In the past few weeks, the Polish capital, Warsaw, has been marking the 60th anniversary of the completion of the iconic Palace of Culture and Science, a monstrous building that dominates the city. It’s one of the iconic symbols of the city and was based on the Moscow skyscrapers of the 1950s.
1955 also marked the start of the European Cup and in that first season, Poland’s representative was Gwardia Warsawza. Nineteen years later, Poland shocked planet football by finishing a highly credible third in the FIFA World Cup. If there had been any justice, the Poles would have lined-up in the final against the Netherlands instead of the West Germans. Poland and Cruyff’s Dutch team had really been the ones to set the competition alight rather than the ultra-efficient and ruthless hosts. The Polish squad was drawn from 10 clubs, of which one was Gwardia. They provided one member of the Polish team, Wladyslaw Zmuda, a tall central defender who was eventually named best young player of the tournament. Gwardia signed Zmuda in 1973 but by 1975, the club was relegated from Poland’s top division. It was pretty much all downhill from there, although there have been a couple of brief revivals.
The club was one of the casualties of the collapse of the old Eastern Bloc, and like many sporting institutions adopted by the army or police, their popularity sunk. Founded in 1944 as KS Grochow, they adopted the Gwardia name in 1948. Its police affiliation meant Gwardia benefitted from good facilities and access to decent players, sometimes to the cost of other clubs. Ironically, the Polish police, who own the club’s stadium, are partly responsible for the sharp and painful decline of Gwardia.
Gwardia’s place in history was secured in 1955, however, when they took part in that inaugural European Cup, even though they were not Polish champions. The Harpagony, as they were known, which means “the Harpies”, won the Polish Cup in 1954. Ogniwo Bytom and CWKS Warszawahad won the Polish league in 1954 and 1955 respectively. Gwardia were a top four side in 1954 and 1955, so they were no fools, but they were not Polish champions. They were invited to enter the European Cup as Chelsea’s replacement. The 1955 Football League champions were “advised” not to enter the competition and being the obedient servants of the footballing authorities, they took that advice. Gwardia replaced them.
The 1955 season had started well for Gwardia and in the early stages of the season, they had topped the table, so when the European Cup tie with Sweden’s Djurgardens came around, they were in good shape. The first leg, in Stockholm, ended goalless with Gwardia playing well under the Swedish floodlights. It augered well for the second meeting, but they collapsed in Warsaw, losing 1-4 in front of 25,000 at the Polish army stadium. Experiment Europa was over for the Harpies.
But it wasn’t Gwardia’s last European adventure, but none have been so notable. They entered the European Cup again in 1957-58 and in the 1970s, they played in the Inter–Cities Fairs Cup, UEFA Cup and European Cup-winners Cup. In more recent times, they have become a nomadic club, thanks to being locked-out of their ground by the police, and money has been scarce. They’re barely alive by all accounts.
Gwardia have just finished the 2014-15 season in the Klasa A Warszawa Division III. That’s the seventh level of Polish football – no-man’s-land. They lost 18 of their 30 league games, including a five-game sequence to the end of the campaign that saw them leak 26 goals. They conceded 106 in the league overall. Instead of playing teams like Gornik, Legia and Wisla Krakow, Gwardia’s opponents these days include Unia, SEMP, Jednosc Zabieniec and Perla. It’s a long way from being among Europe’s elite. Never the most successful club, they will always have the honour of being Poland’s first European entrant. Along with Saarbrucken, Servette and Rot-Weiss Essen, they have undoubtedly fared the worst among those 16 pioneers. It’s a reminder that success can be fleeting and a football club’s fortunes can change dramatically for the worse. In Gwardia’s case, its near-death experience has been slow and very sad. Wouldn’t it be nice if, on the top of Joseph Stalin’s monolithic and unloved palace of all things cultural, somebody planted a Gwardia flag to commemorate that first European adventure? Football can be culture and science all wrapped up in one after all…