Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

Euro 2020 qualifiers: why Spain should be wary of the blossoming talent of Martin Odegaard

The precocious Norwegian kid struggled to make his mark at Real, but now the promise that made him such a teenage sensation is finally emerging

Real Sociedad's Martin Odegaard, right, in action against Alaves in La Liga. EPA
Real Sociedad's Martin Odegaard, right, in action against Alaves in La Liga. EPA

In late August 2014, the UAE national team travelled to Stavanger as part of their preparations for the Asian Cup. It was a useful friendly, a respectable 0-0 away draw with Norway, but the visitors found themselves upstaged, cast as bystanders to a record-breaker.

Or, in the case of Eisa Ahmed, not so much a bystander as a faller-by-the-wayside. The defender, in what turned out to be his last UAE appearance, lost his footing rather inelegantly in the first half, as Norway’s man of the match dribbled past him with a neat side-step. It was one of many boisterously confident touches from Martin Odegaard, aged 15.

That day Odegaard became the youngest player ever to represent Norway. Four months earlier, he had set another landmark for preciousness in the top division of Norwegian football, with his debut for Stromsgodset aged 15 and 118 days. He played a full 90 minutes of senior football only four times before he completed the 90 against UAE. By the end of that first cap he was operating like the go-to man in Norway’s midfield, entrusted with delivering dead-balls, startlingly bold and effective with a moving one.

Days after turning 16, Odegaard signed for Real Madrid, the unveiling ceremony an ostentatious affair. Madrid’s then head coach, Carlo Ancelotti later described it as “a PR exercise”; Madrid were eager to boast how they, the European champions, had beaten off interest from Barcelona and Bayern Munich to capture the prodigy and put him on an annual salary of around €3million (Dh 12m).

What was less clear was where Madrid would put Odegaard in their hierarchy. He was named in the Champions League squad, trained regularly with the first-team but played for the reserves, Castilla, then coached by Zinedine Zidane.

When, a few weeks in, Zidane dropped Odegaard from the Castilla XI, it made headlines. But when, in the last match of the league season, he appeared for Ancelotti’s first XI, coming on as a substitute for Cristiano Ronaldo, it made for a poignant photo, superhero handing on the baton to 16-year-old wonderkid.

After that, Odegaard withdrew into a gradual, constructive anonymity. He never did turn into the most dazzling teenager to grace the Bernabeu. His half hour as a substitute for Ronaldo remains his sole outing for Madrid’s first team in La Liga, although he did, in late 2016, play a Copa del Rey fixture. By then his sport had turned its gaze to other teenage prodigies, like Renato Sanches, the Portuguese midfielder who is only a year older than Odegaard but, at 18, already a winner, alongside Ronaldo, of Euro 2016.

A few weeks after Odegaard turned 18, Madrid sent him out on loan to Heerenveen in the Netherlands. It looked like a demotion, and it quickly resembled an assault course. Odegaard took his nimble footwork and his reputation as a privileged upstart to the Dutch Eredivisie, and picked up some bruises. Heerenveen kept finding themselves playing 11 against ten, thanks to red cards issued to opponents for fouls on the Norwegian.

All of which were part of an education Odegaard had not accessed at Madrid, where the senior team was at a level too elevated for him, at 16 and 17 years old, and Castilla too junior for an established international footballer. Odegaard consistently maintained he believed in his long-term future with Madrid, and if it seemed like a fading dream through two and a half years in provincial Holland - he went on to another loan spell at Vitesse Arnhem - it now looks like his judgement and his patience were wise.

The more Madrid monitor the progress of Odegaard at 20, the more he looks less like PR exercise than outstanding, rounded professional. He signed a third loan contract in August, at Real Sociedad, a step up from the Eredivisie. La Liga evidently suits him. He was voted player of the month in Spain’s top division for September.

On Saturday, in Oslo, Odegaard will win his 21st cap for Norway. He has played every minute of a five-match unbeaten run in Euro 2020 qualifying and contributed decisively, as chief midfield creator, to keeping Norway in the frame for a second-place finish in Group F.

The visitors this weekend are group leaders Spain. Nearly five years after joining Real Madrid, Odegaard will, at last, start a competitive game on the same pitch as Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal, men on the same Madrid payroll as he is, though only ever briefly his day-to-day colleagues. They remember vividly all the fuss over Odegaard the upstart kid. They should be wary of the young man he has become.

Updated: October 11, 2019 08:12 AM

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