Josef "Pepi" Bican

By: Ian Willoughby

Josef Bican - who died at the age of 88 in December - was arguably the best Czech footballer ever. There is no argument about one fact - he scored more goals than any other Czech player in the history of the game and is one of the Czech all time sporting greats.

Josef Bican was born in Vienna on September 25, 1913. His mother Ludmila was a Viennese Czech and his father Frantisek came from Sedlice, near Blatna in southern Bohemia. The young Josef - Pepi for short - attended a Czech school in Vienna - the Jan Amos Komensky school. In an interview which he gave a few years before he died, Josef Bican recalled spending the summers with his grandmother in Bohemia when he was a boy.

"We went on a train called The Czech Heart. Hundreds and hundreds of children took that train to Czechoslovakia for those two months every summer. In Vienna there was terrible poverty. People were hungry - it was after the war. I won't forget that too soon. My grandmother was poor, really poor, but those two months were like heaven on earth to me."

Josef's father Frantisek was a footballer and played for Hertha Vienna. He fought in World War I and returned uninjured. It was a cruel irony then that he was to die at 30, of an injury sustained during a football match, when he was kicked in a kidney. He refused an operation and died. Josef was just eight year's old.

Pepi's mother worked in a restaurant kitchen and had great difficulty making ends meet. In later life Bican recalled how he had often gone without shoes. He said that playing football barefoot as a child had left him with great ball control skills.

"In Vienna there were thousands of boys who played football every day. In those days there weren't games or bikes, nothing like that. They didn't exist at all. We didn't even have footballs - we used to make these things called hadraks - rag balls - and we played all day, from morning to evening."

At the age of 12, Josef Bican started playing for the Hertha Vienna junior team. One of the club's sponsors gave him a schilling every time he scored - money which was much appreciated at home. Later the big Vienna club Rapid spotted Pepi and gave him a contract. Did he receive much as an 18-year-old player?

"Nothing at all compared to today. 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."

Pepi's mother Ludmila only came to watch him play a couple of times. On one of those occasions she was sitting very near the pitch - when an opponent fouled her son she ran onto the field and began beating him with her umbrella.

Josef Bican was extremely fast, and could run the 100 metres in 10.8 seconds - as fast as many sprinters in those days. He was a great all round player and could score with both feet as well - he even took penalties with both feet. It was said of him that he only missed one goal-scoring chance in 20.

Bican became an Austrian international, and played for Austria in the 1934 World Cup finals in Italy, where they got to the semi-finals. The 1934 finals were to be Bican's last World Cup. In 1937 he left Vienna and joined Slavia Prague and applied for Czechoslovak citizenship. He eventually received it, but a clerical error meant that he couldn't play for Czechoslovakia in the 1938 World Cup finals in France.

As was and is typical of Czech sports clubs, Slavia Prague had many different sections. Josef's wife Jarmila recalled how the club chairman let him know how important he was to the club.

"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!"

Throughout World War II - during the Nazi protectorate - Bican continued to play for Slavia, and kept on scoring goals with ease and regularity. Indeed he was the highest scorer in the league 12 times in his career. One unwelcome side affect of his success on the pitch was bad feeling in the dressing room. Several of his teammates envied his skills and he was called, among other names, an Austrian bastard.

Bican's success gave him something of an entree into high society. He played tennis with the famous actor Vlasta Burian, dined with the actor Jan Werich and knew the film star Adina Mandlova.

After the war several of Europe's big clubs were interested in signing Bican. Juventus Turin were very keen and offered Pepi handsome terms. How cruel fate can be - Bican was advised that there was a real chance the Communists could take over in Italy. He made the fateful decision to stay in Prague.

When the Communists came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, Bican refused to join the Communist party, just as before the war he had refused to join the Nazi party in Austria.

In danger of losing his flat in Prague to a communist functionary, Bican tried to improve his standing with the regime by leaving Slavia and joining the club Vitkovice zelezarna. Zelezarna means steelworks and the team had a working class following.

In 1951 Bican signed with Hradec Kralove. On the first of May 1953 he got in trouble with the local Communist party.

"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 Zapotocky, Long Live President Zapotocky. 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 Kralove. 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 on the way to the station a group of around 50 workers stopped him and the comrades and asked if there was any problem. Bican replied that there wasn't. That's OK, said one of the workers - otherwise we would have gone on strike. Pepi was glad he'd replied as he did - he said he'd have got at least 20 years in prison for inciting a strike.

Bican returned to the club he remained associated with till the end of his life, Slavia Prague. Actually in those days it's name was changed to the more Communist-sounding Dynamo Prague. He ended his career with the club, retiring in 1955 at the incredible age of 42. Not surprisingly, he was the oldest player in the league.

Having become used to the good life, Josef Bican was not a happy man under the Communist system. Apart from losing one's health, becoming poor is the worst thing that can happen to anyone, Pepi said, speaking year's later from bitter experience. He and his family got some of their property back after 1989, though not all of it.

Having got on the wrong side of the Communists, the Bicans found themselves ostracized by people they had considered friends. Ludmila Bicanova recalled how they were treated in those years.

"We lost our friends. Our phone didn't ring. We got no post. Even the Czechoslovak Physical Exercise Union - when things were worst - wouldn't help. They wouldn't give him a job - apart from on the roads! And when Pepi went to visit the Union, they ran away like rats so they wouldn't have to greet him. We had no chance at all and nobody gave us any support."

During the Prague Spring of 1968, Bican was told that if he got a coaching job abroad he would be allowed to go. Bican played for Slavia Prague's old boys in those days. He impressed the visiting Belgian team Tongeren and they hired him as coach.

At that time the great Brazilian player Pele was heading for his 1,000th goal and journalists were on the lookout for another player who had netted a thousand. What about Pepi Bican, said the former German player Bimbo Binder - he's scored 5,000! When asked by reporters why he hadn't drawn more attention to his achievements, Bican replied "who'd have believed me if I said I'd scored five times as many goals as Pele?!"

And a lot of Czechs believe that Bican scored 5,000 goals. That figure seems unlikely, to be honest. At least the normal practice is to count league goals only. Josef Bican scored 643 league goals, 196 of those in the Austrian league - a wonderful achievement by any standards.

Josef "Pepi" Bican spent the last few months of last year in hospital with heart problems. He had hoped to be home for Christmas. He died on December 12, at the age of 88 - the grand old man of Czech football.