IMAGINE YOURSELF AT 15. You, as many others, were probably worried about next week’s maths test or perhaps if that cute boy or girl at the front of the class was into you as well. They’re the common yet innocent worries of a child.
At 15, Martin Ødegaard was worried about not having his leg snapped in half as he made his debut for Strømsgodset. In fact, the young Norwegian’s baptism of fire came at Ullevaal Stadium, Norway’s national arena, where he started his first match before he could legally drink, drive or vote in the country.
Remember that thing about him having to worry about not getting his leg snapped in half? It almost was. By Christian Grindheim, a former Norway international known for his no-nonsense style of play. He crashed into Ødegaard, who was left screaming in pain. He got back up and continued on. Welcome to the big leagues, kid.
Ødegaard’s time in Norway seemed like the living version of every child’s dream. To just magically become the best player in the world, dancing your way around defenders, making exceptional passes and being your team’s best player. Even the most experienced supporter would find himself pinching his arm in order to accept what was actually going on. A 15-year old boy was completely toying with the cream of the crop – the best the country had to offer.
In interviews he seemed calmed and relaxed by it all, just a regular kid who would want to play football. After one match, he was signing autographs for a bunch of children in the stands to which Norwegian pundit, and former Tottenham striker, Steffen Iversen claimed: “Those are probably his classmates.” Everyone in Norway, somehow, lived their childhood dream vicariously through the eyes and the talented feet of Martin Ødegaard.
In Europe, this was never seen, and perhaps it was not of great interest either. What was seen was this Norwegian kid and his father travelling around Europe visiting clubs that had shown an interest; everyone from Liverpool to Bayern Munich and Manchester United to Barcelona. Perhaps it all seemed a bit like a wonderboy and his dad using his son’s talent and promise to get a look in at every single club. A glorified circus audition where the club would lay out their plans, their belief and their most sincere pitch hoping to lure a rare gem of a player, who himself knew how hot he was on the market. The idea seemed to have been to find out which club could offer the greatest development for Ødegaard. The club selected was, surprisingly, Real Madrid.
It is never surprising that a player elects for Real Madrid. What was surprising was that the weeks and months of speculation and anticipation led to Ødegaard picking a side not necessarily known for allowing youth to blossom onto the first team. Furthermore, they rolled out the red carpet for a 16-year-old, presenting him with a typical Galáctico-styled press conference in which Emilio Buragueño presented Ødegaard with a shirt, and he was asked questions by national and foreign press.
Stories of supposed wages, demands to train with the first team and to be included in the starting line-up for Castilla were quick to surface. Some even suggested he was displaying a bad attitude. The idea of a very sweet and innocent kid, who once cut off an interview on Norwegian TV claiming “I have to train a little now”, seemed to fade away on the Iberian Peninsula.
Though only playing for Castilla, Ødegaard was continuously picked for the Norwegian national team and was an important figure under former manager Per-Mathias Høgmo. So much so that he, at 16 years of age, was given a free role behind the striker in Norway’s crucial away match in the playoff for Euro 2016 against Hungary.
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The pressure placed on the shoulders of Ødegaard has been beyond any sort of comprehension and bares similarities to that placed on Freddy Adu all those years ago. Adu, who signed a multi-million dollar deal with Nike at the age of 13, buckled and was completely engulfed by the pressure. Ødegaard, on the other hand, has, on the surface, not allowed himself to be broken, which suggests that his greatest trait may not be his tricky feet, elusive style or understanding of the game, but his ability to not let the criticism get to him.
Rising above the naysayers and the doubters, he proved a vital character for both Castilla and also the Norwegian under-21 side. Perhaps there was finally an understanding that playing for the national team and being in contention to feature for Real Madrid, especially following his debut aged 16 years and 157 days, was all-important.
Being the youngest player in Los Blancos’ illustrious 114-year old history carries some weight, and having been allowed the past year to develop and get accustomed to his new surround seems to have done the Norwegian well. There is no doubting that he can still enjoy a bright future at Madrid, and even less are doubting that he could be the main figure in Norway’s return to a World Cup. Ødegaard, born in December 1998, was not even alive the last time Norway participated on the biggest stage in international football.
This all leads to 2017. With the expected loan to Rennes falling through, a familiar club to Norwegians proved its replacement. Ødegaard is from Drammen, which is located about 50 kilometres from Norway’s capital of Oslo. On the outskirts of a city more grand and busy, Ødegaard was left with tranquillity and peace as he perfected his skills on a little football pitch commonly known as Kjappen (the quick one).
It almost seems poetic that Ødegaard’s new destination is Heerenveen. Located a little further away from Amsterdam than Drammen is to Oslo, the similarities still seem familiar. Following in the footsteps of Tarik Elyounoussi, Daniel Berg Hestad and, ironically, Christian Grindheim, the man who smashed 15-year old Ødegaard to the ground on his first start, he might find it more adjustable than the bright lights of the Santiago Bernabéu at this point.
He follows in a newfound tradition on the white side of Madrid. The idea of loaning out or selling players with highly affordable buyback clauses have created a foundation for Zinédine Zidane to build upon. Players such as Lucas Vázquez, Álvaro Morata, Casemiro and Dani Carvajal were all sold and then bought back, and proved integral parts of the Madrid side that won their 11th Champions League title in 2016.
This season sees Marco Asensio proving himself at Bernabeu while Jesús Vallejo, Borja Mayoral and Omar Mascarell are all sent out on loan. The pathway to Bernabéu has been laid clear by those who want it the most, and those who understood the need to impress elsewhere before being called back to greatest stage of them all. A loan, even for 18 months, might seem like a club trying to shrink their squad a little. In Martin Ødegaard’s case, this is Madrid placing him at the club and the league they believe is best suited for him now, so that he one day can return and share the success draped in Madrid’s legendary white shirt.
“Traditionally, players come here for the right reasons. Martin and his father visited us and we explained our plans for them and the club. This is a special day for us. We have had great players here before, but that such a talent has chosen to come here feels really special. This is a talent that will improve the entire league,” Luuc Eisenga, Heerenveen’s technical director, told Norwegian TV 2 as Ødegaard was, yet again, announced through a press conference holding up his shirt and taking questions from the press.
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Perhaps here lays the biggest challenge, because the coming stint in the Netherlands may prove the making or breaking of the greatest talent to ever come out of Norway.
He will be the main attraction for the supporters, the main focus of his opponents, and the one everyone will want to see. More importantly, perhaps, the watchful eyes of Madrid will follow every single development during his stint. Heerenveen are still fighting for a spot in Europe next season and have shown impressive form under manager Jürgen Streppel this season. Ødegaard underlined the important factor of having arrived at a club that plays good football, and that it was time to perform at the highest level.
Belief and imagination have never been a problem for Ødegaard’s personality, both on and off the pitch, but one gets the feeling that this is a situation that might define him. If he becomes the one to take Heerenveen into Europe, the world might nod in approval of the talent only watched in brief spells for Real Madrid and in an underperforming Norwegian national team over the past few years. He now arrives in a league and at a club where it is expected that he delivers.
The hype surrounding the debut of LeBron James in the NBA was something that America had never witnessed before. Battling against unreal expectation, impossible demands and heavy criticism for the entirety of his career, James, at the age of 31, still has his doubters. LeBron was known as ‘The Chosen One’, and given the hype around Ødegaard, he is not far off being led in the same direction.
James perhaps never got the respect he deserved given he chases the Brobdingnagian shadow known as Michael Jordan. Ødegaard, on the contrary, battles the demands of a nation. Though Norwegians clutch him towards their chest and hope he develops into the greatest sporting phenomenon the country has ever seen, there is a sense of demands now. They have seen it in Norway – now they want to see it in Europe.
That’s because Sweden had Zlatan Ibrahimović, Denmark had Michael Laudrup and though Norway can brag about the likes of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Rune Bratseth and John Carew, they have never been able to point towards that one global superstar.
The next step in the career of Martin Ødegaard, to him, might be the next step in a long-term plan. For Norway, it could be what defines their footballing future, for Madrid, it could be the coming out party for their next galáctico, and for those who doubted him, it could be their ultimate ‘I told you so’ moment as he fails, or their moment of fading to the dark as he succeeds. All this in a city outside of Amsterdam, known to the local man for their Norwegian imports and their heart-covered home kits.
He is the youngest player to ever feature in a European Championship qualifier (15 years and 300 days), the youngest Norwegian to play for the national team (15 years and 243 days), the youngest to play in the Norwegian Eliteserie (15 years and 117 days) and the youngest to score in the Eliteserie (15 years and 150 days). There is no doubt that he is something uniquely special, something you perhaps see once in a lifetime. Perhaps that is why you hope to see the talent unfurl itself into something you’ll never see again.
When asked by a local Dutch reporter about what he felt about being labelled a wonderboy, he answered in his trademark calm and collected manner: “It is up to others to call me that, I’m just a normal boy.”
By Jonas Giaevara @CheGiaevara