“I don’t have a lot of memories because it’s such a sad moment,” Barcelona striker Martin Braithwaite recently told CNN Sport, “You’re looking at all the other kids running around, smiling, playing. It hurt. Obviously, it was a really tough period of my life.”
Between the ages of five and seven, Braithwaite suffered from Legg-Calvé-Perthes, a hip disorder that could have led to deformities in his femur.
“I remember the feeling of, how can you say… embarrassment…about being different. You didn’t want this kind of attention.”
Despite his physical limitations, Braithwaite was still dreaming. Dreaming of a future when he’d welcome the attention, in a life as a professional footballer at one of the top clubs in the world.
A ‘hell of a journey’
Braithwaite has described what happened between then and now as a “hell of a journey,” which over a period of 20 years took him out of that wheelchair and into the arms of his teammate, Lionel Messi.
There are many ways to explain Barcelona’s considerable success in recent years, but a key one is La Masia, Barca’s youth academy, which has produced some of the greatest players in the history of the game.
In 2010, Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta were the three finalists for the coveted Ballon D’Or award. All three were products of the famous academy; it was an extraordinary and unprecedented feat.
But it’s not the only route into the first team at the Nou Camp Stadium; as Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann discovered, dazzling performances on the world stage will also catch the eye of the Barcelona scouts.
In contrast, Braithwaite charted a more unusual course through the backwaters of European football before the opportunity finally knocked.
“Always wanted to be a soccer player,” explained the 29-year-old Danish forward. “Since I was really young, I didn’t have anything else in mind. I didn’t have a plan B. So, when there’s no plan B, you don’t get distracted.”
In 2007, Braithwaite signed a youth contract with his hometown club in Denmark, Esbjerg, adding the Danish Cup to his resume before stepping up to the French Ligue 1 with Toulouse.
That led him to England and second-tier club Middlesbrough, where he struggled to make an impact.
Loan spells at another French club, Bordeaux, and then a minnow of La Liga, Leganes, followed. Braithwaite had moved to Leganes permanently when he received one of the most important phone calls of his life.
“I was picking up my son from [football] practice and we are driving home and my agent called and he told me that Barcelona is interested. He said they seemed really, really interested.”
Braithwaite could hardly contain his excitement, but more than a decade in the professional game had prepared him to manage his expectations.
“It felt amazing. But I know in football [when] there’s interest, it doesn’t mean anything. There’s still a long way to go for you to sign the papers.”
What followed was an excruciating fortnight, in which the talks continued but life had to carry on as normal. Meanwhile he trained and played for Leganes and did his best to hide the negotiations from everyone, even his wife.
“I’m not a guy who keeps that many secrets; I’m really an open book. My wife would feel that something was up because I’m hiding these phone calls.”
Eventually, he felt confident enough to reveal what he’d been up to, but by that point the cat was already well out of the bag.
“She just smiled and said, ‘I know what you’re going to tell me,'” recalls Braithwaite of his wife being hit up with messages on her phone about the transfer. “The surprise was spoiled a little bit.”
Still, the significance of his achievement wasn’t lost on his family.
“It was a really emotional moment for both of us because I’ve been talking about it for a long time,” said Braithwaite. “And she’s seen all the sacrifices for me to get here.”
In conversation with Braithwaite, his unbridled positivity shines through. As he meandered through European football, he never doubted he could play for one the continent’s big teams.
“They [Barcelona] could see that that I have the abilities to play in a lot higher level,” Braithwaite told CNN.
“They could also see my game is what they needed. That’s also what they told me, that I got the mindset to play in a big club with the pressure. Looking back at it now, it just shows they were right.”
Braithwaite played just three games with the Catalans before the pandemic closed everything down in March 2020 and only twice has he played in front of a big crowd at the club’s Camp Nou stadium.
But he settled into the team quickly, providing a couple of assists on his debut, and this season Braithwaite has been a regular, even scoring a dramatic late winner to send Barca through to the Spanish Cup Final.
A team player
Since the departure of Suarez to Atletico Madrid, Braithwaite has inherited the coveted number nine #9 shirt previously worn by the Brazilian great Ronaldo and Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o.
For many players, the step from up from Leganes to Barcelona would have felt like a Herculean leap, but Braithwaite never saw it quite that way. He’d always imagined what it would feel like.
“In Denmark we are a bit more humble, down to earth; we don’t dream too big,” said Braithwaite, who is the son of a Guyanese father and a Danish mother.
“My dad grew up in America; they dream a lot. And I think that’s the American side of me coming out; I dream big and I want to go and conquer the world.”
Apart from helping Barca domestically, Braithwaite knows that he now has an opportunity to take his game to another level, as he prepares to play in the postponed European Championships with the Danish national team.
“I think when you surround yourself with high-performance people, it only brings the best out of you. I’ve been increasing my performances, jumping up another level. I’m looking at the small details of all the players around me, and it’s just amazing.”
While Braithwaite is hoping that Messi will stay at Barca — the Argentine star tried to leave at the end of last season and could walk when his contract is up this summer — the 29-year-old Dane is planning to stick around and “win a lot of titles.”
He’s busy off the field, too, working alongside his uncle and business partner Philip Michael, after co-founding a real estate start-up aimed at empowering individuals and giving back to the community.
Temple 1 is focused on “helping minority entrepreneurs incubate business ideas, receive mentorship, be introduced to strategic partners” and have the chance to receive investment.
Along with Michael, who Braithwaite describes more like an older brother, they’ve also created NYCE Companies, which are “on a mission to reduce the wealth gap of the BIPOC community.”
BIPOC is an acronym for Black, Indigenous (and) People of Color.
“We want to teach people about financial freedom and the power that they possess,” says Braithwaite. “We have so many things
that we want to do and always with the mindset to give back.”
Braithwaite knows what it is to suffer and he has felt the urge to help out when he can. Reminiscing about his time in the wheelchair he says, “When I see people in similar situations, I kind of know what they’re going through and what they feel.”
So, when he’s not setting up goals for Lionel Messi and trying to land titles for Barca, Brathwaite is doing his bit to help others realize their life goals, a team player, both on and off the field.