bican passed away, aged 88. He seems to be one of a handful of players who are considered by two countries as theirs. He would appear to have been both lucky and unlucky to be born when he was. Lucky, in that the football played during the 1930’s & 1940’s lent itself to goalscoring, of which Bican was incredibly gifted. Unlucky in that his childhood came during the post-First World War years, and his career was blighted by the Second World War, Nazism and communism. What would seem to be in little doubt, is that his record may well stand forever.