The Danish international combines football with philanthropy in the hope of inspiring others
Martin Braithwaite sits in his Toulouse living room, hair disheveled, beard unkempt, sporting a blue camo t-shirt and gym shorts, with children’s drawings adorning the wall behind him. He is in every regard, easygoing and approachable.
Martin is forthright and welcoming, quick to ask how I’m doing and genuinely interested in my otherwise pithy response, his humility instantly puts one at ease. He’s an affable and cheerful host. We exchange conversation, more akin to two friends speaking over a pint.
We’re here to discuss a recent pledge made by the Toulouse and Denmark striker on Twitter. It’s a day before the start of a new season, and Braithwaite, fresh off a 14-goal campaign in 2015/16, the best output of his career, has decided to up the ante.
The pacey attacker, known in Denmark as ‘The Man With Fire In His Shoes’ was recently named captain of Les Pitchouns — becoming the first Danish-born player to don the armband for a Ligue 1 outfit — and Braithwaite is already excelling in his new leadership role, with the reveal of his new initiative, Score2Help.
“Starting this Sunday, I will donate €1000 to charity for every goal I score this season. Let’s rally around a good cause. #Score2Help,” he announced on August 13, via his official Twitter page.
It’s an unusual move for a footballer, yet Braithwaite seems indifferent to the publicity his pledge may receive.
“There’s so many good causes out there, and people trying to make a difference,” he said. “I’m not doing this to have people look at me — for them to see me doing something good. It’s all about getting the word out that there’s people who need help. I’m talking to everyone. You don’t have to be an athlete or earn a lot of money to make a difference in someone’s life — and for me that’s a big motivation.”
Braithwaite said before the season that picking or mentioning the names of specific charities is not the point of his movement, the aim is to do his part to help the community and set a good example in the process. As goals have hit the net, he has revealed destinations of his donations on his social media channels.
Sadly, Braithwaite didn’t have to look very far for motivation. In the past year, France has been left to ruminate an exhausting number of casualties suffered as a result of acts of terrorism. Paris and Nice suffered dearly as a result of these harrowing events, which sent shockwaves throughout the nation. France was thrust into an aura of uncertainty; sent into a justifiable panic. Toulouse, the capital of France’s southern Midi-Pyrenees region, was no different.
“I don’t even know where to start,” Braithwaite said. “There’s so much bad stuff happening in the world right now. Every day I read the news and there’s always something horrible to read about — something negative. There’s always people who need our help. I’m in a position where I’m fortunate enough to live my dream, but everyone deserves to live their dream. Everyone deserves to have hope in their life.”
The 25 year old is doing his best to make the most of a terrible situation, with his Score2Help. His hope is to form a tight-knit bond in the footballing world — urging others to join forces with him in fighting against all those negative things he reads about and sees on TV. Unable to change what has happened, he hopes to make something positive from these tragedies.
“Right now we see too much negative stuff going on in the world, but we have the ability to get together and give back,” Braithwaite said. “It needs a lot of positivity, and we can start something big. In sports we get a lot of attention. If we use that attention to do something positive, it sets a good example to those people who are looking up to us.
“Sometimes you think ‘I’m just one person, what can I do?’ So you don’t do anything. But if you do something, then maybe the person next to you follows, and that’s how a difference is made. It always starts with yourself. You have to do something before you can make someone else do it.”
The striker has put his money where his mouth is, taking the initiative to kickstart this positive movement, but it was far from a spur of the moment idea. It’s been quite the journey for the man from Esbjerg, and it’s one which began long ago.
At five years old, Martin was diagnosed with Legge-Calvé-Perthes disease. The disorder, most commonly found in children, affects the hip where the femur and pelvis meet in the joint. If not treated properly it can lead to loss of hip motion and permanent deformity to the femoral head.
Martin had to stop playing football and spent the next two years in a wheelchair.
“It helped me see things differently at a very young age, to appreciate something as simple as being able to walk,” Braithwaite said. “I was young and I didn’t understand why. When you’re young you think something’s wrong with you when you’re in a wheelchair, like you’re handicapped.
“Already at that age I was playing football, so I had to stop. I was in school, and I had to be in the wheelchair, while everyone else was out playing. I thank God for the day that I was able to play football again — I’ll never forget it.”
While those two years of his life were filled with frustration and resentment, the setback only proved to make Braithwaite stronger and ultimately galvanized his fundamentally altruistic view of human nature.
“I remember how people used to look at me and treat me different and it really opened my eyes from a young age on how we should be treating people who are different than you. All they want is to be treated like everyone else.” He paused, to collect himself.
“I went through it for two years, but there’s people who have to deal with this sort of thing their entire life. If I can help them in some sort of way, then I will. They deserve it. We have an obligation to help each other out. That’s how I look at life.”
The temporary setback fueled Braithwaite’s benevolent desires and also inspired the relentless pursuit of his footballing dream — providing him with an unquenchable thirst for success which, to this day, continues to drive his ambition.
“It taught me to appreciate every day I have,” he said. “When you’re a competitor and have a lot of dreams as I do, you can get carried away and forget to really appreciate every day. You have goals and you want to reach them, so sometimes it’s easy to forget to look up be thankful for what’s around you.
“I broke my leg when I was 18 and it woke me up again. Sometimes I complain about stuff that I really don’t have the right to complain about. I’m just so lucky in life to be where I am and that’s why I work so hard every day to reach my goals. For me you have to give 110 per cent every day of your life or risk wasting your potential.”
That ideology goes back even further, instilled in him at a young age by his father.
“My dad was really tough on me,” Braithwaite said. “I couldn’t understand it. I thought he didn’t like me, but he just wanted to teach me that when you have the talent you have to push yourself to the max. If you want something you don’t wait, you really have to work for it. He would tell me that because I’m different than everyone else [in Esbjerg], because I look different, that I have to work twice as hard as them to reach my goals. I can’t just sit back and expect the coach to pick me to play.”
True to his nickname, The Man With Fire In His Shoes has motivation in spades. Being one of the few mixed-race kids in Denmark’s seaport town of Esbjerg — the other two being his sister and uncle — was another hurdle to overcome. At an age where all anyone wanted is to be accepted, Braithwaite had to cope with the reality of his surroundings — learn to understand and appreciate his intrinsic uniqueness.
“People called me names and it made me stronger. I was different and I could see I was different from an early age. I didn’t have the same hair as everyone else and I had blue eyes. When you’re young you don’t want to be different, you want to be like everyone else. I was shy, but with time you learn to really be yourself.”
This has been Braithwaite’s mantra his entire life. Be yourself. He spoke passionately about the importance of staying true to one’s self; imbued by the notion of individuality.
“As a human being you just have to be you,” he said. “Some people will like it, some won’t, but if you continue to be yourself you will never get lost. Some people try and put on an act and have different faces, but that’s how you lose sight of who you are. I just focus every day on being me. I have a good family and a girlfriend who all help keep me down to earth. They help me stay true to myself and appreciate life.”
It’s a mentality he wants to pass on, at home to his one-year-old son Romeo and in the public eye to fans and fellow competitors.
“Kids are the future and they need good role models so they can go on to be better than us. We always need progress in life and I have hope that kids today will be able to make the world a better place to live than we have done,” he said, his hopeful tone suggesting a sincere optimism.
“It’s so important to set a good example, but the best way to do that is by being yourself. If you look at social media now, it’s a lot about showing off what you have and trying to be accepted and follow the trends. It’s tiresome. You just have to be yourself in life. It’s the different qualities in each person that are charming.”
Proud to embrace his uniqueness and not afraid to voice his beliefs, you would be hard-pressed to find someone more authentic than Martin. It can also prove a burden.
He takes genuine sorrow in the shortcomings of humanity. Throughout our conversation, he was always quick to downplay his own struggles, eager to move on from the past and focus instead on correcting societal problems rampant today — the main goal of Score2Help.
“You see people around the world who are starving,” he said. “For me that’s not possible when you see how we’re living, without any worries. There’s so many people who are fortunate to not have to think about that because we know we’ll be eating. We’ll even be unsatisfied sometimes with what we eat. I’m the same way, sometimes I’m unsatisfied and I don’t appreciate what I eat, yet you have people dying of hunger. It makes me really sad to see that.”
Braithwaite exhaled, as pain filled his eyes.
Four months into the season and the striker has tallied seven goals in 14 league matches, putting him on pace for a career best in a single campaign.
Martin is doing his best to walk the walk, matching the nobility in his words by that of his actions. The hope now is that it catches on. And so, with fire both in his boots and generosity in his heart, Braithwaite sets off on a quest this season — a quest to help his team and help the world, one goal at a time.