Braithwaite’s journey from Barcelona ’emergency’ signing to key player for Messi & Co.

It’s just short of a year since Martin Braithwaite became an “emergency” signing for FC Barcelona, and just over two weeks until Paris Saint-Germain come calling in the Champions League last-16. Naturally, there will be a phenomenal amount of focus on other strikers rather than this whip-smart, likable and ultra-articulate Dane. Lionel Messi vs. Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, the Zidane-adoring PSG striker, on the opposite half of the pitch from Paris-born Ousmane Dembele.

Whatever; Braithwaite has been vital in ensuring this quixotic, glorious and often cruel competition remains the holy grail of Barcelona’s erratic, but often hugely entertaining, season.

Signed when both Luis Suarez and Dembele were scheduled to be out for months and well before the pandemic shut down Spanish football — a rest that allowed the Uruguayan to recover and curtail Braithwaite’s opportunities — the new boy wasn’t registered in time for the Champions League.

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This season, he’s made up for lost time — and how. A late substitute in Barcelona’s historic first victory over Juventus in Turin, he then had massive responsibility placed on his admittedly broad shoulders. With Gerard Pique, Sergi Roberto, Samuel Umtiti, Ronald Araujo, Sergio Busquets and Ansu Fati all already missing for a variety of obligatory reasons, Ronald Koeman rested Messi and Frenkie De Jong when the trip to Dinamo Kiev was planned. Up next was a return match in Hungary against Ferencvaros.

During those first two (so far only) starts in this elite competition, Braithwaite scored three goals, made two more and ensured his inexperienced and injury-decimated team returned from Ukraine and Hungary with six points, and aggregate results of 7-0. Braithwaite was even named UEFA man of the match for his performance in Budapest.

The first thing I asked him when he joined ESPN and the Big Interview podcast was how it felt to finally impact on the world’s greatest club competition after so much yearning and frustration. Braithwaite paused, considered the question, then picked a phrase that came from the heart.

“It felt like ‘I’m home!’ like I was suddenly in the place I’m meant to be.”

“Scoring those goals is something I’ve ‘seen’ myself doing for years. Visualisation is one of many techniques I’ve tried over my career. It can actually put you in a place before you’ve been there: experience the moment before it actually happens.

“It’s like being able to look into the future. You visualise over and over again until that situation actually arrives — you’ve ‘been’ there before so you just don’t feel the pressure, emotions or the circumstances. It makes you so much more confident and relaxed.”

Those European matches were sparkling cameos in a hard-working, constantly improving and ferociously determined year at Camp Nou. Braithwaite is on the point of surpassing 40 matches wearing Blaugrana colours, the product of which have been seven goals, a handful of assists, increasing respect from his stellar teammates and a genuine popularity in Koeman’s squad.

Braithwaite is is a bright, extremely team-oriented guy — traits worth their weight in gold. There had been evidence of the Dane’s noteworthy style while playing for Toulouse (alongside Wissam Ben Yedder) and Bordeaux (with the young Jules Kounde). His coach at the latter, Gustavo Poyet, was quick to regale me with tales of how shrewd, competitive and football-intelligent Braithwaite was.

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At Leganes, Braithwaite scored and assisted in a Cup win and a League draw against Real Madrid — landmark moments. But that first goal for Barcelona, away at Mallorca? That truly made his heart strings zing.

“Scoring against Ireland to qualify Denmark for the Euros — well, that’s a childhood dream fulfilled — so definitely in my top three goals.” said Braithwaite. “Also, scoring that first goal against Real Madrid [a truly colossal header off Keylor Navas‘ right-hand post and then a netted rebound in January 2019] of course, my debut Champions League goal — all standouts. But the first goal for Barca [in the 4-0 win at Mallorca last summer that kept Quique Setien’s ill-fated team top of La Liga with nine matches left] was so special!

“It was like the 10-year-old Martin Braithwaite turned up for training.

“All these dreams when you’re a kid and suddenly you’re there, living them.” said Braithwaite. “I used to watch some of these players on TV as a really young kid in my little town in Denmark — now they’re teammates.

“You look at yourself in the mirror, you see the club badge and you say to yourself, ‘I’m really here!'”

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Barcelona’s Martin Braithwaite reminisces about going up against the toughest defender he’s known in his career.

Seventeen years ago, another Scandinavian striker, albeit one whose career was already gold-plated, arrived at Camp Nou as a surprise freedom-of-contract striker. The name? Henrik Larsson.

Barcelona’s staff spotted that the Swede, imperious for Celtic and his national team, was still world-class at 32, and could adapt his game from Scotland to La Primera Division. Larsson’s glorious, winning cameo when Frank Rijkaard’s team came from behind to beat Arsenal in then 2006 Champions league final proved them right. His adaptation, from making a run, demanding the ball and being given it 100 times out of 100 for Celtic or Sweden, was abrupt.

Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Samuel Eto’o, Ronaldinho & Co. gave passes when they dictated, certainly not when a teammate made a darting run. The Swede’s football brain was so exceptional that he assimilated the change.

When Ronald Koeman, with Larsson for two seasons together at Feyenoord in the mid-1990s, took over at Camp Nou, he wisely asked Celtic’s legendary “King of Kings” to come coach the forwards. Meaning every day is a school day for Braithwaite — taught by a Professor Emeritus.

Braithwaite explains: “Some people are too proud to learn, they feel that they know everything already. I’m exactly the opposite of that. “I’m obsessed about improving and ask Henrik almost too many questions. But I soak up everything he tells me.

“As a striker, there’s nothing better than picking the brains of someone with vast experience who’s been where you are, but who’s also been places you’ve never been and has had time, post-career, to reflect on what he might have done differently. Henrik has taught me so many small details — things I hadn’t thought about.

“I’m the type who doesn’t believe in failure,” Braithwaite continues. “It’s not failure — it’s an opportunity to learn. Every day, I try to learn something new, I try to develop myself. Every day.

“Sometimes it doesn’t even have to happen on the training pitch. It’s just two guys who love the game, having a discussion about the small details — because that’s what makes the difference.”

Not that Larsson is the only counsel he’s sought. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was flummoxed by playing with Messi, while Alexis Sanchez discovered that being a headless chicken, running around, didn’t come close to getting on Messi’s wavelength. Braithwaite decided to take a short cut. He asked Luis Suarez for advice.

“Messi’s so good at setting himself up, setting his teammates up,” said Braithwaite. “When I first arrived [at Barcelona] I studied him and Suarez. They’re amazing and even as a fan, I loved how they played together.

“I was so delighted to get to play with Luis before he left. I studied their movement and tried to analyse the combination of running behind, playing the one-twos and everything. Eventually I did ask Luis for guidance on how they developed that bond. [He told me] Messi’s a big team player. Okay, he scores goals, but he also provides a lot of assists for his team. It’s not difficult playing with a guy like that.”

Watch Braithwaite next time. Harassing an opponent, creating room for teammates, waiting for a Rip Van Winkle moment.

“Football, especially being a striker, is also a mental game. I believe that you can get in the defender’s mind if you’re moving around him constantly, because he can never relax, even when the ball’s at the other side of the pitch. Defenders can end up in the ‘fly the flag’ mode, so that they’re not really fully concentrated on the game and when they’re a bit out of the game like that, you know you’ve got them!”

Braithwaite is a “can-do” kind of guy. Not just blind optimism — a constantly working brain, figuring, turning odds in his favour… and working. Damn hard. Lots of it emanates from the tough love he received from his Guyana-born father, who spent time in New York. The things he used to teach young Martin weren’t always a pleasant experience, but viewed now, the Barca striker has abundant gratitude and affection.

“In Denmark, people tend to be pretty humble and that humility is definitely a part of my personality,” said Braithwaite. “The American side? I get that from my dad, and that’s all about dreaming big. Everything is possible in life — you just have to go and chase it. My dad used to talk to me about all of that when I was young. He also made sure I knew how hard it was going to be. He told me I had to be better than everyone else.

“My dad was really tough on me from a really young age, and when I was a kid I didn’t really understand — I used to run crying to my mum. That was the balance: the hard dad and the soft mum. Sometimes, I even worried that my dad didn’t like me.

“As I got older though, I started to understand why he’d been like that and nowadays my dad is my best friend. I don’t feel pressure now because having that experience as a kid, constantly trying to impress a parent… if that doesn’t break you, it makes you.

My dad would be really angry with me if he felt I didn’t give my all, so from a young age I was playing under that pressure. I learned from a very young age that I had to give 100%. I couldn’t hold back and that’s helped me a lot in my career.

“He was trying to teach me that I had to give 100% or just stop.”

Braithwaite may have had a series of good teachers, but he’s a good pupil. Attentive, ambitious, on the move. Fortune favours the brave, and the school of “the harder I work, the luckier I get” — attended by sport’s greats over the decades — will be watching Braithwaite with affection, and the expectation that good things are going to come his way.

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