Martin Odegaard has been burdened with expectation his entire life.
Erling Haaland is now the undisputed Norwegian wonderkid, but despite just being a year older than his international team-mate, Odegaard has carried that title for much longer.
Odegaard has been a YouTube sensation, a gossip column fixture and a footballing curiosity before he even signed his first professional contract.
From humble beginnings in Drammen, the midfielder was sling-shotted into stardom by his unique talents.
The early days of his career are littered with records, glowing reviews and excitement.
After coming off the bench to make his debut and turn the game around against Aalesunds for boyhood club Stromsgodset, his manager Ronny Deila called him “the greatest talent I have seen.”
He was just 15 years and 118 days old.
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That wasn’t even when he came onto the radars of Europe’s biggest clubs. That came when he was 14.
“He has offers from two clubs in Italy and from one club in Spain,” his father, Hans Erik Odegaard, told Josimar in December 2014. “Otherwise, you can probably just start listing top clubs that have announced their interest.”
After a brief but sparkling few seasons for Stromsgodset, which included five goals and seven assists in 23 appearances, it was Real Madrid who beat around 30 clubs in the race for his signature.
It was a move trumpeted as the start of a long and illustrious career with Los Blancos. But six years later Odegaard has moved on, joining Arsenal on a four-year deal after making just 11 appearances for Real.
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Odegaard trained with Liverpool and Bayern Munich – and visited Arsenal – before signing with Real Madrid in January 2015.
To complete the deal, Real had to pay Stromsgodset an initial £2.3million plus give the assurance of more to come via add-ons.
They promised the 16-year-old could train with Carlo Ancelotti’s first team, even though he would play for the club’s B team. Meanwhile, according to Spanish media, Real Madrid were prepared to offer Odegaard’s dad a coaching role with their youth teams.
While Odegaard was still a teenager and insisted his goals were modest – “to become a better footballer,” he said at his unveiling – the pressure to succeed was clear.
Real’s self-assured reputation as the “biggest club in the world” and the glare of the media meant both sides were under pressure to turn this uncut diamond into a high-end piece of jewelry.
“It was a bit crazy at that time to be honest,” Odegaard told BT Sport in March.
“I was so young so I didn’t realise what was going on. When you have Real Madrid behind your name there are always going to be high expectations.”
Bumps in the road
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The expectations may have been high but, as is so often the case, the reality was different.
Odegaard training with Ancelotti’s first team for five days a week and then being parachuted into Zinedine Zidane’s Castilla B team did not go down well.
The 16-year-old mixed with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale every week before competing in the Spanish third tier against the likes of Barakaldo and Las Palmas B.
It was not a successful compromise – and it only took three months for things to unravel.
Castilla lost four matches in succession and Zidane decided to drop the Norwegian star.
Although Ancelotti kept reiterating to the media that patience was required, negative reports inevitably followed.
A report in AS in early April 2015 claimed that ‘backroom staff feel that with Odegaard in the side Castilla play more like a team of 10 players’.
It went on to say that ‘some players have complained that the teenager can’t be bothered with his Castilla teammates and is only interested in being alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.’
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Odegaard picked up further headlines – this time for the right reason – when he was given his first-team debut in Real’s final game of the season against Getafe. In doing so, he became the youngest debutant in the history of the club, aged just 16 years and 157 days old.
The 2015/16 season was more settled with Castilla and, 679 days after signing for the club, he made his full debut for the club in a Copa del Rey tie against Cultural Leonesa.
It did not prove to be a sign of things to come and, after five goals in 62 third-tier games for Castilla, he was sent away from the club.
Life as a loanee
By January 2017, it was felt Odegaard would benefit from a loan move. Heerenveen were chosen and the youngster moved to the Netherlands.
The idea might have been to get him away from the spotlight and reduce the amount of pressure on his 18-year-old shoulders. But, try as they might, Odegaard was still a big fish in a relatively small pond – even if just by reputation alone.
His first press conference commanded more television cameras than Heerenveen manager Jurgen Streppel had ever seen.
“This is a special day for us,” Heerenveen’s technical director Luuc Eisenga told Norwegian broadcaster TV2.
“We have had great players here before, but that such a talent has chosen to come here feels really special. This is a talent that will improve the entire league.”
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Odegaard’s special status was underlined further by a question at his unveiling. A Dutch reporter asked the teen sensation what he thought of his wonderkid label.
“It is up to others to call me that,” the wonderkid replied. “I’m just a normal boy.”
There were three assists and one goal in his 16 Eredivisie appearances in the second half of the 2017/18 season as Heerenveen finished eighth.
He contributed two goals and one assist in 24 matches the following season and was rewarded with another loan, this time to Vitesse Arnhem.
Although it may have looked like a sideways step, it proved a good one for Odegaard, who starred with nine goals and 12 assists in 35 Eredivisie appearances as Vitesse finished fifth.
Finding his feet
The time then came for a return to Spain, but not with Real Madrid. Instead, Real Sociedad took him on loan – and they were delighted with the results.
Odegaard was fantastic in San Sebastian, picking up four goals and six assists in La Liga and helping the club win the 2020 Copa del Rey.
He was one of the best players in the Spanish top flight and even helped to knock his parent club out of the Copa del Rey.
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Real Sociedad did not want to lose him and his impact was such that it took a player of David Silva’s quality to replace him.
“Martin gave us so much on the pitch with his goals, his assists, his presence,” Real Sociedad defender Nacho Monreal told The Guardian .
“We were left a bit orphaned when he went but the club dealt with that very, very well, and above all very fast. In less than two days we had gone from losing Odegaard to signing Silva.”
Odegaard returned to Real Madrid where a calf injury and coronavirus got in the way of further progress, before Arsenal came calling in January.
Two goals and two assists in 20 appearances across the Premier League and Europa League don’t tell you much about his time in north London.
The fact Arsenal wanted to shell out £30m, give him a four-year contract and build the team around him, echoing that of another Real Madrid signing – Mesut Ozil – back in 2013, tells you much more.
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Now, having finally shaken off the wonderkid tag and having landed at a club where he feels wanted, Odegaard may be able to settle and play his natural game.
Odegaard has always looked up to his father, Hans Erik Odegaard, who played 260 matches for Stromsgodset and has shaped his outlook on the game.
“Dad has never talked about winning, about being the best,” Odegaard told Josimar seven years ago.
“It has only been about development. About getting a little better all the time. It should be fun, stress-free, harmless.
“He always says that it is not dangerous to make mistakes. He wants me to make a mistake and to try again. He has always encouraged using the ball.”
Odegaard showed glimpses of that approach in the final stages of the 2020/21 season. Arsenal will be hoping there is much more to come.