It’s the stuff of boyhood dreams.
Whilst mere mortals pretend to be their idols on PlayStation or Xbox, Norwegian wonder-kid Martin Ødegaard has joined them for real.
At sixteen years of age and already a full international, the teenage prodigy had his choice of Europe’s top clubs before agreeing a £40,000 per week deal to join Ronaldo, Rodriguez, Ramos, Bale and Benzema at European champions Real Madrid.
The long list of suitors for his signature included Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund alongside Real’s city neighbours Atlético. Arriving at the Santiago Bernabeu from hometown club Strømsgodset for an initial fee of just £2.3m; Ødegaard will spend the rest of the season with Real’s B team Castilla, under the tutelage of coach Zinedine Zidane in the Spanish third division.
A special talent, with a deft touch, an eye for a pass and the full range of flicks, tricks and pirouettes à la Zinedine Zidane himself; Ødegaard’s smaller frame and ability to carry the ball to the opposition from deep has seen him likened to Lionel Messi. His intelligence on the ball belies his tender age and in 24 games for Strømsgodset, the playmaker scored 5 goals and contributed 8 assists. Playing with the same flair and attacking expression for Real will be an all together tougher challenge but not one the Spanish giants think is beyond him.
Having trained with Strømsgodset’s first team since he was 13, he was still attending secondary school when the now Celtic boss Ronny Deila handed him his professional debut. Ødegaard became Norway’s youngest ever international when he took his bow against the United Arab Emirates in August 2014 at the age of just 15 years and 253 days – beating a record held since 1910. Two months later, he set another record, becoming the youngest player to feature in a UEFA European Championship qualifier in a 2–1 home win over Bulgaria.
Ødegaard clearly has potential to be a great, yet for every wonder-kid who became a worldwide sensation like Lionel Messi, there is a John Bostock or Tom Taiwo, who after initial hype and acclaim, fails to make the expected leap into the upper echelons of the game.
Therein lies the gamble for clubs seeking to snap up the world’s most talented kids. The quest to find the next footballing superstar has seen clubs cast their nets far and wide. As a consequence, efforts to attract the game’s most prodigious talent have effectively become an arms race where preventing a rival from signing a player is as important as using him yourself.
Whilst clubs like Real Madrid can afford to take the risk, make a mistake and move onto the next teenage prodigy, the impact upon young players and their families cannot be quantified in financial terms.
Most conspicuously absent from Ødegaard’s list of suitors was Barcelona who are serving a transfer ban until 2016 for breaking FIFA rules governing the international movement of players under the age of eighteen. FIFA’s rules aim to protect young players from exploitation by agents which in extreme cases have led to claims of human trafficking.
Ødegaard’s father, former Strømsgodset and Sandefjord Fotball midfielder Hans Erik Ødegaard has reportedly landed a coaching role in Real Madrid’s youth set-up. Whilst Carlo Ancelotti can breathe easy for the moment, the club have made a smart move. For a youngster moving to a new country, suddenly immersed in the footballing culture and politics of one of the world’s highest profile clubs, having his family around him to keep his head from being turned by a city with more bars than the whole of Norway can only add to Ødegaard’s prospects.
Cynics may say that Real’s latest signing is just another clean-cut poster boy, bought to sell shirts and satisfy the club’s Zidanes y Pavones policy and perhaps the most important test for Ødegaard will be how he copes with the constant pressure and media scrutiny of playing for a club where winning major titles is an obligation. Tags like “the new Messi” only add to the circus of expectation. As well as physical strength, the youngster will need to build mental fortitude.
Many factors including luck with injuries and his ability to adapt to a new language and culture will ultimately determine his fate. Only time will tell whether the teenage prodigy can fulfill his potential and become a fully-fledged footballing icon in his own right.
Having completed his schooling in Norway, Martin Ødegaard’s football education will now continue in Madrid.