What is a goal? It seems like a fairly basic question, the sort of thing football should have sorted out by now. But as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal-scoring feats have challenged records that for a long time seemed beyond reach, it turns out that those marks were never quite so established as they had appeared.
These days, we have a fairly clear idea of what constitutes an official game and goals scored in one. If you’re playing for Barcelona or Real Madrid, it’s a goal in La Liga, the Copa del Rey, the Supercopa, the Champions League, the Europa League, the UEFA Super Cup or the FIFA Club World Cup. Nothing else at the club level counts—not friendlies, not the International Champions Cup, nothing. For a national team, it’s the World Cup and continental championships (and their qualifiers), Nations League competitions and official friendlies against other nations.
It’s at this point that an immediate contradiction emerges: Why does a friendly for Portugal, for instance, count, while one for Juventus doesn’t? It’s easy to mock the fact that Pelé’s « unofficial » tally includes hundreds of goals in friendlies, but while some of those games were exhibitions against substandard opposition, some, when Santos toured Europe, were matches of the very highest quality, taken extremely seriously.
It doesn’t help credibility when Santos’s statisticians suddenly discover a load of new goals just as Messi draws level with Pelé or Slavia Prague’s historians decide another batch of goals were actually in official games just as Ronaldo supposed surpassed Josef « Pepi » Bican. But the fact is that comparing across eras is all but impossible, particularly when one of the players involved in the comparison, Bican, played for three national sides.
In January, Ronaldo reached 760 career goals for club and country: five goals for Sporting, 118 for Manchester United, 450 for Real Madrid, 85 for Juventus and 102 for Portugal. That seemed to have taken him past Bican’s apparent record of 759–but others, including FIFA, have Bican on 805. And even more have come up with their own totals. The fact is, wherever you draw the line, it’s arbitrary. And that’s perhaps especially true of somebody who played in such a turbulent period as Bican. In a sense, the precise total is of largely academic interest; more relevant is that he was a very great footballer and a very great goalscorer and somebody who, in part because of his courage and stubbornness, lived a remarkable life.
Getty Images/Illustration by Bryce Wood
Bican’s family was originally from Sedlitz, near Prague. When his father, Frantisek, was very young, his parents took him to Vienna, where they settled in the suburb of Favoriten. It was an area noted for its brick factories, and it attracted a lot of immigrants, becoming known, disparagingly, as Ziedelböhm (Brick Bohemia). It’s estimated that 300,000 left Bohemia, Moravia and Hungary for Vienna in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
Franitsek married Ludmilla, who had been born to a Bohemian family in Vienna and worked as a laborer, while his wife, as well as bringing up their three sons, found work as a kitchen hand. Frantisek was also a very good footballer, a prolific forward for Hertha Wien before the First World War. In a game in 1910, he took a knee to the kidneys. It was recommended he should have surgery but refused, though whether because of the cost or of fear is unclear. When the war broke out, he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. He survived the conflict only to die in 1922, aged 30, seemingly from an illness brought on by his damaged kidneys.
Favoriten soon became a home of football in Vienna. Football was an escape from poverty—metaphorically and, for a fortunate few, literally. The Bicans lived on Quellenstrasse, just a few houses along from the great Matthias Sindelar, probably Austria’s greatest ever footballer, who was of Moravian stock. He was 10 years older than Pepi, and from the early 1930s would become the hub of the brilliant Austria national side known as « der Wunderteam. »
Sindelar, a cerebral player known as « der Papierene »—the Paper Man—for his slight physique, revolutionized center-forward play. Previously, strikers had been large and robust, their job to battle with the opposing center-half and get on the end of crosses. Sindelar, though, dropped deep. His game was about finding and creating space, and playing precise passes. Bican could hardly have been more different.
He was tall and so quick that it was said he could run 100 meters in 10.6 seconds. Given the 100-meter world record at the time was 10.3 seconds, that seems unlikely, but the precise detail perhaps doesn’t matter too much; he was clearly extremely fast. In his early teens, Bican followed the path of his father and joined Hertha Wien, where Sindelar had also begun his career. His mother was an enthusiastic fan, at times rather too enthusiastic. On one occasion she ran onto the pitch and attacked an aggressive opponent with her umbrella.
Bican’s talent was obvious, and his fame soon spread. Rapid Wien, one of the giants of the Austrian game, asked him to join its youth ranks. In his first game for the club, he scored seven goals, and so he was promoted to the Amateur side, which was typically for 18- and 19-year-olds. In his first game there, he scored five goals, and after three months he was promoted to the Reserves.
Three months after that, in September 1931, Bican, still just 17, made his debut against an Austria Wien side led by Sindelar. By halftime, Bican had scored a hat trick, and he added a fourth in the second half in a 5–3 win. His international debut came in November 1933, and by the time of the World Cup the following summer, he was an established member of the side, operating as an inside-right. He developed a fine understanding with Sindelar, who would drop deep from center-forward to create space for him into which he could accelerate. By the time of the tournament in Italy, though, there was a sense that « der Wunderteam » was past its absolute peak. Bican scored the winner against France in the first round, but Austria never quite found its rhythm, and it went out to Italy in a bruising semifinal.
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Bican won the Austrian title with Rapid in 1934-35, but by the end of the season, he’d been suspended after refusing to sign a new contract and effectively going on strike, trying to push through a move to Slavia Prague. He claims never to have felt entirely at home at Rapid, and a spiky independence in his character was beginning to reveal itself. The football both at Rapid and at Hertha, Bican claimed, was too robust, too based on pace and power. Having played with Sindelar with the national team, he wanted to play that style of football at the club level as well.
Joining Sindelar at Austria Wien, though, was financially impossible. Slavia, which played a similarly technical style, was interested, but Rapid was unwilling to sell, preferring to try to force its star forward to back down. Through Bican’s uncle, a deal was done with Admira Wien, at the time the most successful side in Austrian history. Still, though, Rapid refused to release his registration, and Bican went nine months without a game.
When he was eventually allowed to leave, Bican won championships in both his seasons with Admira, but his heart was set on Prague. His was a restless spirit who found an outlet in his practical jokes. His most notorious prank was to order two taxis and send his hat and coat off in the first one, following in the second, so that people at his destination would think he had dematerialized.
Eventually, in April 1937, Bican signed for Slavia, although wrangling over his contract meant he wouldn’t make his debut for the club until August. His debut brought a surprise 1–0 defeat at SK Kladno, but he then put four past Bohemians in the Cup and scored another four on his home debut, against SK Nachod. Once he had completed the formalities of naturalization, a call-up for Czechoslovakia’s national team followed, although it came too late for him to play in the 1938 World Cup.
Bican was the top scorer in his first season, but Slavia finished as runner-up. The following season, in March 1939, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. That led, in the west, to the establishment of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, which retained president Emil Hacha but was run by the Reichsprotektor as Hitler’s personal representative. In the East, territory to the south was seized by Hungary, while the Slovak Republic was established as a client state of Germany.
Football split on similar lines, with Slovakian sides forming their own championship and Bohemian and Moravian clubs carrying their results from the Czechoslovak league into the Cesko-moravska liga. Ethnic German clubs, meanwhile, competed in the German championship—as they had before Germany’s accession to FIFA in 1904 (DFC Prag, for instance, a team made up largely of students from Prague, had lost to VfB Leipzig in the 1903 final, in part because they’d gone drinking in Hamburg the night before the final).
Slavia finished a point behind Sparta, but Bican was again the top scorer. And this is where the question of what constitutes an « official » goal becomes complex. In England, for instance, the wartime leagues are never included in official statistics; in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, they are. The Nazi obsession with the « purity » of athletic endeavor and antisemitic belief that professionalism was a Jewish corruption of the true value of sport meant the league became amateur once again.
As a consequence, Bican took a job in the correspondence department of a mining and metallurgical company. He worked a five-day week (although it’s not clear how seriously he took it; one account suggests he spent most of his time making flies for fishing) and was rewarded with a luxury-company-owned apartment with ebony floors.
The league in the Protectorate continued to be taken seriously, but it’s clear that standards dropped significantly. It wasn’t just that players, having jobs, were training less frequently, that resources became increasingly limited or even that men were being called up to the army, being wounded and dying. It was that some of the sides in the league, which was dominated by Slavia and Sparta, were little more than village teams. Scores in double figures were not uncommon. Four times, Bican scored seven goals in a game. His first 100 goals for Slavia came in 33 months, his second 100 in 30. In 1940–41, he scored 38 goals in 22 games. While that inevitably raises questions about the standard of play, it should be noted that nobody else was scoring at anything like that rate. He was the top scorer in each of the five complete years of the Cesko-moravska liga, winning four championships.
But that didn’t make him popular. Bican’s status as an Austrian-born Bohemian gave him an awkward double status. He had always inhabited both worlds. He had attended a Czech school, speaking Czech with his brothers and German with his mother, although he always insisted he was “100% Czech.” In 1939, Bican had been called up to the Protectorate representative side for a series of quasi-internationals, culminating in a match against the German Reich, which finished 4–4 with Bican’s scoring a hat trick. He was then invited to play for the Reich, but refused, despite fear or reprisals and even though accepting would have meant higher pay and more food coupons. Some Czech teammates, though, viewed him as an outsider, a representative of the occupying powers.
Bican seems always to have been something of a loner, and there had been some surprise when he married an 18-year-old named Kvetoslava Trlova in 1939. She kept to herself, although she was interviewed before a derby in 1940, when she revealed the secret of her husband’s success was her “special meatballs.” But within a year she was dead, a victim of tuberculosis a few weeks before her 20th birthday.
Bican married again in 1943. His second wife, to whom he was with until his death in 2001, was 19-year-old Jarmila Lokajova, a fine tennis player, skier and dancer, and a Slavia fan he met in a restaurant after a game.
At the end of the World War II, Czechoslovakia was reconstituted, and so too was the league. Sparta and Slavia alternated titles for four years, and Bican remained the top scorer throughout. That fourth season, though, in autumn 1948, was half as long as typical, as the Communist government nationalized football clubs and instituted a spring-to-autumn calendar to match that of the USSR from 1949. Were the games in the half-season official? That very much depends who you ask.
Bican was 35, and age was beginning to catch up with him, but by far the bigger issue was that, independent-minded as ever, he refused to join the Communist Party, even when Slavia begged him to. His assets were confiscated as a result, and he left Slavia, moving to Ostrava, where he joined the second-division side Sokol Vitkovice Zelezarny. In his first season there, he scored 22 goals and inspired the club’s promotion.
He joined Spartak Hradec Kralove before, in 1952, being allowed to rejoin Slavia, which by then was known as Dynamo. A year later, he became player-coach, playing fewer and fewer games. His last league match came against Liberec. He was 43, but still scored four times. Life remained far from easy, and he was forced to take on other work to make ends meet, loading wagons and, for a time, feeding animals at the Prague Zoo.
For 28 years, Bican had scored goals. For 11 years in a row, he was the top scorer in whichever league he was playing. As to how many he scored, that depends what you count. The Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation credits him with 542 goals in league games, 134 in domestic cups, 15 in the Mitropa Cup (a former European cup competition) and 46 with the national teams for which he played. But there are also winter tournaments and regional and city selections. In total, they get to 948 goals in 621 official games, but there are a further 864 goals in 468 friendlies. For what it’s worth, the RSSSF has Ronaldo on a total of 778 in official games—ahead of Pelé on 775, but behind Romario at 780 and Ferenc Puskás at 808.
The bad news for Ronaldo is that there’s a peak even beyond Bican: Erwin Helmchen, who was born in Cottbus in 1907 and is said to have scored 981 goals in official games, mainly for Brandenburg Cottbus and SV Chemnitz.
But that is another story.