From Boro to Barca! Martin Braithwaite couldn’t get a kick under Tony Pulis in the Championship… but now he plays alongside Lionel Messi at the Nou Camp
- Martin Braithwaite could end the season with the La Liga and Champions League
- Braithwaite joined Barcelona in a controversial move from Leganes in February
- The move to Barca would have been unimaginable while at Middlesbrough
- While at Boro, the Denmark international was deemed surplus to requirements
Martin Braithwaite is proof that a footballer just never knows what’s around the corner – one minute you’re not Tony Pulis’ cup of tea at Middlesbrough, the next your teeing up Lionel Messi at the Camp Nou, the toast of Barcelona.
There is plenty of depth and humour to the 29-year-old Danish international’s story – speaking from the club’s training ground before the season restarts this weekend, he talks about being in a wheelchair from the age of five to the age of seven.
And he jokes about going to such lengths to keep his move to the Camp Nou a secret that his wife thought he was having an affair.
Martin Braithwaite could end up a La Liga and Champions League winner at the end of the term
The Denmark international is now playing alongside Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi
He’s come along way from being deemed surplus to requirements at Middlesbrough
But we have to start with the career path: Boro to Barca inside three seasons. How is that possible?
‘I am the same person here that I was at Middlesbrough. While I was there, I was not complaining, I was training, I was always working hard,’ he says.
‘But if you have a manager who doesn’t look your way; that’s part of football, it’s normal, it’s not personal. You just have to keep on going.’
He was signed by Garry Monk for around £9million from Toulouse in July 2017 but by December Monk had been replaced by Pulis who, apart from a spell at the start of the 2018-19 season, rarely played him and loaned him out to Bordeaux and Leganes.
It was while on loan at Leganes that Braithwaite gave an interview saying he couldn’t imagine returning to Middlesbrough. Pulis labelled him ‘ungrateful’ and accused him of having shown ‘astonishing’ disrespect.
There are no hard feelings towards Pulis. ‘People can have their opinions on him but he has his way of playing and it has worked for him during his whole career, so why should he change,’ he says.
Braithwaite wasn’t rated by then Boro boss Tony Pulis – but he holds no grudges over that
‘He knows what kind of players he needs to play his kind of football, so I don’t have anything against him. It’s just that they were some things said about me that are a long way from the truth.
‘I was unhappy about that. But [as for] not playing, I don’t have any problem with that.’
Why would he? Now that trying to get in the Middlesbrough team has been replaced by working to get a start for Barcelona.
He made his full debut in the side that beat Real Sociedad 1-0 just before football stopped in March.
Before that, he came on as a substitute at the Nou Camp setting up two goals in a 19-minute performance. The first assist was for Messi who scored four in the game.
Braithwaite was signed by Barcelona from Leganes in a controversial transfer in February
The prospect of becoming Messi’s team-mate back in February provoked some very suspicious behaviour, all as part of a failed attempt at making sure his wife was the first person to find out.
‘I didn’t tell anyone,’ he says of the weeks leading up to the transfer.
‘I felt that if my wife was not the first person I told it would be sort of a lack of respect because we share a life together.
‘But I know my wife felt something was going on, because I was having to take a lot of phone calls, sneaking out of the house, and it was freezing outside.’
And he adds laughing: ‘She was wondering … she was almost asking if I had a mistress or something.
Braithwaite didn’t tell anyone about his transfer to the Nou Camp – including his wife (left)
‘The day I was going to tell her, everything broke out in the media and I was thinking: “oh, s***”.
‘I had to sit her down that night and say: “I have to tell you something”.
‘She just said: “I know what you’re going to say.” Her phone had been as busy as mine. I was disappointed that I couldn’t get that shock reaction from her, but she was really happy.’
He has spent plenty of time with her during lockdown and a month ago she gave birth to the couple’s fourth child Valentino.
‘I am really grateful for that. I have heard a lot of people are getting a divorce (because of the strains of lockdown) so I realised I really loved my wife apparently, because we have gotten even closer.’
The 29-year-old showcases his skills during his unveiling at the Nou Camp in February
And she knows it was Barcelona he was secretly courting? ‘Exactly’ he says.
Braithwaite realises there is a perception that he was brought in as a very temporary solution to injuries to Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele in February.
That may have been fair at the time but the post-coronavirus financial crisis has drastically changed what Barcelona can now do in the transfer market and Braithwaite, who has impressed coach Quique Setien, could become a fixture.
He has already shown he has the courage; with his first chance to make an impact on his debut he sliced a cross horribly wide. Lesser characters would have been buried but he recovered to set up Messi’s next goal.
‘I think my head doesn’t work like other people’s,’ he says. ‘I didn’t even think about that [cross]. It was only after the game, when people said: “you showed your character because that was a huge mistake, you looked like you couldn’t play football, kicking the ball miles behind the goal”.
The Dane made his Barca debut against Eibar and was remembered for a horribly-sliced cross
‘Football is about taking risks and with that there is the risk of making mistakes, but with mistakes you grow and learn.’
He denies it’s been a conscious influence on his life, but his mentality feels, in part, like the result of him being struck down with Perthes’ disease as a child.
The rare condition occurs when blood supply to the ball part of the hip joint is temporarily interrupted and the bone begins to die.
The body eventually restores blood supply but sufferers can’t be running around after a ball like other youngsters. He was in a wheelchair for two years from the age of five.
‘My parents have told me that I just wanted to go out and play football and I needed to have someone on top of me because if not I was trying to jump out of the wheelchair. It was difficult to keep me still.
During his childhood, the Denmark was in a wheelchair for two years due to Perthes’ disease
‘My dad said that when I finally came out and started playing again it made him sad because he could see his son running around but limping because there was no strength in the leg yet.
‘To be honest I don’t have a lot of memories. It was a sad time in my life that I’ve just erased.
‘A lot of people ask me if I have brought it into my life. Not on a conscious level. I think maybe subconsciously there is something in me that has helped me to be grateful.’
He is now seizing the biggest opportunity of his career. ‘That’s my mentality,’ he says.
‘We only have now. I just want to get started right away. I don’t like making excuses for myself.’
He has had his first taste of playing in a Clasico too – featuring in the 2-0 defeat at Real Madrid
His Barcelona career was put on hold by the coronavirus shutdown but on Saturday he will be in Mallorca for the first game back.
‘I woke up on Monday the way a kid wakes up for Christmas, thinking: “Man, it’s match-week”. I am really here and I’m preparing for a game at the weekend.’
He will play an important part in the remaining matches. Suarez has only just come back from injury and will not be able to play 11 games in 35 days.
‘When I came I was really excited to play with him,’ he says. ‘Now he’s back and I’m trying to look at him, how he moves, how he finishes. And these players are very good in terms of giving advice.’
Now with La Liga about to restart, Braithwaite is hoping to help propel Barcelona to glory
And of his team-mate Messi, he adds: ‘When he is on the ball, all eyes are on him. People forget to look at what’s happening around him so there is a lot of space that you need to take advantage of.
‘And then when you do that well and people realise: these guys are making these runs, we have to watch out. Then you’re giving more space to Messi. It’s about exploiting the spaces, playing intelligently. That’s what we try to do at Barcelona.’
He sounds like someone who belongs at Barcelona. And he speaks like a man determined to prove it over the next 11 games.
BRAITHWAITE THE BUSINESSMAN
The Barcelona striker has a nose for business as well as goals. He co-owns, with uncle Philip Michael, ‘NYC Companies’, a real-estate developer with a difference.
Michael is a former Boxing commentator turned successful entrepreneur.
‘We grew up together, says Braithwaite. ‘He is only seven years older than me so he’s more like a brother. We are really similar. What we think. What we believe in, our goals and ambitions. I would say he is me in the business world.’
The first phase of a smart-home affordable housing project in Philadelphia is due to be completed this November. There are other similar projects in New Jersey.
The seed money comes from small investors so at both the genesis and the completion of the schemes the idea is wealth distribution and offering a foothold into both housing and ownership to poorer, and often disproportionately ethnic-minority, sections of the community.
‘We don’t see ourselves having any limits in what we are doing and it’s not only for ourselves,’ he says. ‘We want to give back and show people that as humans we are powerful, we are more powerful than we believe and more powerful than we are getting told.’
There’s an obvious connection to be made with the Black Lives Matter movement. What has he made of recent events in the US? ‘I’m just happy for the reaction,’ he says. ‘It’s the first time in a long time I have really seen people getting together to try to change this. We need this change. We are all the same; we are all humans. It doesn’t matter which colour we have or where we come from.’
Will Braithwaite the businessman, kick-in fully once he retires? ‘I honestly haven’t thought that far ahead because I still have so many years ahead of me, more years than people might expect,’ he says.
‘I know that as a footballer, you earn a lot of money in a short period of time so it’s important you also take care of your money because you are not going to keep earning that much for the rest of your life.
‘Luckily I have someone really close to me (Michael) who is as obsessed in business as I am in football. And it’s someone I can really trust so I don’t have to put my full attention on it every day. My focus can be 100 per cent on the football.’
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