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THE CURIOUS CASE OF MARTIN ØDEGAARD

Martin Ødegaard was once regarded as the brightest prospect in football, but that tag has been swept away. Now, after a flurry of temporary moves elsewhere, there is hope he can reignite his career and shoot back into stardom.

Season upon season, year upon year, clubs worldwide battle it out in the fight to claim their share of football’s greatest up and coming talent. Teenage prospects at an age where putting pen to exam papers as opposed to contracts with multi-thousand weekly wages come much more naturally, and as a result, the stress of revision with sights set on college or university bares nothing in comparison to having the world’s eyes set on you.

Of course, this is not me talking through personal experience, unless you count playing in front of a crowd of 200 in the Hull Boys’ Under 16’s Cup Final. After all, a capacity of 200 felt like 20,000 at that age. ‘That age’ being the same age Martin Ødegaard became the Norwegian top flight’s youngest ever debutant, aged 15.

There’s a month between me and the Norwegian, so comparing his achievements to mine is easy and, unfortunately, even easier for me to feel completely and utterly inferior when doing so. The same season he made his debut, Ødegaard went on to contribute to score five goals and assist seven in 23 league matches for a Stromsgodset side who finished fourth in Tippeligaen. I did score five that season though, from left back as well. I can’t help feeling aggrieved at the lack of Real Madrid interest in hindsight!

Anyway, enough about our stark similarities at 15, Godset’s final fixture of the 2014 season, Ødegaard’s last appearance for the club was away at Rosenborg, who appropriately enough, have a stadium’s capacity of over 20,000 (17,583 of which was filled that day). They lost 4-1 that day, but their Europa League spot was already confirmed by then, and worldwide discussion of that 15-year-old wonderkid was already in full flow.

Just to add a few more strings to his 15-year-old bow, Ødegaard also became the Norwegian national team’s youngest ever debutant against the United Arab Emirates in August 2014. Two months later, he came on as a 64th-minute substitute in Norway’s Euro 2016 qualifier match against Bulgaria, and in doing so, at 15 years and 300 days, was the youngest player ever to feature in a European Championship qualifier.

Odegaard Norway debut
MARTIN ODEGAARD MADE HIS DEBUT FOR NORWAY AGAINST THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES IN 2014

After bursting onto the scene in spectacular fashion at 15, the opportunities appeared endless for the playmaker. As his 16th birthday came around, he was not the sender of party invites to his friends, but instead, the recipient of training invitations from the likes of Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Manchester City.

Odegaard was destined for greatness, a certified world star, primed to take the footballing world by storm and everybody wanted a piece of it. Did I mention he was only 16? Can you imagine the pressure he had to face? Of course not, it’s impossible to even comprehend.

2015 came around on the back of a preposterous breakthrough year for the youngster, but by this point, Ødegaard was no stranger to the limelight. He had been training with Stromgodset’s first team since the age of 13 and visited training sessions at Bayern Munich and Manchester United the same year. His breakthrough year in 2014 was premature by footballing standards, but on the scale of prematurity, the following year was simply absurd.

Real Madrid came knocking on the door in January and wasted no time in securing his services after he impressed their first and second team coaches, Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane during his trip to the Spanish capital.

Shortly before the transfer was confirmed, Norwegian commentator, Oyvind Alsaker said: “Martin Odegaard is a player who is definitely not going to take off, and who does not believe that the job is done when he signs. He understands what work is waiting. At the same time, Real Madrid will have the next big world star.” The certainty in his words, whether they eventually prove to be true or not, portray the level of belief that the world had in Ødegaard’s ability despite having had such little time to showcase it, and thus, the substantial weight that was carried on the shoulders of a 16-year-old boy.

Ødegaard completed his move to Madrid for a reported fee that stood between €3-4 million, and with that, less than a year after making his senior career debut, his lifelong dream was a reality. In circumstances that occur all too often in modern day football, the transfer was understandable but, unfortunately, done with the intention of denying other clubs the opportunity to sign him rather than focusing on Ødegaard and his natural development as a 16-year-old.

That’s a conversation for another day, however, Odegaard was at Real Madrid: eating breakfast with Cristiano Ronaldo, sidestepping with Sergio Ramos under the tutelage of Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane, what could possibly go wrong?

On his arrival, the prematurity of it all reflected in Ødegaard’s initial treatment. His first competitive appearance for the club was for the reserves on February 8, less than three weeks on from his transfer, however, by that point, he was already training with the first team and was subsequently named in the Ancelotti’s Champions League squad.

Two months down the line and with his first goal under his belt, four successive defeats in which the team scored only once led to Ødegaard falling out of Zidane’s favour momentarily, things were moving all too fast, the language barrier was a problem for the Norwegian, as was adapting to a completely new lifestyle.

Time and patience was needed to nurture him into a more stable form of progression through the ranks, he was struggling with the demands of regular second-team football, so a first-team feature was surely out of the question. Right, Carlo?

Of course not, this is Real Madrid. If it wasn’t enough of a statement to the rest of the world in signing Odegaard, bringing him on for the final half an hour of the season in a 7-3 win against Getafe for him to become the club’s youngest ever debutant certainly was. The Norwegian didn’t have the best start to life in Spain, but with this single publicity stunt, all the doubts and critique over his progression at Madrid were forgotten for the time being.

The following season saw a critical period in Ødegaard’s immediate future at Los Blancos, although, his astounding level of inexperience remained. He played 38 times in Spain’s third tier for Castilla, in a team with an average age of 19 at the start of the season, with 19 months between himself and the next youngest squad member, Miguel García. The winger scored once and assisted seven to help his side to a first-place finish in their group despite ultimately falling short of promotion in the play-offs.

Martin Odegaard debut
ODEGAARD CAME ON FOR CRISTIANO RONALDO FOR HIS REAL MADRID DEBUT AGAINST GETAFE

Nevertheless, it was a crucial season for the teen who looked to be finding his feet, proving his abundance of talent, slowly but surely on his journey through the ranks. The problem is, that isn’t possible at Real Madrid alone. You’re either there or you’re not, you’re either facing Barakaldo in Segunda División B or you’re facing Barcelona in the race for the La Liga title. Ødegaard had reached this level too soon to fit into the master plan effectively, improvements could only be made elsewhere.

Four frustratingly stagnant months later in the wake of the 2016/17 season, Odegaard received the most timely 18th birthday present imaginable. Not an 18 crate of Heineken, but an 18-month Heerenveen loan move; a far cry from the magnificence of Madrid, but some Dutch courage was in order, again, not that kind.

Ødegaard was 18 now and the hype around his move to Madrid was slowly starting to fade as concerns about his potential soon transformed into serious doubt over his future during his stint with De Superfriezen. He featured 40 times in the Eredivisie overall (play-offs included), scoring three times and assisting four on his way. The “next big world star” was now comfortably outside of football’s top 20 teenagers and, to be honest, it was hardly surprising.

Fortunately enough, Odegaard attracted enough attention in Holland to earn himself a move to Vitesse, a club renowned for their resemblance to a rescue home for puppies who have been neglected by their owners, and some TLC was needed to ensure his steady development before he was ready to find a home.

The Norwegian’s career was under threat before his teenage years had passed him by; one season of mediocrity away from being swallowed up into the beautiful game’s unforgiving fissure, and this predicament stemmed from a career up until now of nothing but pressure and disappointment caused by the uncontrollable demands he was faced with, this season was no different.

Players of Ødegaard’s ilk and ability will always, above all, be distinguished by their statistics, and at 19, the Norwegian’s goals and assists tally was far from impressive. 132 games, 13 goals and 20 assists wasn’t appalling but it wasn’t anywhere near the numbers he was expected to produce upon his arrival at Vitesse. Two months, eight matches and no goals on and it looked to be the same old story for the youngster.

Despite his statistical shortcomings, however, things seemed different in yellow and black, the end product wasn’t there but the performances certainly were. The agility and acceleration on and off the ball, the vision, composure and ability to pick a pass regardless of the situation, that wand of a left foot, all those traits we associate with Lionel Messi’s best, all those traits Ødegaard’s repertoire had obtained and confined were finally starting to unfold in front of our eyes.

As the season progressed, the Norwegian became more and more comfortable in flaunting his mesmeric skill and the goals flowed inevitably. Before this campaign, he had managed a total of 33 goal contributions in his career with an average of one every four matches. In the 2018/19 season, he reached double figures for goals and assists (11 goals, 12 assists) from 39 games in all competitions and in doing so, contributed to a goal every 143 minutes (1.59 games).

Netherlands: voetbal, football, Dutch Eredivisie, Vitesse vs FC Utrecht
ODEGAARD HAS ENJOYED A RESURGENCE IN THE NETHERLANDS WITH VITESSE

An extraordinary improvement for the man whose teen years seemed to last forever but as he left those days behind, a new beast was unleashed. If you’ve made it this far you’ll recall me saying his opportunities were endless at 15, and after taking Eredivisie by storm at just 20, the situation hasn’t changed. Perhaps the battle for a place in Real Madrid’s first team can go on hold for at least another year with another loan move looking increasingly likely, but one more season producing at the level he did with Vitesse in one of Europe’s five major leagues and Oyvind Alsaker’s words could well be spot on. Who knows?

If this story tells you anything it’s that no one really knows. Martin Ødegaard burst onto the scene at 15 with the world at his feet, but having shown so little, did nothing to deserve such a premature rise through his rollercoaster youth. Give the player some stability, a platform to showcase his ability, another season at the shallow end before he gets thrown in at the deep end again and you never know, he might turn out to be the player everyone anticipated.

BY BRAD JONES