Martin Braithwaite will never forget 2020. In February, he made the shock move from Leganes to Barcelona, with the Catalan club announcing him as an emergency signing three weeks after the close of the January transfer window. In March, he came off the bench to play in the Clasico against Real Madrid. Then, just two weeks later and 20 days after he joined the Spanish champions, football in Spain was suspended indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Braithwaite was able to return to his Madrid home from his Barcelona hotel before strict lockdown measures came into place in Spain, although things have not slowed down for him while in quarantine. Last weekend, his wife welcomed their fourth child into the world as the Denmark international’s whirlwind year continued.
In the middle of it all, Braithwaite found the time to talk to ESPN about working from home, signing for Barca and connecting with Lionel Messi.
ESPN: The timing of the lockdown means you were able to be with your family for the birth of your fourth child — congratulations!
Martin Braithwaite: Thanks! I’m always trying to look for the positives, and this is definitely one, [the fact that] I could be by my wife’s side during this situation, where she was home alone with the kids — although my mother-in-law has been here as well. I am so happy that I could share this moment because if the season [had not been interrupted], I am not sure I would have been here.
ESPN: With three kids and now a newborn, it must be a struggle to keep up with training.
Braithwaite: I am training every day; I’m actually quite busy. I don’t know how but I wake up early in the morning and I go to bed really late. I feel like I don’t have any time in the day. I have a schedule for what I want to do, and it’s fully booked, to be honest. I am just flying around, obviously in my own house, but I feel there are a lot of things to do if you just set up your day.
I do the club’s workout and then something on the side. We talk to the club’s personal trainer every day. He gives us the programme for the following day and wants to hear how we feel about everything. We’re in contact with the club every day.
ESPN: Is working from home difficult for a footballer?
Braithwaite: If the kids are around and they want to ask you a lot of questions and you have to be the dad, you cannot be 100% intense. It’s important when you’re training that you keep that intensity, because when you get back and you have to play the games, it’s all about the intensity. When I start training it has to be really intense, and I have to be 100% focused.
Of course it’s really difficult when you’re at home with the kids around, I saw that in the first couple of days. You need to have a tight schedule and be able to say “OK, I am training at this time, and I am doing it like this,” because if you just wake up and go by the day, the day will suddenly go away and you end up having to do a workout at 10 p.m. — when you have kids, there is always something to do.
ESPN: You still found time to briefly replicate Ronaldo’s famous 2002 World Cup haircut …
Braithwaite: I was just enjoying myself! I was cutting my hair, and I just felt it. I said “OK, let me see how this looks,” and I felt the power, suddenly I felt more technical and everything. [But] I didn’t stick with it, I think my wife wasn’t that happy about it, so I had to cut it off.
Ronaldo was my main idol growing up, that’s the guy I really looked to for inspiration, how to develop myself as a player. I just loved how he played.
ESPN: The lockdown came so early in your career at Barcelona that you didn’t get much time to get to know your new teammates.
Braithwaite: It’s cool, we have a WhatsApp group where we are talking, but I’m not really thinking about that. I am always looking for the positives, always trying to get an edge out of no matter what happens. I am always turning obstacles into something good.
Now, I have time — time that I normally wouldn’t have — so I can do a lot of things that I might not have done before. I have a lot of time to think what I can do better in my game, look at videos, be more detailed in my personal training. I am sure when I get back, [Barcelona] will get an even better version of me.
ESPN: What videos have you been watching?
Braithwaite: I’ve been looking a little bit at my own performances, but only in the games I played since I came here. I cannot really compare my performances in other teams because the way we play here is so different.
I have watched a lot of [Barca] games to try and look how I can fit in. I always like to look at my teammates, how they are playing, how they are passing. They don’t need to adapt to me; I adapt to them. It will help me when I get back, just to be sharp, and I know where the ball will fall down around the box. I will be there waiting, just to score the goals.
ESPN: How do you rate your first three games at the club?
Braithwaite: It’s been good, but I’m always looking to improve. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I like to push myself. I know I will do even better than I have done so far. It’s easier when you play with such good players. I know I just need to make my good movements and they will find me.
You have Messi, who can do everything. The [opponent] is going to focus a lot around him, so I just have to play my game, and my game is naturally running in behind. I think it’s not fun for other teams, you know you have to look at Messi, but you have someone running in behind, so the defenders have to make a choice. Either they follow Messi or they follow me, and someone is going to get the space. You cannot play 90 minutes without giving us space.
I can also come and get the ball, but I don’t need it in this team because we have so many good players. I’m just going to stay focused running behind, making it really difficult for the defence and putting them in a position where they have to make a choice. We just have to take advantage of that when we play. We have such good players that I am sure we will.
ESPN: Are you missing football?
Braithwaite: Oh, I miss it every day. I am missing it so much. That’s what I love to do. That’s what pushes me to wake up and work out. I really can’t wait to go back.
ESPN: Has it been tough mentally?
Braithwaite: I feel better than I thought, but I think it’s because I am putting my total focus into improving my game. But at the same time I really miss playing and training. My wife asked me what I am most looking forward to, and I think she got a bit disappointed that I didn’t say going out to restaurants eating with her — I just said I want to go to training.
ESPN: How do you feel about playing behind closed doors when football returns?
Braithwaite: If that’s the best way to keep people’s health and keep everyone secure, that’s what we have to do, even though it’s not what we want. We love to play for the fans; that’s what we’ve been playing for since we were kids. The fans are everything, they give us that adrenaline, that rush when we go to the stadium.
ESPN: Signing for Barca, the coronavirus lockdown, becoming a father for a fourth time. You can’t have imagined all of this happening this year on Jan. 1?
Braithwaite: Not at that moment. I am a guy who dreams big. I believe everything is possible, but I wouldn’t have said it would happen that fast for sure.
ESPN: Is it true you kept Barca’s interest a secret?
Braithwaite: I heard about it at the end of January and then it got more intense in February. I just felt, you know, that I am going to wait and see how this goes. If it’s going to get 100% serious, then I will let [my wife] know, but there’s no reason to get people around me excited. I got excited, but I knew if I told people, they were gonna be talking about it every day. For me, I was at Leganes, I had to perform. When I am at a place, I give 100%, so I didn’t want to put my mind elsewhere.
ESPN: You didn’t even tell your wife?
Braithwaite: Usually I tell everything to my wife, but she only knew three days before I signed because it suddenly got leaked in the media. It got leaked in the morning and I didn’t see her until the evening, when I told her I had to talk to her. She knew why. She understood!
ESPN: How did Leganes react?
Braithwaite: Leganes are an amazing club. The people working there are the best people. I cannot speak highly enough of that club. Sometimes when you leave a club, you can leave with mixed feelings, but they totally understood. They said this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, so you have to take it. They would have done the same. They truly understood me. They felt it was unfair they couldn’t get a replacement, which I understand.
ESPN: How was your relationship with the coach, Javier Aguirre?
Braithwaite: Really good. He’s a special guy because he’s an old-school guy, and my experience has been that the old school have some kind of distance to the players. But he’s the players’ man. You can go and talk to him; he is always thinking about the squad. And at the same time, he’s someone really hard, you know, people really respect him. You don’t have to mess with him, because he will put you in your place, but he has a big heart. [When I left] he told me go and enjoy. He said you have to go, this is your career, this is a big opportunity, of course you have to take it, just go and kill it.
ESPN: Everything’s happened so quickly, has 2020 been a blur?
Braithwaite: No, I remember everything pretty clear in my head, and it’s been a good experience. I have come to the biggest club in the world, but it’s strange because I have always visualised myself there, always been thinking about it.
Arriving [at Barca], with all the circumstances, all the press and everything, of course you feel it’s something big. But when I started training, it was just like another club. I felt it was really natural, I felt really welcome by everyone at the club, all the players, the fans … they have welcomed me with open arms. I appreciate that and when I get on the pitch, I just want to pay [them] back and that’s what I’m going to do.
I visualised playing on the biggest stage, winning all the titles and it has led me here.
ESPN: There must have been moments when you had doubts?
Braithwaite: You have ups and downs along the way. You have moments where you think it’s never going to happen. And then you just click out of it and you just keep working, because you have the goals written down. You say this is what I wanted to do, this is why I wake up early and work hard, this is why I do a bit extra than what people are willing to do, because I have these high goals and I know I need to work hard. And now it has given me so much power, a fire inside me, because all the goals I have put down, they’re coming true. I have seen how powerful it is, and dreams do come true. I know now that I just put my mind to something that seems unachievable and I know I will achieve it.
ESPN: Now you’re at Barcelona, what next?
Braithwaite: Maybe some people would come and feel like, “Wow, I made it,” but I feel like, “OK, now we’re starting, now my career is really starting.”
ESPN: And you have a contract until 2024 …
Braithwaite: I would love to stay even longer, and I am sure I am going to stay even more than four and a half years; that’s how I see it in my head.
Right now, I just want to go and play and enjoy and win titles with this team because that’s what I am here to do. Now I am at the biggest stage, and now it’s about winning titles. This is my aim. Everything that’s possible to win, I want to win everything. And for me, at Barcelona, I’m looking at all these legendary players that played here, and all the periods where they had some of the best teams, and for me one of the goals is to be able to say I played in one of the best Barca teams in a generation.
I want people to be able to look back at the team I played in and say, “Yeah, that was one of the best teams there have been in Barca’s history.” That’s a huge motivation for me, and it comes with a lot of hard work, but I am willing to put in the work. I am excited.