I got off the bus which had taken me to the gates of Gwardia Warszawa’s stadium. It was a cold January day just after Christmas and there was hardly anyone around. The stadium sign spoke of decayed greatness, imposing and yet falling to bits, the gates themselves caked with rust.
The main entrance and the side-doors were locked and, desperate to find a way in, I walked around the stadium’s gargantuan perimeter, trying to find gaps. Alas there were none and, although I wanted to, I decided not to take the risk of trespassing. Instead I went back to the main gates and attempted to spot someone who could help. Way off in the distance stood what looked like a caretaker and I beckoned him over. ‘Is there any way of getting inside?’ I asked. The caretaker, who was in a police uniform, told me ‘No, this is police property and there’s nothing there anyway.’ ‘But don’t Gwardia play here?’ I enquired. ‘They used to but now they can’t afford to, they hire pitches across Warsaw instead’ he replied. Suspecting this might be the end of our conversation I proffered ‘Weren’t they once a great club?’ to which the caretaker answered ‘Yes. But now they’ve died a natural death.’ I realised this was probably the natural end of our conversation too and slumped off to get the bus back home.
The beginnings of Gwardia go back to 1944 when KS Grochow, the sports club of Warsaw’s Citizen’s Militia (Milicja Obywatelska), or Poland’s Communist-era police was established. As Poland sunk into Stalinism at the end of the 1940s police clubs began to take on the Gwardia moniker. KS Grochow did the same in 1948 and Gwardia Warszawa was born. (The most famous other club to become Gwardia was Wisła Kraków in 1949.) As a result of its police links Gwardia Warszawa was able to have access to good resources, including players and facilities, from the Polish Communist state. Despite this leg up Gwardia started life in Poland’s lower leagues and didn’t make the top division, the Ekstraklasa until 1952. The fifties was a very successful decade for Gwardia. Under the guidance of their trainer Kazimierz Sowiński, the club stayed in the Ektraklasa for 8 consecutive seasons, finally dropping to the second division in 1960. At the time, the Harpagony (Harpies) were considered one of the top Polish sides, winning the Polish cup in 1954, finishing as high as 2nd in the league in 1957 and qualifying to play in Europe on several occasions. The team was renowned for its ambition, fight and expressive play. It also possessed a number of Polish internationals including the goalkeeper Tomasz Stefaniszyn, the dynamic winger Krzysztof Baszkiewicz and the prolific striker Stanisław Hachorek.
Gwardia’s Polish internationals, Edmund Zientara, Stanisław Hachorek and Krzysztof Baszkiewicz
The 1960s were a slightly weaker decade for Gwardia, with the club yoyoing between the top two divisions, however from 1969 onwards they spent another 5 consecutive years in the Ekstraklasa. During this period Gwardia finished as high as 3rd in the league and appeared in European competitions another 3 times, notching up two-legged victories over FC Bologna, Vojvodina Novy Sad and Ferencváros. This Gwardia team also possessed a number of Polish internationals, the most famous of which being the defender Władysław Żmuda. Whilst at Gwardia, Żmuda represented Poland in the 1974 World Cup Finals where Poland shocked the world by finishing in third place. Indeed Żmuda was named young player of the tournament.
Gwardia were somewhat unfortunately relegated in 1975 and this represented the end of their glory days. Until Communism fell in 1989 Gwardia spent most of their years in the Polish second division although they finished a credible 7th in the Ekstraklasa in 1982. They were also an important staging post in the careers of the Polish internationals Dariusz Dziekanowski, who would go on to play for Celtic and Bristol City, and Dariusz Wdowczyk, who would play for Celtic and Reading. The end of Communism has not been kind to Gwardia, in 1992 they fell out of the Polish second division and since 2005 the club has been haemorrhaging money. They now find themselves languishing in Klasa ‘A’, the 7th tier of Polish football, heavily in debt and without a stadium to call their own. A once great club is on the verge of extinction.
It was all so different once. To explain this we need to go back to the Poland of the mid-1950s. Picture the scene: it is the summer of 1955, Poland is on the cusp of a wave of positivity as a result of increased freedoms in the wake of the death of Joseph Stalin. Young people are starting to listen to jazz, in a year or so Polish new wave cinema will delight audiences around the world. In the world of sport the future also seems bright. The early 1950s had seen Communist authorities give the green light to two immense new stadiums, the National Stadium in Warsaw (Stadion Dziesięciolecia) and the Silesian Stadium (Stadion Śląski). The Stadion Dziesięciolecia opened on 22 July 1955 on the eleven-year anniversary of the PKWN manifesto which marked the start of Communist rule in Poland. 83,000 spectators watched the first ever event at the stadium, a football match between teams representing Warsaw and Katowice. In late July-early August 1955 the Stadium hosted the 5th World Festival of Youth and Students, an event in which 114 countries and over 30,000 participants took part. The world of Polish football also seemed to benefit from this more relaxed environment. After six years of prohibition, in March 1955 the Communist government permitted Polish football teams to return to their pre-Communist era names.
In the midst of all this enthusiasm, mid-August 1955 saw the Polish football season get back under way. At the time the Polish league ran according to a spring-autumn timetable unlike the current autumn-spring season. Gwardia Warszawa had had a good first half of the season, sitting at the start of the autumn round in third place, this despite being destroyed 5-1 by CKWS Warsaw (now Legia Warsaw) on their own turf in the spring. Gwardia immediately had the chance to get one back on their city rivals and they did just that, coming away with a deserved 3-2 victory at CKWS, taking them up to second in the table. Gwardia continued their good form with a 3-1 victory at Polonia Bytom in late August setting up a top of the table clash with Włókniarz Łódź (now ŁKS Łódź) in early September . In this tie Gwardia came away with a deserved 1-0 victory over Włókniarz in front of 50,000 of their own fans after a goal from Baszkiewicz. This success took Gwardia to the top of the Polish league.
‘Warszawa Gwardia dethrones Włókniarz’
Better news was to come for Gwardia. In early September they learnt they would represent Poland in the inaugural European cup. Gwardia were not initially to have this honour, indeed the 1955 English league champions Chelsea were pencilled in to compete in the tournament instead. Why they didn’t is one of the classic stories of English insularity. Having received an invitation to take part, the English FA forced Chelsea to turn the opportunity down. Alan Hardaker, the secretary of the football league at the time, had a furious dislike of all things European and managed to pressurise Chelsea chairman Joe Mears into refusing UEFA’s offer. The immediate beneficiaries of this quixotic turn of events were Gwardia Warszawa who took Chelsea’s place in the competition. Gwardia’s way into the competition was however almost as convoluted as Chelsea’s way out of it. Gwardia had not won the previous Polish league championship, indeed in 1954 they had come fourth behind Ogniwo Bytom (now Polonia Bytom), Włókniarz Łódź and Unia Chorzów (now Ruch Chorzów). They had however lifted the Polish cup in a two-legged triumph over Gwardia Kraków. When UEFA had asked for a replacement for Chelsea they must not have been all that clear on what kind of champion they wanted and the Polish FA duly selected Gwardia Warszawa.
Gwardia’s opponents in the first round would be the Swedish champions Djurgårdens IF, who had just won their first Swedish title in 35 years and would go on to be a dominant force in Swedish football in the 1950s. The Djurgårdens team at the time contained 8 current or former internationals, including the striker Gösta Sandberg who represented his country at football, ice hockey and the winter sport bandy. The first leg of the match with Djurgårdens would take place in Sweden’s national stadium the Råsunda on 20 September 1955. The match in Stockholm went rather well for Gwardia. Forced to replace their attacking talisman Stanisław Hachorek the team came away with a creditable 0-0 draw. In the first half the Swedish team were on top and Gwardia’s goalkeeper Tomasz Stefaniszyn was forced to save a penalty. Gwardia performed better in the second half and it was only due to a couple of fluffed chances that they weren’t able to come away with a victory. Indeed the main problem for the Warsaw team in Sweden was the Råsunda‘s floodlights. Gwardia had never played under artificial lights before and were constantly distracted when they looked up in an attempt to locate their team-mates.
‘Stefaniszyn heroically saves a penalty in Stockholm and Gwardia draws 0-0 in the European Cup with Djurgarden’
Gwardia therefore had a great chance to progress to the last eight of the competition in the return leg in Warsaw on October 12 1955. In preparation for the second leg the Polish football association sent the team on a tour of Yugoslavia in early October. There Gwardia played friendly games against Vojvodina Novy Sad and Red Star Belgrade. Although Gwardia competed well they were defeated in both these games 4-2 and 5-2. It was not the best way to get ready for the visit of Djurgårdens. In the build-up to the big match the team from Stockholm took special precautions. To make sure they would be in good shape Djurgårdens hired a chartered flight from England (a rarity in those days) and stayed in the extravagant Hotel Bristol in the centre of Warsaw. Gwardia got special dispensation to play the match at CKWS’ stadium.
Unfortunately the game in Warsaw did not go well for Gwardia. Djurgårdens were quick off the blocks and in the 5th minute took the lead through their striker Eriksson. Gwardia hit back quickly. In the 13th minute midfielder Edward Brzozowski sprayed the ball out to Stanisław Hachorek who was free on the wing. Hachorek centred the ball for Baszkiewicz who put the ball into the net to make it 1-1. Sadly this was the highlight of the match for Gwardia. In the 21st minute bad defending allowed Eriksson to put Djurgårdens 2-1 up, and with Gwardia in disarray he completed his hat-trick a minute later. Things went from bad to worse for Gwardia when, in the 30th minute, Gösta Sandberg nutmegged Hodyra and hit a shot into the right-hand top corner past the despairing dive of Stefaniszyn. It was 4-1 at half-time and Gwardia were well beaten. In the second half, a shell-shocked Gwardia were hardly able to muster an attack and the game quietly came to a conclusion. Gwardia had been clearly outclassed by their Swedish opponents. A Przegląd Sportowy journalist bemoaned what he had seen:
‘All those people who got time off from work in offices and factories to watch the game must be regretting it…They could just have easily sat at work and listened to it on the radio…The match wasn’t really poor it was just totally uneven.’
So Gwardia (and Poland)’s first European adventure had ended in ignominy. The defeat also had an important psychological effect on Gwardia’s autumn round of games. The end of the 1955 season dribbled to a halt for the team from Warsaw. They had been 1st in early September and challenging for the title. However after the Djurgårdens game they only recorded another two wins to finish a disappointing fourth behind the eventual double winners CKWS Warsaw, Stal Sosnowiec (now Zagłębie Sosnowiec) and Unia Chorzów.
Nowadays Gwardia Warszawa are struggling to survive, indeed they might not be able to cobble together the miniscule sum needed to get to the end of the Polish season. No matter what happens to them though, they can always say they were the first Polish team to represent the country in Europe, and their player Krzysztof Baszkiewicz was the first Pole to score in a European competition. The road ahead may be bleak but these facts can never be taken away.
Image taken from Józef Hałys, ‘Polska Pilka Nozna’, 1986