At just 16 years of age, Martin Odegaard will become the first Norwegian to play for Real Madrid. But that only partly explains why his decision to join the Spanish giants has dominated the news agenda in Norway this week. Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Barcelona and Ajax all wanted him. Instead he signed for the biggest club in the world, the reigning European champion, and the one side where it would probably be hardest of all to become a regular starter.
So was it the right decision? At every level, the popular opinion seems to be that it was. In a poll of 30,000 fans conducted by Norwegian newspaper VG, 73 percent of respondents agreed that it would be impossible to turn down Real Madrid. Norway's national team coach Per-Mathias Hoegmo spoke of his pride that Real Madrid had turned to the teenager whom he called up to the senior national side last autumn. At his former club, Stromsgodset, sports director Jostein Flo insisted the deal was right for all parties.
“He has outgrown us and needs to be at a higher level to progress,” he told Noregian tabloid Dagbladet. “We are incredibly proud to be a part of his career and we are going to miss him. But it will probably be a bit calmer around here now.”
(Another tabloid interviewed all the other Martin Odegaards it could find in the phone directory, including a 67-year-old composer who said: “I’m as unlike a football player as it’s possible to be.”)
Now dubbed ‘Pequeño Galáctico’ (meaning ‘the smallest galactico’), Odegaard will start training with Real Madrid’s B side, Castilla, which is coached by Zinedine Zidane. Odegaard may join the senior side later this season. He spoke confidently at his press conference while not setting any targets, making sure he did not put himself under pressure. Under more pressure, that should say: the cost of the deal has not been revealed but reports in Norway say it could go up to $9 million if certain targets are met. His salary is a reported $90,000 per week.
There is also the risk that Odegaard moved too early. A youth team coach at Ajax once told me of the frustration that he feels when he sees young players in his side move to ‘bigger clubs’. Last year, he saw two players expected to reach the Ajax first-team by the age of 18 leave: Timothy Fosu Mensah, 17, to Manchester United, and Javairo Dilrosen, 16, to Manchester City.t
“We can guarantee players a clear path to the first-team, and often if they leave, they end up back in Holland four years later playing at a lower level,” he said.
The Odegaard situation is not quite the same. Firstly, the player is said to be unusually mature and grounded for his age. The team around him, including his dad Hans Erik and advisor Tore Pedersen, are smart and have good football knowledge. Hans Erik was assistant coach of Mjondalen, a tiny team that defied the odds to win promotion to the Norwegian top division last season.
So it's not totally out of whack that Real Madrid hired him as a youth coach in addition to acquiring his son.
“These guys made the visits to lots of clubs, trained with good teams, spoke to all the coaches and then made their decision,” Lars Sivertsen, a Norwegian football writer, told SI.com. “For anyone outside Team Odegaard to say that’s the wrong decision, well, you’d have to be arrogant to think you know better than them. It might not fit into the popular image of what Real Madrid is like as a club, but if they got a good feeling, then it’s not for us to question it.”
Odegaard does fit as a Real Madrid signing: Is there a more famous 16-year-old player in the world right now? In his own way, Odegaard already is already a superstar, or at least, the most recognizable global player in his age group.
Sivertsen expects Odegaard to be involved in the senior squad sooner rather than later. Hans Erik always said that wherever they end up, they want first-team involvement. “It would also be strange to tuck him away after such a high-profile signing,” he said.
If Odegaard succeeds in Spain, the impact in Norway will be huge. The popular wisdom is that certain factors hold Norway back on the biggest stage: the small talent pool, the cold weather, wealth that doesn't produce ‘hungry’ players. From this small talent pool -- and a decent-sized house in Drammen -- comes Odegaard, who turned his back on computer games to spend more time on the training field. He is skillful and technically gifted. There is no barrier to Norway producing more like him.
Now he just has to start playing.