Denmark have a problem, Martin Braithwaite reckons. They’re too nice, and way too modest. Or they were, anyway. “Danes are so humble that they will never claim they’re capable of big things, even though it’s in our DNA with the Vikings,” the former Barcelona striker says, laughing as he realises how far back he’s going in search of lost national character.
“Sometimes that’s the Danish mentality: so humble we’re too humble. As Danes, something has been missing: not arrogance exactly, but the confidence to go and do it.” No more. So here’s the thing, a clear message: Denmark have come to win the World Cup.
“There’s been a change in mindset for players and the population: the belief we can really do this, we’re genuinely good,” Braithwaite says, because it was time someone did. “Before, people were happy to win a couple of games. Now people say: ‘Wow, we have a team that can actually win things.’ Which doesn’t mean being overconfident: that’s where the humbleness and hard work kicks in. That’s why we’re serious contenders.”
Denmark won nine of 10 qualifying games, scoring 30 and conceding three, defeated France twice in the Nations League and reached the semi-final of Euro 2020. If they were unlucky, maybe even robbed, against England – “definitely robbed” Braithwaite shoots back, laughing – something shifted that summer. “That’s where we saw we had the quality, that things changed,” he says. “We came sneaking past people’s eyes.
“I said before the Euros: ‘Don’t count us out: we can do something special’ and now people have a different view because it was not luck, it was not a coincidence. We have a very strong team player by player, a good game plan, and it’s very difficult to beat us. We’re a really, really strong side. We have a special relationship and atmosphere: we don’t have that competition you see at clubs, where you just want to play ahead of the other guy.”
Asked whether the cardiac arrest that Christian Eriksen suffered played a part in changing the team, Braithwaite says: “It changed each individual, more than just the group: it was beyond football.” There’s a prolonged pause, his tone quiet when he eventually starts up again. “Life passes by so fast, you need to enjoy every moment. We went through it together, will always share that feeling. It’s kind of a fairytale now that we’re at the World Cup and Christian part of the team. No one could imagine that.”
Braithwaite can still see the moment, still feel the fear. But, he says: “It’s not the same fear now as those first days. The first game we played without him, you felt this energy in the stadium, something special: something emotional, powerful, the way the fans tried to carry us. He seemed really relaxed afterwards; you didn’t see fear, [just] determination about what he wanted to do. We’re so happy for him as a person and being able to do what he loves again is even better, and at a top level. It’s amazing.”
For Braithwaite there has also been a return. He played all bar five minutes at the Euros, but a cartilage injury then saw him miss four months. Having opened 2021-2022, Barcelona’s first post-Messi, with two goals and an assist, he returned to find a new manager and few opportunities, the club trying to force his departure. On deadline day city rivals Espanyol appeared.
“It’s crazy, a lot happened in one year,” he says. “After recovering from injury, I thought I would continue. I was ready, I’d put in the work, but I saw I wasn’t needed. It was strange. There’s a lot happening, a lot of politics. I had proved I could be important but didn’t get the chance.
“That’s part of the game, how businesses are run sometimes. I knew the club wanted me to move, but I also knew it wasn’t for football reasons. It’s in the past, a life experience. Don’t hold on. I don’t take these things too personally. I know myself, my value. People can’t paint a picture or push me. It’s pretty obvious what was happening, what they were trying to do – not just with me, but others. Sometimes saying nothing says a thousand words.”
Why did it take so long? “That’s a good question,” Braithwaite says. “It’s not that I was refusing to go. I had fun reading the papers every day: everyone had an opinion. I wanted things to go faster too. When Espanyol came I thought: ‘Wow, this is meant to be.’ It took so long because it had to. Opportunities come but you need to be ready. I’ve been training so hard. I took my personal trainer on holiday. Sometimes my wife was not too happy. I knew I’d find a club. At Espanyol I’ve shown I’m sharp, better daily. I couldn’t have done more, building foundations while everyone was relaxing. I knew I had the World Cup.”
Waiting there will be former teammates. Just the mention of Ousmane Dembélé has Braithwaite laughing – “that guy just has so much talent it’s unbelievable. I would be confused to have two right feet like him,” he says – and there is also admiration for Antoine Griezmann.
“People who don’t understand football only see really visual things: going past a defender, scoring goals,” he says. “When people rated him – which I still do – it was because he was scoring, but he always had so much quality. The way he links midfield and striker, finds the right spaces, the understanding of how to overload, be that extra man. It’s amazing to play with a guy like that. You can combine, he’s generous, works so hard, a true team player.
“Their reaction to the draw was the same as mine: ‘Here we go again.’ We always seem to play France. OK, we’re against one of the best but we’re one of them too – and we’re confident. We have ambition and belief to do something special. It’s good to play the champions first to show the world we’re taking this competition seriously.”
It’s a competition Braithwaite first remembers from 1998 and 2002. Brazil, “my national team after Denmark”, captured his imagination. Ronaldo especially. “I loved watching him and was really excited to see him return in 2002. I’m going to watch The Phenomenon, definitely. It’s special how Brazilians express their love for the game in a way only they truly manage. I remember getting Eurogoals, trying to copy some of the things Ronaldo did.”
Did you master any? Braithwaite laughs. “I don’t know, I don’t want to compare myself to a legend. But when I was younger, it would be like: the stepover, the stepover: it’s just amazing how he used that to go past people.”
Especially goalkeepers. Ronaldo claimed to have gone round 90 of them to score. Braithwaite ponders the stat. “It’s true: it doesn’t happen any more. Actually today in training I could have gone round the keeper and didn’t. And yet it’s a lot easier. It’s a really good question: I don’t know why it doesn’t, if the game has changed. It’s actually the best choice.
“Thing is, you also need the calmness. One on one, I try to stay relaxed. It’s about understanding the pace, the angle. It’s like a dance: can you make the keeper move? Sometimes it’s easier than others. If you look at Ronaldo’s goals – and I’ve studied him so much – he is so calm, really, really relaxed. My idol? It’s always been that guy.”
So if you can’t win the World Cup, would you like Brazil to? There’s the flash of a smile, that new Danish mentality. “The only team I’m thinking about winning is Denmark. If we can’t, I don’t care,” Braithwaite says. “I’ve pictured myself holding the trophy many times. Hopefully, it will be a reality. I’ve seen the images of ‘92. I would love to be in a team that did the same, and if it’s the World Cup, even better.”