His arrival at FC Barcelona last year may have surprised the soccer world, but it was all part of the Danish striker’s master plan.
It was one of the most unexpected transfers in recent football history. In February 2020, FC Barcelona was granted an emergency exception to sign Martin Braithwaite outside of a transfer window because of the long-term injury of French forward Ousmane Dembélé. Braithwaite, then playing for CD Leganes (on the outskirts of Madrid) as part of a loan deal with English Middlesbrough, was offered a four-and-a-half-year contract at one of the most famous clubs in the world. A dream come true for any footballer, and especially for one who was 28 and little known among Barcelona’s fanbase.
For Braithwaite, however, it had been in the cards ever since he signed his first contract at 18 at his local club Esbjerg fB in Danish West Jutland. He may not have predicted the exact course of his career, he was always certain that he would make it big. Not out of cockiness, but because he knew how far perseverance and focus can take you.
When we met via Zoom, Braithwaite sitting comfortably in the study of his home just outside Barcelona, he explained how his early childhood experiences shaped him. “I was born with Legg-Calve-Perthes, a rare hip disease. You have to completely rest your hip and not put any pressure on it, because it can turn soft and become deformed. So, at age five, I was forced to spend two years in a wheelchair.”
Braithwaite doesn’t have many memories from that period, perhaps because it was too traumatic. And though he doesn’t think he consciously decided to be a fighter, he does remember being more than eager to play again when he could.
“I already loved football before that time, and I got back to playing as soon as I could stand up.”
Growing up in the seaport town of Esbjerg with a Danish mother, a Guyanese/American father and three younger sisters, Braithwaite was introduced to football early on. “My mom and dad both played, although my father was more into American football and basketball before moving to Denmark. And one of my sisters also became a pro.”
At age two, Braithwaite made the local newspaper when he visited a bank with his grandmother and was given a ball by the teller, which he kicked around the entire building. “Apparently I really impressed them with my skills,” he laughed. When he was 11 or so, Esbjerg fB approached his parents to have him try out at the club. After attending the football academy at Sædding-Guldager Idrætsforening (SGI), he signed his first youth contract at Esbjerg fB in 2007 and his official contract two years later.
In the summer of 2013, following impressive displays for Esbjerg in the Superliga spring season and the Danish Cup, Braithwaite was called up to the Danish national squad. At the same time, he made his first transfer deal, moving to French club Toulouse FC for an estimated $2.4 million. He played there until 2017, when he moved to Middlesbrough.
During the years that followed, he was loaned out twice, first to Bordeaux and later to CD Leganes, a sign that perhaps things weren’t running too smoothly at the English club. He prefers not to dwell on that time, though he will say that there are no hard feelings. “It just wasn’t a good fit for me. That’s nothing personal, it happens. But I believe that difficult times make you grow as a person. And it was all part of my journey to arrive where I am now.”
Another setback changed his outlook. “When I was 18, I broke my leg. That changed my whole outlook on life; it was one of the best things that could ever happen to me. That might sound strange, but not being able to play made me focus more clearly on where I wanted to go. I realized I needed to dedicate my entire life to football, there could be nothing else.”
Braithwaite calls himself a “book nerd,” and said that The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne, which talks about the law of attraction, had a big impact. “I started to play with that concept in mind and magic just started to happen.” Cynics might call that New Age fluff, but Braithwaite’s determination to take control of his life and career has worked out well.
“The road to getting here has been completely different than anticipated, but that’s the beauty of it. If you keep on putting in the effort, it will work out in the end.”
After a year at FC Barcelona, he doesn’t feel intimated by the level of his teammates, although he has referred to Lionel Messi “the God of football.” “I don’t feel any external pressure, I only put pressure on myself. My dad was pretty hard on me as a kid, which I struggled with as the time. But it made me get used to dealing with pressure. I now know that I can’t give more than 100% and I give my dad credits for being so strict.”
From day 1 at Camp Nou, Braithwaite clicked with the team and with Dutch coach Ronald Koeman. He likes to study his teammates and the coach’s strategy at a new club. “I’m a versatile player, who can play at different positions. I think it’s up to me to adjust to the team, not the other way around. I have a lot of confidence, but still think I can learn from every player.”
Despite a difficult first year—matches cancelled, most games played without fans—Braithwaite said the team remained positive and relaxed. Asked what the players share in their Whatsapp group, Braithwaite smiled. “I guess we share the same stuff as any group of colleagues or friends. Memes and jokes, things like that. Who’s the funniest? I would say Antoine Griezman, but we have many funny players. It’s good to share random stuff off the pitch, because it keeps the atmosphere relaxed.”
Off the field, Braithwaite is active in real estate. Together with his American uncle, who’s only seven years older and more like a brother, he invests in housing projects in the US. His uncle is in charge of the day-to-day business, Braithwaite is more of a visionary and strategist. “I bought my first house at 22 in France and I already realized then that I had to increase its value and turn it into an asset. Every football career has an ending and I like to secure my finances by getting passive income. When my uncle started getting into real estate, it was natural for me to jump on board.”
There’s also a charity factor: “We invite people who might not have access to real estate to invest with us, so we can empower them and give them more control over their life. I think that’s super important, because not everyone is offered the same opportunities as I was.”
Living in beautiful Barcelona, with interesting culture and lively beaches within city limits, brings Braithwaite and his family a lot of joy. In his free time, he loves to hang out with his four kids and French-born wife Anne-Laure, an entrepreneur and TV personality. “During the early lockdown here in the city, my youngest son was born. It was pretty amazing to have two months off to really enjoy that special time. I haven’t really had the opportunity to experience the city in full swing, but I’m looking forward to that.”
He also experienced the passion of the local fans. The night after he scored the winning goal against Sevilla in March, which put the team in the final of the Copa del Rey, “someone rang the doorbell. It was a surprise delivery from a local restaurant that I had ordered from before. Apparently, they’d remembered my name and decided to gift me a huge selection of desserts. Needless to say, I had a lot of happy kids at home that night.”
Braithwaite thinks he can perform better still and improve his skills on the field.
“I’m someone who loves to study the game and ask a lot of questions,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement. I intend to play for a long time and keep my physical performances at a high level for as long as possible. Look at Zlatan [Ibrahimovic], who’s returning to the Swedish national team at 39. It’s all in the mind. If you can visualize it, you can do it.”
Does he have role models? Two players he especially admires are former Brazilian internationals Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. “Everything they did was out of the love of football. They just brought so much joy to the game, you could feel it. Being able to move the fans and give them that pure emotion—isn’t that the most beautiful thing about football?”