Jonas Wind flicked the ball on with his head, his forward colleague outran his Israeli opponent and, as he approached the goal, he calmly chipped the ball over the advancing keeper. It was like watching the master of chipping himself, Lionel Messi, on a normal working day in La Liga.
Except this was the Danish national team, winning 2-0 in Jerusalem with Martin Braithwaite elegantly scoring the vital first goal after 13 minutes. With a Messi-move.
A goal taken with ease and a clear signal from Braithwaite, an unlikely name in the Barcelona squad where he has played since February 2020. Only a few people had seen a Barcelona career being possible for Braithwaite, not exactly a big-name signing when he joined the club at a time when other forwards had long-term injuries.
Braithwaite is not the archetypal free-scoring forward but a player who must work hard for his place in the team and for his goals. He has been doing exactly that since he first broke through in Danish football in Esbjerg on the west coast of Jutland.
His father hails from British Guyana, his mother is Danish and he grew up close to Esbjerg. He was a big talent as a youngster but found breaking into the first team in Esbjerg more difficult. He was a very versatile young player, his coaches played him in different positions, which made it hard for him to gain a regular spot.
“At a point we decided that he should play up front. He worked extremely hard; he was dedicated but he missed too many chances. His finishing wasn’t exceptional,” recalls Ove Pedersen, one of his first coaches.
Even Pedersen, a veteran in the trade, could not predict that Braithwaite one day would play alongside Messi – no one in Denmark could, to be honest. Barcelona’s connections to Denmark are restricted to star players such as Allan Simonsen and Michael Laudrup.
When Denmark qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Braithwaite wasn’t seen by the experts as a starter in the team. Again, he proved everyone wrong.
It is fair to say he has not been instrumental in Barcelona’s quest for success since he joined the Catalan club from lowly Leganés in February 2020 in the most sensational move by a Danish footballer in a long time. Every squad needs players that will push for a place in the lineup and from time to time Braithwaite has been preferred by the coach, Ronald Koeman because of the Dane’s impressive workrate, his spirit, his attitude.
Braithwaite, who will turn 30 in June, has big dreams, he pursues them and he simply doesn’t care about the views of others. When he was presented at the Camp Nou, he was ridiculed when a simple ball-juggle went wrong.
“A lot of people need confirmation. I don’t. I really don’t care about whether you like me or not. You may think I am an idiot or a good guy. It doesn’t matter to me. The important thing is that I know what I stand for and that the people close to me know the same,” he said in an article in Euroman, a Danish magazine.
Off the pitch he can seem remote, which is often taken as a sign of arrogance. But one of his former teammates in Esbjerg, Jesper Lange, tells a story of a man who cares about his friends and is very considerate. Lange invited some teammates over on his birthday, but Braithwaite couldn’t attend on the day. “After some months when I played in a new club, he suddenly texted me; he wanted to come by my house with a present. He gave me a bunch of towels I had wished for at the time. They had been lying around at his place. But he never forgot,” recalls Lange.
After a successful three years in Toulouse, Braithwaite signed for Middlesbrough, a move that never worked out and he became a scapegoat among fans, as he was one of the biggest signings in the club’s history yet did not make an impact, especially working under the manager, Tony Pulis, who openly criticised the Dane.
“I have been a professional in my time in Middlesbrough and I have always worked really hard. One day you’re a god, the next day the devil. That’s part of it,” he told the newspaper Jyllands-Posten last year, where he talked about his spare time; how he studies football day and night, works on details, and reads books on mental coaching.
One of his techniques is visualisation; a couple of years ago he visualised himself scoring the decisive goal for Denmark in the crucial final Euro 2020 qualifier against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin. In the actual match, 15 minutes from the end he stretched out and met a cross to put his country in front in a match that ended 1-1 and sent Denmark to the finals.
In the Euroman interview he tells about another scene he has visualised, standing on the balcony of the town hall building at Raadhuspladsen, the central square in Copenhagen, lifting the Euro 2020 trophy in front of thousands of cheering Danes. Well, you never know. When it comes to Braithwaite, anything seems possible.