To fully grasp Martin Odegaard's age, consider the fact that he wasn't alive the last time Norway featured in a World Cup. Born little more than 16 years ago in Drammen, a small city southwest of Oslo, he was five months too late to be alive for his nation's run to the last 16 of France 98, though father Hans Erik certainly was. A midfielder for Stromsgodset between 1993 and 2003, Hans Erik is now better known as the man who took young Martin on a very public road show of Europe's top clubs throughout 2014, finally settling on the biggest of them all -- Real Madrid.
Martin's own career started at the same club where dad made his name, and the story reads more like fantasy than reality. His unofficial senior debut for Stromsgodset came when he was 13 years old. Just as any child would be, he was nervous, struggling to sleep the night before when Ronny Deila told him he would play. Stromsgodset lost 5-2 to Mjondalen, though one of Martin's through-balls led to a penalty for his side. Dad Hans Erik had a ringside view: he was Mjondalen's assistant coach.
Martin became the youngest-ever player to participate in a senior game for Stromsgodset, and the records began to tumble thereafter. In April 2014 he made his official debut, coming on for the last 20 minutes in a Tippeligaen match with Aalesund and setting a new age record for the league at 15 years and 118 days old. Dribbling through the Aalesund defence, he assisted Thomas Sorum for the second goal of a 2-0 win. Unsurprisingly, team members and coaches began to speak of him as a unique talent in Norwegian football.
He was still on an amateur contract at that time. The professional deal followed in May, with offers from agents to take him abroad rejected. That same month he scored his first Tippeligaen goal, as 6,427 spectators watched him tuck away the fourth in a 4-1 win over Sarpsborg. Three months later he travelled with the senior Norway national team, gaining a first cap in a 0-0 draw with the United Arab Emirates before he had even made his under-21 debut (that followed in September). In October, he was back with the seniors for an official fixture, turning out in a 2-1 Euro 2016 qualifying win over Bulgaria. Another age record: at 15 years and 300 days old, he is the youngest footballer to participate in a European Championship qualifier.
The end of the year was marked by a tour of Europe's elite. Real Madrid were on the itinerary but in the month of December he also trained with Liverpool and Bayern Munich. Old manager Deila had initially hoped to tempt him with a more sober move to Celtic, where he now manages, but the gleam of 10 Champions League trophies is a difficult one to ignore. In the early hours of Jan. 22, Madrid confirmed they had signed the 16-year-old, a private jet flying him to the Spanish capital from Rygge for his presentation later that day. His time in the Norwegian league lasted an astoundingly short 23 games.
There is one kind of player Madrid love more than any other, and Odegaard fits the bill. A footballer made for the YouTube generation, capable of producing feints, nutmegs, flicks and eye-catching passes in abundance. In Norway he is already widely considered the best footballer to watch in the league, someone whose style is atypical of the nation and whose inventiveness is more fitting of South America than Scandinavia.
Given he's still a schoolkid, the natural course of events would be for superiors to muscle him out of games, but Odegaard's brain quite often overcomes brawn. Players twice his age have been made to look foolish by the way he uses his body to suggest one kind of movement before delivering the exact opposite. His reputation for being a focused young man with exceptionally lofty ambitions suggest he has the right mental assets to make the grade at the elite, though time will tell.
- Mental strength
- Requires physical development
- Questions over defensive responsibility
Dribbling: Aside from the records, this is the main reason the youngster is already a household name in Norway. Shields the ball well and moves it quickly in tight spaces. Has a varied arsenal of resources to call upon in order to wriggle out of pressure. Hard to predict.
Finishing: Has the technical ability and intelligence to become a regular scorer, but unsurprisingly for a 15-year-old, there is room for improvement. Most encouragingly, has a habit of recovering quickly when he misses big chances.
Passing: Has a natural ability to spot a killer ball and doesn't appear to suffer from the selfishness that can hinder other exceptionally talented youngsters. Just how effective he really is in this area will become clearer in the more tactically disciplined world of Spanish football.
Defending: At Stromsgodset, Odegaard was largely freed of defensive responsibility in order to focus his energy on the attack. A harsh learning curve awaits in Madrid.
First touch: Exceptional. Already tried to play one-touch football in Norway. Should have a ball taking part in rondo training with his new teammates.
Application: There is more than luck behind his rapid rise. Beyond obligatory training has put in countless hours of extra work in order to improve his game.
What the experts say
ESPN FC's Rory Smith: "Odegaard may seem an overnight sensation, but there has been hype around him -- in Drammen, anyway -- since he was six, some nine years ago. Those who have watched him say that he is already his team's creative hub; everything Stromsgodset do flows through him."
Quick note to those anticipating the next Adu: Odegaardis stupendously level-headed. His maturity is almost as impressive as his ability.
- Thore Haugstad (@Haugstad1006) January 21, 2015
Until now Odegaard has batted away challenges with apparent effortlessness, but at the root of the records and exponentially growing fame lies hard work and sacrifice. More than his natural ability, that work ethic will be crucial now as he strives to adapt to the tactical demands of a new footballing culture.
If he plays with Real Madrid Castilla in the Segunda B as expected, then it could be something of an eye-opener. Far from glamorous, the Spanish third division is an often-miserable league with plenty of bitter players who won't take kindly to being outdone by a 16-year-old. Though he will already have had something of a target on his head in Norway, the famous white shirt has a habit of bringing out the worst in opponents.
What happens in the summer will be huge. Many have scoffed at Odegaard's decision to join Madrid, but if Castilla get promoted back to the Liga Adelante, then a year or two in the second tier could be the ideal preparation for the first team. Dani Carvajal, Alvaro Morata and Denis Cheryshev are all playing regularly in some of the best leagues in the world after graduating from Castilla in recent years, so Madrid may not have been as risky a pick as some suggest. The ball is in Odegaard's court.