There’s an interesting story to be written about the unusual Dutch habit for producing so many talented footballing brothers. The De Boers, the Van de Kerkofs, the Koemans, the Mührens, the Metgods and the De Jongs are just some of the high-profile examples from the past few generations, and if we focus just on brother pairings to have earned caps for the national team then the historical list expands out to no fewer than eighteen of them.
Another set of talented brothers prominent on the Dutch scene during the 1990s were the Witschges, Robert and Richard. Robert was the elder of the two born in 1966 while Robert followed in 1969. Both were creative and attack-minded midfielders, both played for Ajax before moving abroad and both appeared on a respectable number of occasions for their national team.
For all the many similarities that united the Witschge brothers, there were also plenty of differences in style and attitude. Robert was the more grounded of the pair and he maintained a reputation throughout his career as a good professional and a reliable man for going out on the pitch and following his coaches’ instructions.
Rob operated mostly on the left side of midfield and was acknowledged to be a good team player, tidy and selfless in possession and usually preferring to find a teammate with a probing pass than going for personal glory. His younger brother represented a diametrically different kind of creative player. Playing in the centre or on the right of midfield he was much more of an individualist and was undoubtedly more naturally gifted than his brother.
The Amsterdam-born pair made their debuts for their boyhood club Ajax just a year or so apart, Rob in 1985 and Richard in 1986. Rob’s calm and steady progress over the next four seasons earned him a transfer to France with Saint-Etienne, though his departure was not seen as any sort of major crisis for the Amsterdam club who were more focused on the progress his precocious younger brother was making.
Richard made his Ajax debut in October 1986 in a 6-1 win over AZ Alkmaar and his carefree and expressive style endeared him greatly to coach Johan Cruyff who saw the same cocky assuredness and easy skill that reminded him of his younger self. The veteran Arnold Mühren was tasked with being the younger Witschge’s mentor and room with him on away trips in the hope his wisdom and experience would set a positive example.
The difficulties began when Cruyff left Ajax early in 1988. Soon after Mühren gave up his mentoring role complaining that the younger Witschge didn’t listen while there was a marked shift in attitude from the senior players towards indulging Richard. To be accused of being selfish and wasteful with the ball was the ultimate crime for a club with such a slavish adherence to teamwork and good ball retention as Ajax.
The 1989-90 season demonstrated the best and the worst of Richard Witschge. A poor start to the season was blamed on the youngster by old hands like Danny Blind and Jan Wouters leading coach Leo Beenhakker to send him to the B team for a spell. Witschge was named as part of ‘the French fries generation’ along with Bryan Roy and the De Boers for supposedly eating the wrong food and show poor professionalism
Yet when Witschge was eventually recalled his form was inspirational and his creative play drove Ajax to the Eredivisie title and him into the Dutch national team with a World Cup approaching. After the highs of the 1988 European Championship success, the 1990 World Cup in Italy was a disappointment for the Dutch, though not individually for Richard who played in all four games and was largely thought of as having held his own – although he himself felt he had played too cautiously.
Never the most consistent of performers, the 1990-91 season was thoroughly disappointing for Richard and his magical left foot failed to produce even a single goal all year. Waiting in the wings was Cruyff who was desperate to be reunited with his former prodigy. A £2.2 million fee took him to Barcelona in 1991 with few at Ajax sad to see the back of him.
In truth, neither brother prospered especially well away from the Eredivisie. Rob spent a single season abroad in France before returning home to Feyenoord the following season. He saw out his active career with Utrecht. Richard flopped badly at Barcelona, enjoyed a reasonable spell at Bordeaux and returned back to Ajax where he spent much of the rest of his time in the game.
Richard was unavailable for Euro ‘92 through injury and wasn’t selected at all for the 1994 World Cup squad, so on both occasions his place was taken by his brother. The younger Witschge would return for one last major tournament representing his country at Euro ‘96.
The pair took to the field together for the Oranje on just a single occasion, a 2-0 win over Yugoslavia in March of 1992.
Looking back at their careers in numbers it’s striking just how similar those figures look. Both earned the same number of international caps, 31, with neither prolific in national colours – Rob scoring 3 goals and Richard just once. At club level Rob played 332 games over the course of his career and his younger brother 47 more. The one surprise comes with their respective goal totals: Richard the individualist notched a fairly meagre career total of 27 while his more team-orientated brother scored nearly twice that number.