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Born: Thursday 25 September 1913, Vienna, Austria-Hungary (now Austria)
Died: Wednesday 12 December 2001, Prague, Czech Republic (aged 88)
Austrian born and of Czech descent, Josef Bican enjoyed a long playing career in both Austria and Czechoslovakia and represented both countries at international level. Throughout his career he often found himself in conflict with both footballing and political rulers but he continued playing into his 40s and in total scored more than 800 goals in official matches. He is often claimed to be the leading goalscorer in the history of the game.
Bican was born in Vienna on 25 September 1913 and in his early years lived in the same street as another Austrian football star and his future international team-mate Matthias Sindelar. His father František was a footballer but died in tragic circumstances having sustained damage to one of his kidneys following a collision in a match. He refused an operation and died at the age of 30, leaving his young widow to care for the family alone. With money hard to come by, the young Josef often had to play football barefoot, which helped him to develop his exceptional ball control.
As a teenager Bican played for Hertha Vienna's youth team as well as Schustek and Farbenlutz, before getting his big break at the age of 18 when he was offered a contract by Rapid Vienna. His mother was still fiercely protective of him, to the extent that she was once reported to have witnessed a player foul her son and run on to the pitch and attacked the aggressor with her umbrella.
While with Rapid, Bican quickly became one of the stars of the Austrian game. His speed was comparable with the leading international sprinters of the day and there were few players who were as accomplished with both feet. In the 1933-34 season, he scored 29 goals in 22 league games to help Rapid to second place in the league and during that season earned his first call-up to the national team. In the summer of 1934 he was named in the squad for the World Cup in Italy and in Austria's first game he scored what would prove to be the winning goal in extra-time against France.
Bican played in all of Austria's World Cup games as they lost narrowly in the semi-final to Italy and eventually finished fourth. The next season should have brought celebration as Rapid went through the whole league season unbeaten to claim the title by six clear points ahead of rivals Admira, although Bican only played in three matches after falling out with the club's management who he did not feel were making the most of his talent. Slavia Prague were interested in signing him, but he ended up moving across Vienna to Admira.
His disagreements with Rapid saw him fall out of favour at international level as well for a time, but in a two year spell with Admira, Bican helped the team to win two consecutive league titles. In the spring of 1937, a few months after what proved to be last appearance for Austria, Slavia Prague made another bid for Bican and he left his home country to move to the land of his ancestry. After the annexation of Austria in 1938, pressure came on him to play for Germany but he refused and applied for Czech citizenship. Having received it, a clerical error prevented him from being able to play in the 1938 World Cup.
When his debut for Czechoslovakia did come, in August 1938, Bican scored a hat-trick in a 6-2 win over Sweden. He scored eight goals in his first three games for Czechoslovakia, but following the German occupation of that country the national team was inactive for a number of years. In 1939, Bican became one of the few players to appear for three national teams when he played one match for the 'Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia', scoring another hat-trick in a 4-4 draw with Germany.
His first two years with Slavia had seen them edged out in the race for the league title by great rivals Sparta. Bican however dominated the league's goalscoring charts right from his first season and in 1938 helped the team to win the only international club competition of the time, the Mitropa Cup. In 1939-40 they finally turned the tables to claim the championship of Bohemia and Moravia by one point, giving Bican his first trophy in Czech domestic football. That began a run of four consecutive titles including a league and cup double in 1941, with Bican scoring an incredible 57 goals in 26 league games in 1943-44. Those wartime goals would later be a source of controversy in judging his final career total as some considered them to be 'unofficial'.
When the independent Czechoslovakian league resumed after the war, Bican was still just as prolific as ever. He scored 31 goals in 1945-46 as Slavia lost a title play-off to Sparta, and 43 the following season as they regained the title by a single point. Major European clubs chased his signature, including Juventus in Italy, but he turned them down fearing a Communist takeover in that country. Ironically, having stayed in Prague, the Communists soon took power there and Bican, who refused to join the Communist party, found himself at odds with the authorities.
He was incredibly popular in Prague, with thouands often turning up to watch him train, but the government attempted to turn public opinion against him by alleging that he came from a middle-class background in Vienna. Bican tried to improve his standing with the authorities by moving to working class second division side Vítkovicé Železárny in 1949. After two years there, he moved on again to Hradec Králové in 1951 but in 1953 found himself in trouble with the Communist Party again and was forced to leave not just the club but the city. He returned to Slavia, who by that time had been renamed Dynamo Prague under the Communist regime, and played on until 1955 when he finally retired at the age of 42.
In his two spells with Slavia/Dyanmo, Bican scored more than 550 goals in little over 300 games, and ended his playing career with more top division goals than any other player at that time. Today, he ranks second behind Pelé on that list and although statisticians sometimes disagree on which matches to count, many view him to have the highest career total of all time when all official matches are considered.
After his retirement, Bican pursued a coaching career in Czechoslovakia which took him around a number of clubs over the next fifteen years. His first job was with Dynamo Prague, and he also returned to another of his former clubs when he coached Hradec Králové in the 1960s. He was never happy living under Communist rule and lost much of his wealth during those years. In 1968, the ruling regime allowed him to take a job abroad and he spent a successful three years with Belgian club Tongeren, leading them to consecutive promotions in 1970 and 1971.
Bican retired from coaching in the 1970s and returned to Prague, although he found himself made to work as a labourer and lived in poverty for several years. After the revolution of 1989, his standing in the country was restored and he was eventually given the freedom of the city. In 1998, he even had an asteroid named in his honour, 'Pepibican' as 'Pepi' had been the nickname by which he was often known. Fondly remembered as perhaps the greatest ever Czech player, Josef Bican died in December 2001, at the age of 88.
References (all accessed 17 February 2012):
- Published on Friday, 17 February 2012 14:02