- Josef Bican averaged 1.52 goals per game at club level
- He starred for Austria and Czechoslovakia
- "Perhaps he might even have been as famous as Pele," said one expert
Ever heard of Josef Bican? If you have actually seen him play, then you are probably a hundred years old or will be soon. Otherwise, you may have seen his name in books about football history and its stats, because the Vienna native is one of the game’s all-time leading marksmen with an estimated 805 goals during a career that lasted from 1931 to '55. Yet for all of that, his name and accomplishments remain relatively unknown.
On the anniversary of his birth on 25 September 1913, FIFA.com portrays this fascinating legend, who played at the 1934 FIFA World Cup Italy™ with his native Austria before switching allegiances to his adopted homeland, Czechoslovakia.
Josef's father Frantisek was himself a footballer who played for Hertha Vienna. He later fought during the First World War, from which he returned unscathed. Ironically, he would then suffer a serious kidney injury during, of all things, a football match, which would later lead to his death. Only eight years old at the time, Josef and his family suddenly found themselves thrust into poverty.
Unsurprisingly then, when he started playing football it was barefoot, something to which he would later attribute his exceptional touch. He graduated to playing youth football at his father’s old club Hertha before switching in 1931 to Rapid Vienna, where he would begin his professional career.
Pepi, as he was known, is credited with scoring 805 goals in 530 games, giving him a career average of 1.52 goals per game – a better return than Romario, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Not even Pele, who scored 1,283 goals, could better it. The Brazilian legend includes in his tally goals scored in unofficial games, and if we were to do the same for Bican, his mark would be an estimated 1,468, even if these figures are difficult to verify given their era.
In 1933, Bican embarked on his international career with Austria, at the time the dominant force in European football. The following year, he competed at the 1934 FIFA World Cup Italy™, where the Wunderteam lost in the semi-finals to the host nation. The striker found the net once in Italy, an extra-time winner in the Round of 16 against France (3-2). In all, he played 19 times for Austria, scoring 14 goals.
Bican could reportedly run 100 meters in 10.8 seconds, which was only half a second outside the world record at the time. Whether legend or reality, he certainly had the pace to leave defenders in his wake. His contemporaries have said he was equally accomplished with either foot and possessed an extraordinary reading of the game.
Czechoslovakia, an enduring passion
Bican was transferred to Slavia Prague in 1937, marking the start of a true love affair with the club. He went on to wear their colours for the next 11 years and was later appointed their coach. Czechoslovakia became his new home, and he duly applied for and received citizenship, going on to play for his adopted country 14 times between 1938 and 1949 (12 goals). Due to a clerical error, he was sadly unable to represent them at France 1938, where they reached the quarter-finals. It should be noted that FIFA regulations at the time permitted players to change their international allegiances.
After hanging up his boots, Bican turned to coaching. He would later take charge of several clubs in Czechoslovakia, where he would spend the rest of his life. He died in Prague on 12 December 2001.
What they said
"I think the most striking thing about him was his goalscoring ability, a quality he demonstrated regardless of the kind of football or system being played. In football, the most important thing is to score goals and he certainly delivered in that regard."
Josef Masopust, Czechoslovakia legend
"Bican was incredibly unlucky at the height of his career. There was no World Cup in 1942 or 1946 because of the war. If the 1942 edition had taken place, for example, he would surely have become more widely known. Perhaps he might even have been as famous as Pele."
Radovan Jelinek, sports historian
“When I talk to young reporters, they always say, ‘Mr Bican, scoring was easier back in your day.’ So I ask them, ‘How come? Look, are there opportunities today?’ And they tell me, ‘Of course there are, many of them’. And I say, ‘There you go. If there weren’t opportunities, it would be difficult. But if there are, scoring is the same as it was a hundred years ago, and it’ll be the same in a hundred years’ time too. It’ll always be the same.”
Josef Bican, speaking on Czech television in 1990