De Wit’s painful benefit

De Wit’s painful benefit

On May 5, 2013, Rob de Wit handed over the championship trophy to Siem de Jong. The former Ajax player officially launched Ajax’s 32nd championship celebration. 25 years ago, De Wit was forced to say goodbye to football on the occasion of a benefit match. With the former Ajax player, looks back to May 28th, 1988, a football year both magical and painful.

Three strokes left their destructive mark on Rob de Wit. Just when the left winger, who had come over from FC Utrecht in 1984, had begun to find his rhythm with Ajax, fate struck mercilessly. Things first went awry in the summer of 1986. The forward tried to fight back bravely, but after a last training session – which was, in fact, a rehabilitation session, in March 1988 – he just couldn’t go on. Team mate Ronald Spelbos sees his friend struggle, and voices what De Wit had known for a long time. “You need to quit”. Soon after, De Wit makes a painful decision. Farewell football. “Of course I discussed it with the people around me, but I could see for myself that it just wasn’t working anymore”, says De Wit, twenty-five years later.

So Ajax and the Dutch national team – on the road to EC in West-Germany, which would prove to be golden – took part on May 28, 1988, in the ‘Robbie de Wit Benefit: Ajax – Nederlands XI’. The billboards featured a photo of a concentrated De Wit. The ball was faithfully stuck to his left shoe. It was De Wit at his best. The call to come to de Meer did not remain unanswered. On May 28, eleven thousand people gathered on the stands of the old, sun-drenched Ajax stadium.
‘They were all there for the Robbie de Wit benefit on May 28th’, wrote Ajax Magazine/Club news, shortly after the farewell match. ‘Everybody, the Ajax players, the players from the Dutch national team, his personal friends and of course the supporters (…) It was an emotional and heartfelt event. Thanks to the spectators especially, who came to de Meer in large numbers.’

25 years later. One month after his distinguished role in the honouring ceremony in the Amsterdam ArenA, Rob de Wit (49) ambles around his apartment in Nieuwegein. The large apartment showcases a few sports pictures and match photos as a tribute to the left winger’s former career. “This book is sacred”, says De Wit, bringing forward a thick volume. The book breathes fresh life and emotion into the benefit match. On May 28 ’88, one photographer didn’t leave De Wit’s side for a single moment. Everything is recorded. From his arrival at de Meer to his lap of honour around the field on the shoulders of his former team mates. Everything is there – from beginning to end.
“It was an entire event”, remembers De Wit, looking at the pictures from that day, as well as the official program booklet from the Robbie de Wit Benefit. “Ajax had organized it very professionally, at that time. I can remember some things, but I’ve forgotten a lot as well. On a day like that, there are so many impressions…you are in a sort of haze. It’s an honour, and quite unique, that such a benefit gets organized for you. And that so many people go to the stadium for you. On the other hand, it makes you realize that it’s definitely over.”

Back to the glory days, before the physical problems. De Wit was a pure Ajax player and crowd favourite. With humour as his main weapon, the left winger made his way through to the steady core of the Ajax squad. “In Utrecht, I was the crowd favourite as a kid”, says De Wit, reminiscing about the start of his professional career. “There, you played well once. But the next five, six matches, you didn’t make a single shot. And at Ajax, that couldn’t happen. I needed to become more consistent, be on a steady level.”

The Utrecht native trained hard under Aad de Mos, a coach who brought him in to replace Jesper Olsen. After a difficult debut season in ’84-’85, it wasn’t until his second season that De Wit hit his stride as an Ajax player. “I played on intuition. I wanted to get each ball, and make my plays. You can compare it a bit to how Arjen Robben plays now. You needed to let things come to you and react impulsively. Just do it. That’s how I scored my goal for the Dutch team against Hungary (May 14, 1985, Hungary – Netherlands World Cup qualification match). In a fraction of a hundredth of a second, you decide to chip it. You don’t think about it.”

When De Wit, after three strokes, realizes that his legs can’t do what his head wants them to do, his career comes to a definite end. After his painful decision, on May 28th, clad in blue away jerseys, the Ajax players face white-clad players from the Dutch national team. The pictures, capturing banners with ‘Thanks Robbie’ and ‘Orange misses Robbie’, illustrate De Wit’s popularity with Ajax fans. On another picture, taken shortly before the benefit match, De Wit is being addressed by Marco van Basten. A battery of photographers focused on De Wit, who is listening with a bowed head, during the speech. These aren’t the first, or only emotions of the highly charged tribute match in de Meer.

‘Very few people present were able to hold back tears when Rob de Wit, ten minutes before the end of the match, was hoisted onto his team mates’ shoulders, and received an outpour of love from his supporters’, noted Ajax Magazine/Club news. ‘It was a moving, but stylish, farewell to a young man who so regularly stunned his fans with his blistering passes, his unexpected shots and his cheeky attitude.”

The fact that Ajax lost 1-3 to the Dutch team that afternoon is an afterthought. De Wit received a send-off that he, of course, had never wished for himself. In the closing press conference, national coach Rinus Michels placed the unlucky player on a pedestal. ‘Next to me stands a man who I miss. The man who, in fact, belongs on the left flank of the Dutch national team’, says the coach who led the Dutch team to become European champions one month afterwards. While his former team mates were sensational at the European Championships, De Wit watches occasionally. The year, 1988, was probably the most painful ever for the left winger. “I had a tough time that year. That pain didn’t fade until later. When the Dutch team was in the finals, it was really difficult for me. Not because I didn’t want it for the guys. But mostly because of the thought that I could have been there, too.”