As Martin Ødegaard took his seat in front of a packed out press room, he could have been forgiven for feeling nervous. The young midfielder was set to speak about the biggest decision of his early career, ending almost a year of intense speculation in the process.
“Real Madrid is the place I could develop myself in the best way,” Ødegaard told the press. “Both in a sports point of view and in my personal life, so it had the best possibilities for me. It’s a dream come true for me. It’s unbelievable. I’m ready for the best club in the world.”
The 17-year-old prodigy had spurned interest from a number of clubs across the continent to join Real Madrid. Undergoing a very public European tour, he sampled life at Ajax, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, to name a few. Eventually settling on the Santiago Bernabéu, he arrived knowing it would be a challenge.
Certainly, many in his homeland were sceptical of his decision to join Los Blancos.
“I was a bit surprised that he went to Real Madrid, but you never know what the whole plan is for him,” Klaus Pettersen, a mental coach who worked with Ødegaard at Strømsgodset recalls to Sport360. “I believe they have good control over the situation. In my opinion, I think Ajax would have been a very good club for him.”
But Ødegaard was convinced he could best develop at Real Madrid, a club at which playing football can be both unforgiving and demanding. It was a level of self-belief that was no surprise to his team-mates.
“His maturity off the field showed he wasn’t the average 15 or 16-year-old,” Minnesota United Jeb Brovsky, who played alongside Ødegaard at Stromsgodset, explains. “It was the essence he brought onto the field. He is a very quiet kid, but his soccer brain is far beyond his years. The calmness he has in his game, the vision, it is something you rarely see in someone that young.”
Initially sent to play with Real Madrid Castilla, the club’s second team then coached by Zinedine Zidane, Ødegaard remained eager to learn from the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez. Consequently the teenager still trained with the first team during the week, splitting his time between the two squads. Often starting games under Zidane, Ødegaard was liked, but not unanimously.
Away from the pitch, the Spanish press used numbers to tear down his performances with Castilla. “Fifty eight per cent of the available points taken before the 16-year-old arrived and 37% percent after,” wrote AS. With Castilla ultimately missing out on a play-off position, critics cited Ødegaard as part of the problem with reports claiming he did not see eye to eye with his team-mates.
“I think we have to remember he has the weight of the world on his shoulders,” says Brovsky. “I always take those things with a grain of salt, as a lot of things can be misconstrued.”
Ødegaard continued to work alongside Zidane until the World Cup winner was appointed as Rafa Benitez’s successor in January. The Norwegian claimed at the time that he had really enjoyed working under Zidane, but his admiration appeared unrequited as he failed to receive any game time under his former Castilla coach.
The summer has been rife with speculation linking Ødegaard with a move away from Madrid. A number of clubs have shown an interest, but reports in Spain indicate the player’s salary, (estimated to be around €1.2m per year) has put off the majority of potential suitors. Elsewhere, there have also been more claims Ødegaard is little more than Florentino Perez’s pet project, with Zidane unhappy at being forced to include him on the club’s pre-season tour of America.
This has definitely been a testing period of the 17-year-old’s career. Still highly regarded in his homeland, Pettersen is confident that Ødegaard can ride the storm.
“I believe this is his toughest battle so far,” Pettersen says. “This is the first time he has faced setbacks for real. But he is mentally strong, and the reason why I say that is because he is humble, and ready to learn. He still has the strength to stay strong when it’s needed. He has an ability to recover quickly from setbacks.”
Surrounded by a cacophony of opinions in Spain, Ødegaard has even seen a former Scandinavian prodigy bestow advice. Speaking in an interview last summer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic suggested it was time for the teenager to ditch his father Hans Erik Ødegaard, who also acts as his agent, and “grow up”.
It was a typically strong response from the Swede and it’s true this summer is an important one for Ødegaard. Linked with a loan move to the Bundesliga last week, the teenager may take comfort from knowing that he has former team-mates watching on, hoping he succeeds.
“Kudos to him it was a big jump, and from what I hear he’s doing well and developing,” Brovsky says. “It takes a lot of courage to do that, and for that I’m proud of him.”
Those that know the teenager believe he will handle his situation with composure regardless of what unfolds. A mature head, resting on young shoulders, it seems he was always prepared for potential growing pains. That’s because long before the Norwegian was sharing a training complex with Ballon d’Or nominees he was talking of his career path, and more specifically he would reach his peak.
“If you get carried away now, you won’t get far in 10 years,” Ødegaard told reporters after being called up to the senior national team in 2014. “I’m supposed to be my best then, not now. That I know.”