Martin Braithwaite spends most of his workdays as a Barcelona teammate of Lionel Messi, the world’s greatest soccer player. But when Braithwaite leaves the field, he turns his attention to a plot of land near a different kind of football facility: the one the Temple football team calls home in North Philadelphia.
Across the corner of 11th Street and Susquehanna Avenue from the back of Temple’s practice field, Braithwaite and his uncle, Philip Michael, are co-investors in a residential building that’s designed to be a home for young professionals of color who want to get into the tech industry.
This is more than just a commercial investment for the two men, both of whom are Black. It’s a personal one — and for a reason that few American soccer fans have ever known. Although Braithwaite was born in Denmark and has long played for that country’s national teams, he has a huge family network in the United States of Guyanese descent. His parents met in New York, and he spent lots of time there as a youngster.
“[I] always had this American side, and I think maybe that’s why my mindset is maybe more American: dreaming big, doing amazing things, writing goals down,” Braithwaite told The Inquirer in a recent interview. “In Denmark, we have an amazing system protecting the people. Everyone is good. No one needs anything. In America, it’s not really the same thing.”
It matters to him to put his money into a historically Black neighborhood, and to get Black people into the historically white tech industry.
“Maybe I would have been raised in America, if things would have been different,” he said. “So I want to be able to give that back to the people who are in a less fortunate situation than me.”
Braithwaite and Michael also have acquired property across 11th Street, on a triangular piece of land whose eastern border is the SEPTA regional rail tracks, to expand their venture. And they’ve been in conversations with city officials to fund renovations to the Penrose Recreation Center, in the same block of Susquehanna Avenue as the building they’ve opened.
The investments here are part of a growing real estate portfolio Michael is building from his home base in Brooklyn. There’s also a crowdfunding element to his work that has brought in nearly 3,500 participants so far. They also get education and coaching from industry experts.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has prevented Braithwaite from seeing his investments in person. So he relies on Michael to be his eyes and ears, often by mobile phone video. But it works well enough for both of them, and they see what so many Philadelphians have seen: that the neighborhoods around Temple’s campus are in the midst of rapid gentrification.
“It was literally like a time lapse of a neighborhood transforming,” Michael said. “It is a historically Black neighborhood, and how can we preserve some of the cool essence while transforming and making it better?“
From a small town to the biggest stage
If this all seems a little hard to believe, well, consider two things. One, the building at 11th and Susquehanna is in fact there. Two, Braithwaite’s whole story has lots of improbabilities — and yes, you can start with Denmark’s population being not all that diverse. According to Denmark’s official government statistics agency, in 1990, the year Braithwaite was born, immigrants were barely 4% of the total population.
He grew up in Esbjerg, Denmark’s fifth-largest city — population just over 70,000, then and now — and played for the youth teams of the local pro club there. In 2013, he was signed by French club Toulouse, then in 2017 got his first big break: a $12 million transfer to English second-division club Middlesbrough. He played 40 games there over two seasons, and was loaned at various points to France’s Bordeaux and Spain’s Leganés. The latter club ultimately bought him in the summer of 2019 for $5.5 million.
Braithwaite scored 13 goals in 48 games for Leganés, which isn’t exactly a huge haul. But he was noticed by Spain’s giants.
In early 2020, Barcelona suffered a spate of injuries that included star striker Luis Suárez and winger Ousmane Dembélé. The club petitioned Spain’s soccer league to be able to make an emergency signing outside of FIFA-regulated transfer windows. The league said yes, and Barcelona paid Braithwaite’s release-clause fee of just under $20 million.
With that, Braithwaite became only the fifth-ever Danish player at Barcelona, and the first since star playmaker Michael Laudrup in 1994. Those are big shoes to step into at one of the world’s biggest clubs, on top of playing alongside Messi, the world’s biggest superstar.
Braithwaite has risen to the moment. He has seven goals and four assists this season, including three goals in the Champions League and an extra-time game-winner in the Copa del Rey semifinals last month. This weekend, Barcelona faces its eternal archrival, Real Madrid, and can take first place in Spain’s league with a win.
“I’m not a proud guy who just wants to feel like the best, like I’m so special — no, I want people to look at me and say to themselves, ‘If this guy can do it, so can I,’ ” Braithwaite said. “Just being able to be here in this club is amazing, but I also feel a responsibility about giving back. There should not be such a long gap between when I’m playing here and someone else [from Denmark] is playing here, because I would feel I’ve done something wrong.”
Although Braithwaite hasn’t been to Philadelphia yet — he promised he’ll visit when the pandemic ends — he has a taste of American life in Spain. Barcelona has two big-time U.S. prospects on its roster: outside back Sergiño Dest and winger Konrad de la Fuente. Dest, age 20, has already locked down a starting job with the senior U.S. national team. Konrad, age 19 (he wears his first name on his jersey, like many soccer stars do), played in the 2019 under-20 World Cup.
“I always try to share some of my own experience, and just put them in a better space than I was when I was their age, but they have a great future ahead of them,” he said. “I’m sure in a couple of years, America is gonna take over football for sure, because it’s just been a matter of time. Because the mindset [that] Americans, they’ve got, is completely different than the Europeans — their work ethic, and everything, training, technical, it’s just completely different. It was just about that they got the interest and the willingness to go and do soccer.”
So did he ever consider playing for the United States?
“I’ve never really thought about it, to be honest. When you grow up [in] a place, you look at the people representing your country. So I looked at those guys, and I said, ‘Oh wow, I would love to do the same,’ ” Braithwaite said. “I saw the atmosphere it was creating in the country when the national team was playing, so, you know, I could really relate to that. The opportunity [to play for the U.S.] was never really there, and it didn’t even cross my mind.”
In hindsight, that makes sense. Braithwaite made his Denmark debut in 2013, a time when the U.S. men’s program was in pretty good shape. It finished atop Concacaf’s World Cup qualifying standings that year, led by Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. Braithwaite already had seven caps by the time Jurgen Klinsmann infamously left Donovan out of the 2014 World Cup. In fact, the following March, Braithwaite played against the Americans in a friendly as a second-half substitute, and few people over here noticed.
Braithwaite left the door open to play club soccer over here someday, but it will likely be a while before that happens. He’s 29, in the peak years of his career. He really does mean it, though, that he’s going to come to Philadelphia when he can, and he obviously has his family to visit in New York. Until then, his impact over here will come through his real estate investments. The way things are going, that impact could be significant on its own.