When people grapple with the ultimately unneccesary but nevertheless fascinating topic of the greatest football players ever, hardly anyone would even mention Josef “Pepi” Bican. This very fact alone has always made him a figure of particular interest to me. According to RSSSF, he’s the all-time most prolific goalscorer in world football, with 804+ goals in around just 529 games. Compare this to Pelé: 765 in 827 competitive games. Even the great Brazilian’s overall total for all the games in his professional career – 1284 – is overshadowed by Bican’s 1467+. Why, then, has Bican fallen from many people’s radar, whilst Pelé is still held up as the shining example of his craft?
I think that it is partially due to the World Cup. Pelé’s career in the finals of the world’s premier tournament is well-known. Bican, born in Austria-Hungary in 1913, played in just one – the 1934 World Cup where his Austria team were beaten in the semi-finals by the host nation, Italy, after certain “discussions” had allegedly taken place between the officials and Benito Mussolini. Having refused to join the Nazi party in the years between 1937, Bican took Czech citizenship – he had been playing for Slavia Prague – but the paperwork did not go through quickly enough to allow him to play in France in 1938.
But the World Cup argument isn’t the be-all and end-all. George Best never played in the World Cup finals, nor did Alfredo di Stefano, nor has Ryan Giggs. Bican’s other cross to bear is that he comes from the flickery, black-and-white pre-World War II era. A time when players wore very long shorts, the ball was made of iron, and England didn’t feel the need to have to prove their superiority to anyone else with anything so vulgar as a competitive match. All we have as evidence for the great players of this era is some newsreel footage, the basic facts given by the statistics, and the personal testimony of the people who saw them play. Football supporters being unbiased, dispassionate sorts whose opinions can be taken as gospel.
However, even with just this to go on, Bican sounds like an impressive presence. Aside from his outrageous goalscoring exploits – it is said that he would only miss one goalscoring chance out of 20 – there remain stories of his accuracy, close control and speed. During training sessions at Slavia Prague, whilst the rest of his teammates would occupy themselves with running, stretching, medicine balls and pipe-smoking, Bican would put on a show for the fans, who would pay for the privilege of watching the spectacle of his routines. One such routine involved beer bottles placed atop a crossbar as targets. Bican then took aim with balls placed on the edge of the penalty area, missing, it is said, one in ten. His pace, too, was comparible to anything seen at the top of the World game today. Bican’s best time for the 100 metre sprint was 10.8 seconds. As a point of reference, Jesse Owens ran a World Record 10.2 seconds in the trials for the 1936 Olympics.
It seems to me that Bican’s legacy has fallen victim to political circumstance alone. Being born in Austria-Hungary a year before the Great War was always, of course, likely to be a precursor to a life of turbulence. But, through bad luck or poor judgement, Bican always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. His brave and admirable refusal to join the Nazi Party following the Anschluss burned his bridges with his country of birth, but within years he had found himself in a similar position with the advent of communism in his adoptive Czechoslovakia. Although offered a good deal by Juventus, Bican was advised that Italy would soon also be taken over by the Communist Party, and decided to stay in Prague. In 1948 he refused to join the Czech Communist party, essentially having to become a hired gun for state-owned working class clubs around the country as a trade-off. He retired from football in 1955, having played until the age of 42. Exiled in Czechoslovakia and at odds with the ruling party, Bican spent much of his retirement poor and friendless. As the final insult, searching for “Pepi Bican” on Google sees the venerable search engine ask if you meant to type “Pepsi Can”. He died in December 2001.
When it comes to the pub arguments, I always try to remember Bican. This is especially effective when the pub arguments are about football. During his youth career, fouled repeatedly by an opposition defender, Bican once watched his mother run onto the field to chase his assailant with her umbrella. That, coupled with 804 goals at first-team level, is worth all the Cruyff Turns in the world for me.