Who is Martin Odegaard and how did he end up at Real Madrid?
Football exists in Norway. It’s even quite popular. While it trails the biathlon and cross-country skiing in TV ratings, it actually beats both in active participation. But outside of Norway, Norwegian football barely exists. For every Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, John Arne Riise, and Henning Berg, there’s a million of Norwegian ballers we’ve never heard of. But apparently there’s one that’s really good. Like really, really good. His name’s Martin Odegaard, he’s 16-years-old, and he just signed for Real Madrid.
Martin Odegaard is virtually unknown. Although any 16-year-old who’s both the youngest player to have played for both a country’s domestic league as well as their national side (with whom Odegaard has three senior caps), has already gained a certain amount of fame. But, like with Norwegian football, Odegaard didn’t carry much clout with his name outside of his nation’s borders until this past week. In fact, if you’re not an elite-Euro-scout or a diehard Euro-footie-snob, you probably had never heard of the former Stromsgodset midfielder before your Twitter timeline started going bezerk on January 21st proclaiming that Real Madrid have just signed “the next Messi.” Yes, the Messi comparisons have already started, though they’re surprisingly not that ludicrous. But if we’re really trying to nail on a strict, unspectacular comparison, Barcelona’s 18-year-old Croatian wunderkind Alen Halilovic comes the closest.
Halilovic was 2014’s Odegaard, signing for the Catalans as an 17-year-old prodigy set to develop into a genie in the world’s most coveted youth academy, La Masia. The signing seemed unfair but shrewd for Barca, who had already been stockpiling young, creative playmakers in their barracks for years.
Odegaard closely resembles Halilovic: both creative attacking midfielders, both left-footed, both swift on their toes. Even the moppy, blond, boy band hair-do is consistent between the two. If the two differ anywhere, it’d be on flair. Despite his previously professed love for Messi, Odegaard has certainly studied clips of his new teammate Cristiano Ronaldo; this new video compilation released on Real Madrid’s official YouTube page might even have you believing the Croqueta is his soulmate. I promise you, there’s more to him than just tricks.
However, flair doesn’t necessarily transmit to technique. Halilovic is extremely sound in that department, and has also been working alongside the expertise of Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Busquets over the past year. Though Halilovic came from Dinamo Zagreb — a historically more noteworthy team than Odegaard’s Stromsgodset — Odegaard’s transfer cost Real €3 million, nearly a million more than Halilovic cost Barca. Until both players compete for an extended amount of time in Liga Segunda, or if we’re lucky La Liga, it’s futile parsing who’s worth what.
Of course, the comparisons to Halilovic shouldn’t be overstated. They’re two completely different young men with their own individual journeys. In fact, Odegaard also could’ve signed for Barcelona. They offered him a La Masia contract, but despite the young man’s adoration of the Catalan club, in the end it was Real who offered the more lucrative deal. According to Bleacher Report’s Duncan Castles, Real were willing to pay Odegaard €2.2 million-per-year, far more than Barcelona’s moderate academy pay-structure allows. Additionally, Real offered to take on Martin’s father Hans Erik, an accomplished ex-professional footballer and manager, as a youth coach to help with his son’s development.
Odegaard’s immediate future looks to be at RM Castilla, Real’s B side managed by Zinedine Zidane — another player he’s been likened to — where he’ll play for the remainder of this campaign. Starting next preseason, he’s expected to begin training with the first-team. Of course, his future beyond that point all depends on how well he responds to the massive task of performing amongst, not only grown men, but the most gifted footballers in the world. Setting the Tippeligaen ablaze is well and good, but dethroning the likes of James Rodriguez, Isco, and Luka Modric is a different story.
As fate would have it, Halilovic’s presence — among many others — at Barca likely played a major role in Odegaard’s decision to venture to the capital over Catalunya. The Croat is only one of a bevy of talented playmakers and attackers currently brewing in La Masia, waiting for their opportunity to catapult to the first team. In addition to Halilovic, Joan Roman, Sergi Samper, and Adama Traore are all queued up. Then you have those who’ve already made it to the first-team, but are still waiting for legends like Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez to give up their seats; players like Rafinha, Sergi Roberto, Gerard Deulofeu, and Denis Suarez (on loan at Sevilla). The waiting list is everlong at Barca, making the chances of even sniffing a chance scaringly thin. Due to Real Madrid’s lofty transfer policy, not many players graduate from the Castilla to the big show — not unless you’re a teasing foreign purchase bought with that exact course in mind.
At Odegaard’s unveiling, ex-Real Madrid legend and current club chief Emilio Butragueno even admitted that the Norwegian could be available for the first team at any time:
“Martin will train with the first team and with Castilla, and he will play for the Castilla until the end of the season, but if Carlo Ancelotti wants to call him up to the first team, he will be at the coach’s disposal.”
There’s a purveying thought that Real Madrid simply don’t care much about the Castilla and that Florentino Perez’s Galactico spirit is omnisciently domineering at the Bernabeu. That’s only partially correct, which means, due to the nature of omniscience, it isn’t correct at all. Just as Los Blancos’s ten European Cups weigh on the minds of the Barca establishment, the universal reverence of La Masia surely hangs over Real. The fact remains that developing a world-class youth academy is terribly difficult. Therefore, having a bright young talent choose the Castilla route — even if only for six months and even if only because his wallet will thicken from it — means they’ve managed to oneup their idealistic counterparts on a footballing matter. It may seem like a small victory, but when you spend everyday combatting the recent legacy of “the greatest team of all-time,” even the minute wins matter.
But you still must question whether or not this decision is healthy for either party. Sure, Real Madrid are swimming in cash, and the future of one 16-year-old shouldn’t make or break anything within the club, but I’m not so sure. Yes, they seem to have pipped Barca by securing Odegaard’s signature, but what have they really done in the process? Well, they’ve confirmed that the respectable ideals being championed at La Masia are not ideals they feel to be important. While Barca were willing to forego the acquisition of a young starlet in order to maintain their club’s principles, Real proved that they don’t have principles, at least not the moralistic kind. They further proved that by putting the care of their youth in the hands of their new signing’s father, a move that’s most bewildering.
That’s why this whole piece of business has been befuddling. It’s clear that the powers-at-be at Real Madrid care very little about how their trophies are obtained, just as long at the cabinets full come May. Equally, it’s clear that Martin Odegaard — or more appropriately, Martin Odegaard’s father — cares very little about that same things. The bank accounts will bloom for both parties, that’s for sure. But who’s looking out for the health of the footballing structure? Other than Hans Erik Odegaard.
But perhaps that’s far too cynical of a take regarding such a delightful player. This video compilation shows Odegaard being interviewed in multiple settings over the span of his breathtaking breakout season with Stromsgodset. At 3 minutes and 45 seconds, Odegaard is asked by a Norwegian reporter if his goal celebration — in which he holds up an “X” with both index fingers — means anything special. Odegaard replies, “The ‘X’ represents the unknown.”
Martin Odegaard’s extended future is unknown, in the same way that the future of any 16-year-old is unknown. But when you see the youngster feverishly scuttle his way through a batch of powerless defenders en route to unleashing a bombastic rocket from his left boot that no goalkeeper in the world even deserves to touch, you’re left thinking, “this kid is amazing.” That much, I know for sure.