JOSEF BICAN, who has died aged 88, was the world's greatest goalscorer and a key figure in the Austrian Wunderteam.

In January 2000, the International Federation of Football Historians and Statisticians (IFFHS), awarded him the Golden Ball as the greatest goalscorer of the last century. The award was judged on the number of times a player was top scorer in his domestic league. Bican managed this 12 times, and his total of 649 league goals was also a world record.

What delighted Bican was that the award recognised the 229 goals he scored in the Second World War, previously excluded on the grounds that Czechoslovakia was not independent then. When the IFFHS disregarded his wartime exploits for a previous award he boycotted the ceremony, claiming they had ''stolen his goals'', and instead drank tea from a thermos flask with his wife in their hotel room.

Bican was born in Vienna to a poor Czech family. He grew up playing street football with a rolled up sock which gave him superb technique and improvisation and, though powerfully built, Bican ran 100 metres in 10.8 seconds. What distinguished him was his love of goals, whether a tap-in or a 30-yard volley.

He won four Austrian league titles from 1934 to 1937, the first two coming with Rapid Vienna and the others with local rivals Admira, and was a regular in the national side under Hugo Meisl.

At the 1934 World Cup in Italy, the Austrians faced the hosts in the semi-final and were warned that the referee, Ivan Eklind, had dined with Mussolini.

When an Italian forward bundled the Austrian goalkeeper and the ball over the goalline from three yards out, Eklind allowed the goal. The Austrians fumed, Il Duce approved, and Eklind took charge of the final where Italy beat Czechoslovakia amid further controversial refereeing decisions.

Bican never again appeared in the World Cup. Four years later he moved to Czechoslovakia ahead of the Anschluss, only for the Nazis to follow him soon after. His application for Czechoslovak citizenship was not processed in time and he refused the Nazis' demand that he represent Germany.

He led Slavia to the Mitropa Cup, the forerunner of the Champions League, and four successive wartime titles. Those feats led to an approach from Juventus. Had he gone, he might now be as famous as Ferenc Puskas but Bican declined, fearing Italy would become communist.

Instead, communists came to power in Czechoslovakia a few months later and his chance to play abroad had gone. He carried on scoring, hitting 57 goals in the 1953-54 season, and retired a year later as a national hero.

The communists wanted to use Bican as a propaganda weapon but he refused and was punished for his defiance. Claiming he was a bourgeois Viennese, they made him work as a labourer at Prague's Holesovice railway station and confiscated his property.

Bicam's standing was restored after the Velvet Revolution of 1989 which overthrew the communists and last year he was given the freedom of Prague.

Josef Masopust, European Footballer of the Year in 1962 after leading Czechoslovakia to the World Cup final, described Bican as a true gentleman. ''He always helped young players. We can only regret that the whole world did not know him because of the war.''

Bican is survived by his wife, Jarmila. They had no children.