The more Martin Braithwaite crept round behind her back, the more suspicious his wife grew and by the time he came clean she had already rumbled him. “She felt something going on because I was having a lot of phone calls, sneaking out the house when it was freezing outside,” the Denmark striker says, stopping, laughing and starting up again. “She was wondering, almost asking if I have a mistress or something. And the night I said: ‘I have to tell you something.’ She said: ‘I know what you’re going to say.’”
The secret had slipped out: Braithwaite was joining Barcelona. He had kept quiet for weeks until he was certain it would happen and if he wasn’t telling Anne-Laure, he wasn’t telling anyone.
“But the day I wanted to tell her, everything broke, my phone got bombarded all day. I was thinking ‘oh, shit’. Her phone was the same, so she wasn’t surprised when I sat her down. I was disappointed I couldn’t get that shock reaction but she was really happy and she understood that I didn’t tell her.”
Just two days later the man who had played – or, too often, hadn’t played – in the Championship for Middlesbrough and had just escaped a relegation battle with Leganés was running on to the Camp Nou pitch to join Lionel Messi. This was it, and the first time he got the ball in a decent position, he looked up, steadied himself, and … sliced it into the stands.
Braithwaite is laughing now. It helps he knows what comes next – a hand in two goals, including an assist for Messi, whose embrace prompted him to joke, “I won’t wash this shirt” – but he even then he was not disturbed. “It’s funny,” he says. “I think my head doesn’t work like others. I didn’t think about that for a second. Afterwards people said: ‘It shows your character: you did a huge mistake, you looked like you couldn’t play football, kicking the ball miles away’ … and it just got me smiling because football, life, is about taking risks.
“If you walk around in a bubble and don’t try to get out, you’ll be safe but you’ll never learn. I’m not afraid to make mistakes or embarrass myself. Human beings are good at judging ourselves, we don’t see mistakes as mistakes: we take it deep in[side]: ‘I’m a failure, I’m really bad actually.’ But when babies learn to walk, they don’t judge themselves when they fall. Keep going, keep learning.”
Look where you may end up. Listen to how enthusiastically he embraces the opportunity, the education. Even before joining Leganés, Braithwaite spent weeks watching videos, analysing their play, what chances would fall his way. At Leganés, that meant getting close to Guido Carrillo. At Barcelona, it means Messi – the man of whom he said: “If football’s a religion, he’s its God.”
“Messi takes attention away. People forget to look at what’s happening around him because he’s such a threat. There’s space and we have to understand how to exploit that. Then when you do, [opponents] realise ‘these guys are making runs: watch out’ and then you’re giving space to Messi. It’s about intelligence,” he says.
“I was really excited to play with Luis Suárez, too. He was injured butnow he’s back and I’m looking at him: how he moves. He understands the game so well, he’s so intelligent: when to link, when to turn, how to use his body. I ask questions, I’m learning. The knowledge these players have is priceless.”
Coaching staff confirm they have rarely had a footballer ask so many questions, so determined to understand. “I don’t like to see myself as different but I am curious, I want to learn, think about the game differently, mentally and technically.”
Different to Middlesbrough, for sure. It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting managers than Quique Setién and Tony Pulis; slightly bizarre to think the player who did not entirely succeed on Teesside is at Barcelona. Signed by Garry Monk, Braithwaite was not enamoured with Pulis’s approach while the manager described him as “ungrateful” for saying he could not imagine returning to Middlesbrough after his loan at Leganés. Some accused Braithwaite of not trying, something that simply does not fit with the man seen in Spain. Or, he says, the man there: “I’m the same person.”
“I’m grateful,” he says. “I learnt a lot. I don’t have a problem [not playing] because a manager has hard decisions. I didn’t fit. That’s life. It’s normal, not personal. It adds different tools for me for the future. No hard feelings. Only, things were said that are far from the truth – some really, really bad comments after I left.
“We’re human and football is full of emotion. Middlesbrough supporters are passionate and I loved that. I believe in freedom of speech; people are allowed to show their disappointment. I shared that disappointment. People next to me know my values. It’s just a shame some try to create a picture of me. But it’s part of who I’ve become, what I learnt, what brought me here. It’s been a hell of a journey.”
Well beyond Boro or Barcelona. “I just see myself as ‘Martin’ but I’ve learned a lot of things in a lot of places: you only really start to know yourself when you visit new places, new inputs for your brain.”
His Guyanese father and Danish mother met in the US, his wife is French and he had trials at Newcastle and Reggina, before playing in Denmark, England, France and Spain, when he might not have played at all.
“I spent two years in a wheelchair. I had something called Legg-Calve-Perthes, a hip disease. You have to rest your hip, not put pressure on it, because it can turn soft and become deformed. I was really young, five to seven, and I don’t have a lot of memories. Before, I have memories. But it was a sad time so I think I erased this.
“My parents have explained it and I do remember wanting to play football, looking at everyone playing. I needed someone on me because I was trying to jump out of the wheelchair. My dad says when I played again it made him sad: he could see his son running around but he was limping.
“People ask if I’ve brought that into my life. Not on a conscious level; subconsciously, maybe there’s something in me that’s helped me to be grateful and have an understanding. But consciously, no.”
Maybe it’s there in how he rejects the usual appeals for time to settle, in the refusal to waste time; perhaps in part too because he needs to convince quickly if he is to stay at the Camp Nou for five years – and he is adamant that he will. “We only have now, we don’t have ‘in six months.’ We have to make time work for us. I just wanted to get started, I don’t like making excuses.”
He had barely started when he stopped again; 20 days into Braithwaite’s Barcelona career, lockdown began. He had to return to his home in Madrid, which did at least mean attending the birth of his fourth child, Valentino. “I’m really grateful,” he says, smiling. “I’ve heard a lot of people are getting a divorce [in lockdown] but I realised I really loved my wife: we got even closer.”
See? No mistress. Braithwaite bursts out laughing. “Exactly, exactly.”
Lockdown also allowed for video analysis – “the perfect time” – and the chance to follow investments he and his uncle – “more like a brother” – have in the US, a real estate project aimed at creating a new generation of investors, especially women and ethnic minorities. “We want to show people that as humans we’re powerful, more than we believe and we’re getting told.”
Conversation turns to events since the killing of George Floyd. “It’s terrible, it’s terrible. And I’m happy for the reaction, that people are getting together to change this. We’ve been seeing this too long, it’s sad [racism] is still happening. Football’s the biggest sport; it’s important we send a message.”
Back to the football, then. After all, on Saturday Barcelona return to La Liga action two points clear at the top with 11 games left, packed into a 30-day sprint. Three months and three matches since he arrived, the Barcelona career Braithwaite did not dare tell his wife about gets under way again, only different now. How does he imagine it?
“I take inspiration from other sports, how they train the mind. I’m thinking: ‘Why aren’t we doing these things in football?’ I’m trying to bring this into my routine. Your body can’t tell the difference between reality and what you see in your mind, so you can improve through visualisation.
“Usually when we imagine ourselves in a stadium, we see a full stadium; now I turn it around: I’m stepping on to a pitch where there’s no one. I’ve seen it so many times in my head now that it will be no surprise when it happens. Mentality will play a big part. You can’t say: ‘We lost points; next game we have to …’ There’s no time for that.
“When we first returned to training, it was so strange, really weird. I don’t think we’ve really had time to think about it; when we look back, we’ll think ‘this was crazy’. But it’s over now. It is starting to feel like normal life again.
“I woke up today the way a kid wakes up for Christmas, with a big smile on my face. Match week, preparing for a game again. I woke up and I said: ‘Man, I’m really here.’”