Life has moved pretty fast for Martin Odegaard. Already he has been an emerging star heralded for his extraordinary promise, a celebrity signing at Real Madrid, a write-off, a cautionary tale of someone who had too much too soon, and now a remarkable story of resurrection.
He’s still only 20. And on Saturday, he is likely to line up for Norway against Spain, the country where he has spent most of the last five years and against whom he may feel he still has a point to prove.
This season, Odegaard has been a revelation. He joined Real Sociedad from Madrid on a two-year loan (although Madrid could break that early) and has looked almost instantly at home. It’s not just that he’s scored two goals and registered two assists in eight games so far as it’s the poise and authority with which he has played.
His assist for Mikel Oyarzabal’s goal against Alaves was extraordinary. Dropping off the front line, he received the ball with his back to goal and turned, beating a defender as he did so, before slipping a pass between four Alaves defenders, the weight just right to take it beyond the goalkeeper to leave Mikel with a simple finish.
Technically, it was perfect, the pass played precisely and the exact right speed, but what was really striking was the vision even conceiving of such a pass demanded. This, it seemed, was evidence that Odegaard has that rarest of gifts, the capacity to visualize the pitch and everybody on it, and where they may have moved to a few seconds down the line. This, presumably, is what so excited scouts before he made his move from Norway to Spain in 2015.
It’s still early in Odegaard’s second coming and, although it feels faintly ridiculous to say it given what a familiar name he became after the transfer to Madrid, it would perhaps be best not to apply too much pressure too soon.
Young players often develop in fits and spurts, often need rest and protection. It’s slightly alarming in that regard to contrast what’s going on at Manchester United, where Marcus Rashford looks stale at 21, and Daniel James, also 21, is being forced to bear the creative burden in every game, with the way Alex Ferguson treated the likes of Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs.
But whatever pressure Rashford and James are under, Odegaard had it worse. He was aged 15 years and 118 days when he made his debut for Stromsgodset, becoming the youngest player in the history of the Norwegian league. A month later he became the youngest goalscorer in the league’s history.
In 23 matches for Stromsgodset, he scored five goals and registered seven assists. That was enough to attract interest from across Europe, but, of course, it was the most glamorous who won out, with Real Madrid paying a fee of around $3.5 million to sign him.
But why had they signed him? It’s hard to imagine many worse places for a gifted 16-year-old to grow up, particularly when he had become a celebrity by virtue of having joined Madrid at that age. How could he develop when his every touch was virulently scrutinized, when putting him in the first team meant leaving out a superstar?
Carlo Ancelotti, the Madrid manager when he moved, even described the signing as “a publicity stunt.” He ended up playing just 32 minutes of league football. Even playing for the reserves was tough, in part because he was spending some of his time training with the first team and in part because, having joined without knowing Spanish, he found adapting to a new culture extremely difficult.
And so he was loaned out, to Heerenveen and then to Vitesse. For many, that would have been that, flying too high too soon and finding himself burned. He could have been bitter about the way he had been treated, used essentially to suit Madrid’s propaganda purposes rather than with a view to honing his talent. But he seems, remarkably, to have survived, to have had the strength of mind to retreat out of the limelight and learn his trade.
The payoff has come this season. It’s early days yet, and he, of all people, will be aware of the dangers of letting expectation run ahead of reality. But it turns out that Odegaard might actually be an extremely good footballer after all.