Martin Braithwaite has moved the recollection of watching his friends have fun when he was briefly confined to a wheelchair to the back of his mind.
“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.”
Braithwaite had Legg-Calvé-Perthes syndrome between the ages of five and seven, a hip condition that may have resulted in femur deformities.
“I recall a sense of, how shall I put it… embarrassment…about being different. You didn’t ask for this much publicity.”
Braithwaite was also dreaming despite his physical limitations. Dreaming of a career as a professional footballer at one of the world’s biggest clubs, where he will enjoy the spotlight.
Braithwaite has characterized what happened between then and now as a “hell of a ride” that brought him out of his wheelchair and into Lionel Messi’s arms over a 20-year period.
There are several explanations for Barcelona’s recent success, but one of the most important is La Masia, the club’s youth academy, which has produced some of the game’s greatest stars.
Messi, Xavi, and Andrés Iniesta were the three finalists for the prestigious Ballon D’Or award in 2010. It was an exceptional and remarkable achievement that all three were graduates of the prestigious academy.
But it’s not the only way to break into the Barcelona first team; as Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann learned, dazzling appearances on the international stage can also attract the attention of Barcelona scouts.
Braithwaite, on the other hand, took a more unconventional path through European football’s backwaters before the opportunity came knocking.
“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.”
Braithwaite signed a youth contract with Esbjerg, his hometown club in Denmark, in 2007, and won the Danish Cup before joining Toulouse in the French Ligue 1. That led him to Middlesbrough, a second-tier club in England, where he struggled to make an impression.
After that, he went on loan to another French club, Bordeaux, and then to a La Liga minnow, Leganes. When Braithwaite got one of the most significant phone calls of his life, he had permanently relocated to Leganes.
“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 was giddy with anticipation, but his more than a decade in the professional game had prepared him to keep his standards in check.
“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.”
It was an agonizing fortnight after that, during which the talks proceeded but life had to go on as usual. Meanwhile, he continued to train and play for Leganes, doing his utmost to keep the talks hidden from all, including 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.”
He eventually gained enough confidence to disclose what he’d been up to, but the cat was already 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.” Even so, his family recognized the importance of his achievement.
“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.”
Braithwaite’s unbridled optimism shines through in conversation. He never doubted his ability to play for one of Europe’s major teams as he wandered through European football.
“They [Barcelona] could see that that I have the abilities to play in a lot higher level,” Braithwaite told in a statement.
“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 only played three games for the Catalans before the pandemic shut them down in March 2020, and he has only played in front of a large crowd at the club’s Camp Nou stadium twice.
But he quickly integrated into the squad, providing a couple of assists on his debut, and Braithwaite has been a regular this season, even scoring a dramatic late winner to send Barca to the Spanish Cup Final.
Since Suarez’s departure to Atletico Madrid, Braithwaite has inherited the prized number nine #9 shirt previously worn by Ronaldo of Brazil and Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon.
For many players, the transition from Leganes to Barcelona may have seemed like a Herculean task, but Braithwaite saw it differently. He’d always fantasized about how it would feel.
“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.
Apart from assisting Barca on the domestic front, Braithwaite is aware that he now has the chance to take his game to the next level, as he prepares to play for the Danish national team in the postponed European Championships.
Though Braithwaite hopes Messi stays at Barcelona, the Argentine star tried to leave at the end of last season and could leave when his contract expires this summer, the 29-year-old Dane plans to remain and “win a lot of titles.”
He’s also busy off the field, co-founding a real estate start-up with his uncle and business partner Philip Michael with the aim of inspiring individuals and giving back to the community.
Temple 1’s mission is to “assist minority entrepreneurs in incubating business ideas, receiving mentorship, being introduced to strategic investors, and receiving investment.”
They’ve also founded NYCE Companies, which is “on a quest to reduce the wealth disparity of the BIPOC group,” with Michael, who Braithwaite describes as more of an older brother.
Black, Indigenous (and) People of Color (BIPOC) is an acronym for Black, Indigenous (and) People of Color.