Drammen, Norway: ask people from around the world what they think of when Norway, Europe’s northernmost country, is mentioned, and football is rarely top of the list. Spectacular fjords and mountains; picturesque valleys sprinkled with colourful wooden houses; jaw-dropping, unrelenting scenery, draped for several months a year in a blanket of thick snow; the Northern Lights. But rarely football.
For a brief moment in summer 2015, though, Drammen, the fifth-largest municipal area in Norway with a population of around 90,000, found a place on the global football map. Martin Ødegaard, at the age of 16, had been signed by Real Madrid and was presented as a Galáctico by president Florentino Pérez, having been plucked from Strømsgodset, a team playing in Norway’s top flight, the Tippeligaen. For Norwegian football, it was an unlikely, never-before-seen story.
Ødegaard had been chased by every top club in Europe. Liverpool, the team he supported as a child, were keen, while Bayern Munich’s Säbaner Strasse was one of the many top training grounds he toured as the world’s elite football clubs circled. Ødegaard ultimately decided on Los Blancos, where he felt, alongside the best players in the world, he would have the best chance of progressing and fulfilling his enormous potential.
Born in December 1998, and therefore not 21 until the end of this year, Ødegaard was 16 when he made the move for an initial €4m. At the time, he was probably the most high-profile 16-year-old there has ever been given the fanfare around him, and in Norway, Real Madrid shirts with ‘Ødegaard’ on the back outsold those with ‘Ronaldo’ in 2015.
A lot – understandably – was expected of a man, or perhaps more accurately a child, who had been suddenly thrust into the global football consciousness.
Since making the switch to LaLiga, Ødegaard has been written off by some, but still has time on his side. Loan moves to the Eredivisie, first to Heerenveen and then to Vitesse, took the focus off Ødegaard, and he has become a name less prevalent over the last four years, when the scramble for his signature initially ensued.
The hype has temporarily subsided, but Real Madrid still rate him highly, as do the other clubs who lost out in the initial chase – should he hypothetically be made available for a permanent transfer, a second scramble would no doubt follow and the Bernabéu fax machine would head into overdrive.
Earlier this month, Ødegaard made a loan switch for the upcoming season to Real Sociedad. Several Premier League and Bundesliga sides including Bayer Leverkusen had made their interest clear this summer, while Ajax had already seen a €20m offer for a permanent transfer turned down.
Ødegaard made his senior Real Madrid debut against Getafe, replacing none other than Cristiano Ronaldo as a substitute, and also played a full match against Cultural Leonesa in the Copa del Rey, where he was named man of the match, but the rest of his appearances in the famous white shirt of Madrid have come for Castilla, the B team.
First under Zinedine Zidane, where he was the joint-top assist maker in one of the best Castilla sides there has ever been in 2014/15, and then under Luis Miguel Ramos when Zidane stepped up to manage the first team, Ødegaard has totalled 62 appearances. The perception from outside the Bernabéu has been that the Norwegian has failed to kick on significantly since signing for Real Madrid, but the journey, which began back in his home town of Drammen as a young boy, is still in its infancy for the talented midfielder.
Harald Johannessen, who coached Ødegaard as a child, as well as former Manchester City midfielder Bersant Celina, now of Swansea, and Hannover’s Iver Fossum at the Drammen club, still coaches at Strømsgodset, now at under-16 level. He remembers Ødegaard fondly as a player who would give everything to achieve his dream of playing for one of Europe’s top teams.
Beside one of Strømsgodset’s pristine academy training pitches, he recalls the talent, devotion and commitment that Ødegaard showed from a very young age: “We had some training every Sunday. I think he was maybe 11, 12 years old and he was coming here every Sunday to train at what we call Elite Academy. When he was 13 years old, we gave him an offer to join the professional club. He was the first one at such a young age to get an offer. He was very confident. He was doing his best all the time; he had dedication.”
As Harald talks enthusiastically about Ødegaard’s winning combination of skill and commitment, one particular story, which was a regular occurrence, stands out. Ødegaard’s former coach explains: “We have a system that you ring the telephone at the door here [he points back towards the main training centre] and we open the door. He was always calling, ‘Harald, can you open the door?’ [because he wanted to play].
“I asked him once, ‘who is with you this time?’, and he said, ‘no one’. I said, ‘why didn’t you ask someone to join you?’. He had asked all of the guys and they couldn’t come but he was still going by himself.
“We had a football inside here that they could use however much they wanted, and also a strength room, so he was there all the time. He came here after school around two o’clock; training started at half-past three, but he had already been there over an hour. We were on the field until 17:30 and then we’d go inside and do the strength. We finished around half-past seven, and then he would just take off the jogging shoes and put on the football shoes and go out again. This was his life.”
Ødegaard, like many emerging youngsters, has been labelled as his country’s version of Lionel Messi and shares a favouritism for his left foot with the Barcelona talisman, but he has always been more of a Luka Modrić or Andrés Iniesta type, operating in the centre of the pitch. Growing up, though, the Argentine was his idol. Harald says: “He was always looking at Messi, I remember that. He loves Messi, so that was a little bit strange – he loves Messi and he goes to Real Madrid.”
Like Messi, Ødegaard is an intelligent player who can see several moves ahead – you have to be to have any chance of making it at the very top level. His maturity and assurance on the ball is a gift, but one which he has worked hard on to improve. Harald continues: “[Ødegaard] gets the ball in very small spaces and finds solutions. He can open every defence with the smartness; he makes very good passes.”
Ødegaard’s father, Hans Erik, drew up a weekly timetable for his son to fit in as much training as possible – at least 20 hours a week. That hard work in his childhood was rewarded with the breaking of several records in Norway.
Ødegaard made his senior bow in a friendly for Strømsgodset against Mjøndalen at the age of 13. He became the youngest ever player in the Tippeligaen against Aalesunds and youngest goalscorer at just 15 against Sarpsborg; he also made his full debut for Norway at a record-breaking age 15 against the United Arab Emirates.
His family, consisting of an older brother Kristoffer and two younger sisters, Emilie and Mari, grew up in Toppenhaug, a small, quiet part of Drammen, with his parents and grandparents owning several high-end clothing shops. Those peaceful and untouched surroundings could not be much more of a contrast to the cacophony of glitz and glamour that surrounds Real Madrid, probably the most high-profile and noisy club in the world.
Ødegaard has understandably failed to make a big impact on the Real Madrid first team as yet, given his age, inexperience, the quality of competition, and having to adjust to a new culture.
On the face of it, the McDonalds, Starbucks and Shell garages which are littered beside the less rural roads in Norway might make a move to Madrid seem not too dissimilar to Ødegaard’s homeland, but at the very least, in football terms, it could not be any more different.
Nearly 3,000km from home, it was not an easy move to make, as Harald remembers: “His father was moving with him. They were taking this really seriously and he had the safety of his father there. That was a very important thing the family did to make that decision.”
Ødegaard travels home as often as he can, and is often in demand to make appearances for his fans, who follow his career intently from afar. Just this week, as his loan switch to Sociedad was confirmed, he was back in Drammen visiting family and friends, as he does almost every off-season.
Harald says: “The last time I spoke with him, I wanted him to come up. We have FFO – it’s like football after school for the youngsters at a sports club. He told me he could come if he was home, but it didn’t fit [with his other plans]. He is often here. When he is here, he has contact with all the boys, like Iver Fossum – they play together for the under-21 national team and they are very close. They are often here together.”
At Heerenveen, where Ødegaard was sent on loan, a combination of a metatarsal injury that saw him miss a large chunk of the campaign and being moved around the pitch in a variety of roles meant the move never fully worked out. There was also the suggestion from some that during that time that the quality of his teammates was not at the level he requires to show off his full repertoire of skills. He would often be left frustrated that teammates were not on the same wavelength.
Ødegaard made 26 appearances for Heerenveen that season, scoring twice and assisting as many, before he signed for fellow Dutch side Vitesse, where his performances went up another notch. He was given a chance at first-team level in Norway at the age of 15 by Ronny Deila, who later managed Celtic, but the stakes at Real Madrid are altogether different. There was, and still is, a recognition from the player and his camp that he will have to be patient.
Ødegaard only played 25 times for Strømsgodset, scoring five goals and assisting six, before he got the big move. With only 18 senior caps for his country, having made his debut in August 2014, Ødegaard’s level of experience so far is limited.
That much, at least in part, has been deliberate, designed to keep him improving step by step and avoiding the pitfalls of offering too much too soon. It was also partly because Lars Lagerbäck, he who masterminded Iceland’s victory over England at Euro 2016, was reluctant to trust him having replaced Per-Mathias Høgmo as Norway boss, preferring safer, more defensive options.
With each new development in Ødegaard’s career, the coaches who nurtured him prior to his first-team exploits look back with pride – for them, there is little doubt that he will ultimately succeed.
There is a strong belief in Norway that the move to Real Madrid was undoubtedly the right one, and that the necessary due diligence had been done by both Ødegaard and his father. There was always an element of risk involved, but few feel that the gamble will fail to pay off.
Harald explains: “The most proud moment is when they take a new step: when they play in Marienlyst [Strømsgodset’s home stadium] for the first time; when he played the first exercise game for the first team against Mjøndalen when he was a very, very young boy. Of course, when he goes to Real Madrid, it’s fantastic. This is the dream for the players – he has not reached the dream yet, because I know that he wants to play regularly at that level. The day that he plays and is the first option for the coach, then it is a new step. That is an important thing, to be a first-team player, and to be in the first-team squad.”
There is also the belief from his previous coaches at Strømsgodset that now the hype has died down a little, that could be beneficial, although that will all change if he starts well in Spain next season.
As much as Ødegaard was a local hero at a very young age, Harald concedes that he faces an uphill task to make it in Madrid, where the pressure is intense, the probing ever-present and the scrutiny all-encompassing. Harald says: “I think it was very hard for him when he had so much focus on him in the media. Everyone in Norway knows who he is. When he was younger, he could come here and he could exercise by himself, but now there is many people. He doesn’t have the quietness, if you understand.
“For Real Madrid and those clubs, it is only one thing that matters: they need to win. They need to win in Spain and they need to win in the Champions League. You see at those clubs that have those goals, they often buy players that have that experience to play Champions League football.
“You saw Monaco, when they got very far, many players were sold because they showed the rest of the world that they delivered at that level. If the coach has Martin and [Luka] Modrić, of course he will choose Modrić. It is very tough.”
Ødegaard failed to impress sufficiently last pre-season for then-manager Julen Lopetegui to give him a first-team chance, despite solid showings against Manchester United, Juventus and Roma. He went on to score five times and assist six in 22 Eredivisie appearances for Vitesse, leaving those behind the scenes at Real Madrid convinced that he still has a future with them.
Had Ødegaard made a switch to a smaller side, or one in a lesser league, perhaps he would already have made a more significant impact. Sixteen-year-old Karamoko Dembélé, for instance, made his senior debut for Celtic against Hearts last season. The Norwegian, though, remains convinced that he made the right choice for his career. More importantly, Zidane, back at Real Madrid for a second spell as coach, continues to rate him highly, having first managed him for Real’s B team.
The Frenchman, as things stand, is a huge fan of his prodigy. As long as Ødegaard impresses this season with Real Sociedad, he will be given a chance at first-team level at the Bernabéu next season, by which time he will be approaching 22, a more realistic age to be breaking into such a star-studded squad.
That Real Madrid, a club famed for expensive quick fixes, see a genuine future for him and have remained patient when it would have been easy to give up on the project suggests that Ødegaard made the right call. As his former coach says: “Every player needs to feel what is right for them, and what they believe in.” Ødegaard certainly still believes.
Playing for Real Sociedad will be a step up from the Eredivisie, but there is no reason to doubt any party who conducted the deal. Having made consistent progress in the Netherlands, Ødegaard will now have the chance to acclimatise in Spain, where his long-term future lies, negotiating a jump up in standard and slowly helping him come to terms with an increase in scrutiny that will come from the Spanish media, with his closer proximity to the capital.
Young players in his hometown, Drammen, and indeed all across Norway, already view Ødegaard as an inspiration, but it might not be long until the wider football community sees him in the same light. Martin Ødegaard is still very much on the pathway to becoming the latest Real Madrid – and Norway’s first – world-class global superstar.
By Matt Addison @MattAddison97