Martin Ødegaard’s decision to join Real Madrid after an enormous period of deliberation, hype and tours around Europe’s biggest clubs may have dragged on for an age to us, but the last few months must’ve absolutely flown by for the 16-year-old Norwegian. Relatively unknown at home in Scandinavia back in April when he made his first-team debut for Strømsgodset IF, things have spiralled to a level which not even he could have dreamed of back then.
But that’s what happens if you’re an absurdly talented young footballer, apparently – and it’s not difficult to see why the excitement over him has grown to enormous levels. A quick, left-footed attacking midfielder with a real elegance about him, Ødegaard’s technical ability and game intelligence is of a level previously unseen in the Tippeligaen. News of him spread like wildfire as he cemented a regular place in the team, and soon after as many as 30 clubs had scouts watching him in one game alone; it was quickly realised that this guy is the genuine deal.
What helps to distinguish Ødegaard from a lot of youngsters who look promising at such a tender phase of their development, or at least acts as a disclaimer to those who are not expecting him to achieve the big things he’s being hyped towards, is his stature. Many players who stand out from their peers at this sort of age are often physically superior in some way or other; whether it be through their pace, strength or height – what you could describe as ‘a misleading fast-track to success’, almost.
That’s not to suggest that athleticism isn’t important in football, far from it, but rather that it can act as a mask for a player’s true talent. Being physically developed beyond your age is particularly useful in youth football, but it’s an advantage which in most instances isn’t sustainable and eventually disappears when playing alongside players who are older and more experienced. Technique and understanding of football, however, are much more transferrable (and necessary) skills across age groups and finally into professional football. Ødegaard has all of that in abundance.
Having impressed in the first-team in Norway already and with his game very largely orientated around those aforementioned more transferrable abilities, there should be no doubts over Ødegaard’s ability and the possibility of success. What it comes down to then after that, as it does for players who are looking to make the big step up to a long-term professional career, is whether the talent is honed properly or not. And a large portion of that is reliant upon the level of coaching and the player’s own mentality.
Being unable to properly manage high pressure situations with the quick flurry of fame surrounding them is something which has ruined countless numbers of players’ seemingly promising futures. Whether through feeling that pressure or getting distracted by their early success and thinking they’ve already made it, it’s always a possibility that they get overwhelmed: and like with any young player that shouldn’t be ruled out for Ødegaard.
It would be a little difficult to blame him completely if he did though really; it can’t be easy to keep your feet on the ground after becoming a regular at club level and the youngest ever Norwegian international when he was 15 years of age. At Strømsgodset IF he was perceived as their own saviour, their superstar – or at least “the nearest thing we have” to one as his former coach David Neilsen put it. He was at that time, so to speak, a big fish in a small pond.
Now he’s very much the opposite of that. There was a lot of pressure placed upon him in Norway as mentioned, which it must be said that he coped remarkably well with, but that was largely out of the global limelight in a low profile league with little media coverage surrounding it – La Liga, and Real Madrid in particular, is a very different story. Everyone has heard of Real Madrid.
What bodes well for him though, despite the differences which he will encounter in his new environment, is that he has done absolutely fine with keeping his head screwed on so far. Great maturity has been displayed in his performances on the pitch and with interviews off it, and care was evidently taken by both he and his father Hans Erik Ødegaard (who is now also a coach at Real Madrid as part of the agreement) over the decision as to which of Europe’s super clubs he would opt to join. His so-called ‘grand tour’ became somewhat tedious to many, even dubbed as an extended marketing ploy, but that was largely due to the media following rather than a deliberate strategy by his party to raise his personal profile.
That profile has been built up largely enough through performances on the pitch though, so don’t be mistaken; this visiting of numerous teams was just necessary to ensure that the most suitable environment was picked for a youngster’s development as it should be. It would’ve been easy for a decision to be rushed straight away for whatever reason, but it wasn’t. So it seems that pretty much the whole package is there; the ability, the mentality, and the guidance.
That then leaves the question as to whether Real Madrid is really the best choice of environment for him to develop in, though right now that’s a difficult – if not impossible – question to properly answer. The initial reaction of most to that query is a no, however, a conclusion largely derived from the fact that the record of developing young talent at La Fábrica for their own first-team over the last decade or so is hardly an inspiring one, especially when compared to clubs like Ajax and Benfica where his development would seem more assured.
As the whole Galácticos policy demonstrates, consistency, delicate management and youth promotion go against the very priorities of a club who just recently topped the Deloitte Football Money League for the 10th successive year. Ángel Di María, one of their most vital components of the side who finally won La Décima, was pushed out of the door (albeit partly due to wage demands) in favour of a shiny, new, more marketable commodity in James Rodríguez (not forgetting his obvious talent, of course) after his profile was raised staggeringly from a tremendous World Cup. And everyone knows the Claude Makélélé story.
Real Madrid’s preference towards ‘new toys’ may be of some benefit to Ødegaard, however; at least in securing his initial breakthrough anyway. Given the amount of press coverage which has been devoted towards him in the last few months across Europe, and the fact that the Norwegian leagues are hardly televised regularly around the continent, people will be desperate to catch glimpses of someone who’s tipped as a future global superstar. Ødegaard is in big demand, and it’s not often that Real Madrid fail in an opportunity to show off and garner any publicity that they can muster.
Impress enough in those potential first-team chances and their new ‘mini-Galáctico’ is bound to get more opportunities later on. And if he isn’t afforded the chances and it’s decided that Ødegaard simply isn’t ready for first-team football as of yet, then so be it – that could be what’s best for his development. It’s just a case of finding what level is best for him right now. And that’s where Real Madrid Castilla comes into play.
Managed by Zinedine Zidane, a figure who Ødegaard touted as a real influence on him and a reason for his choice of moving to Spain’s capital, Castilla are currently in the Segunda División B, or the third division of Spanish football. Though this obviously isn’t the level which Ødegaard will want to be playing at for a sustained period of time, Real Madrid’s B team offers regular (and most importantly) competitive football for him in some manner whilst being in the constant presence of very highly trained coaches and top quality facilities (which he didn’t necessarily have in Norway).
At the moment they are well in the race for promotion too, sitting second (and level on points with first-placed Huesca) in their regional group, and if they can secure promotion up to the second tier for next season then that will be a much more preferable standard for Ødegaard to be operating at. Should they fail to get promoted, there is talk circulating of an agreement between the club and his father that he will be moved to the first-team instantly; a move taken to seemingly ensure he doesn’t end up getting stuck in the third tier without proper opportunities. Either way it seems likely that he’ll be training with the first-team though, and promisingly the terms seem to be in place to ensure that he is gifted exactly what is needed for him the most.
Alongside over-exposure and enormous pressure, the other side of the coin for that Galácticos policy is the biggest concern for Ødegaard’s – playing time. Should he not impress early on or Real Madrid give up with waiting, it could stunt his growth significantly. But if he’s given what he needs, keeps mentally grounded and continues to develop at the rate which he is now, his extraordinary and undeniable talent should see him thrive in the future as one of the greats in the world of football.