If Martin Ødegaard felt self-conscious he wasn’t showing it.
A media circus had descended onto the Norwegian city of Drammen, just under 40 minutes south-west of Oslo, and Ødegaard was the star attraction.
“If you get carried away now, you won’t get far in 10 years,” Ødegaard told reporters after being called up to the Norwegian senior national team in 2014, aged 15. “I’m supposed to be my best then, not now. That I know.”
Almost five months after making his debut for Norway he left Drammen and Strømsgodset to join Real Madrid for a fee in the region of €4 million, amid interest from every major club in Europe.
The pressure was on Ødegaard to produce from the moment he was unveiled by Florentino Perez. The teenager made his first-team debut as a substitute against Getafe before the end of the season, but his first start would not come until 679 days into his time at the club, against Cultural Leonesa in the Copa del Rey, where he was named man of the match.
In between rare forays into the first team Ødegaard split his time between training with the first and the club’s reserve team -- Real Madrid Castilla.
His time with Castilla was polarising. He spent time working under Zinedine Zidane, and in his first full season he produced a respectable 7 assists in 34 games, but press reports painted him as a complicated character that struggled to bond with his teammates and showed indifference towards training with the reserves.
Carlo Ancelotti later wrote in his 2016 book, “Quiet Leadership: Winning Hearts, Minds, and Matches,” that the transfer was a ‘public relations exercise’ by Perez.
“He could be the best player in the world, but I don’t care because he was not a player who I asked for,” Ancelotti wrote.
By now, the narrative trailing Ødegaard was well established. He was on his way to being a failed wonderkid; destined for obscurity. Those that knew him, however, were not concerned.
“His maturity off the field showed he wasn’t the average 15 or 16-year-old,” Jeb Brovsky, a teammate at Stromsgodset, said. “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.”
In January 2017 it was decided Ødegaard’s next step would be in the Eredivisie. He joined Heerenveen on an 18-month loan deal. He once again showed his quality in spells, but his time there would in part be disrupted by two separate foot injuries. Across the entire loan spell, he played 43 games and registered three goals and five assists.
Heerenveen were keen to re-sign him for the next season (Dutch outlets also reported interest from the Championship), but he opted instead to join Vitesse, and it was there that he really began gaining momentum.
Operating primarily on the right as a wide playmaker that cuts in on his left, Ødegaard recorded 11 goals and 12 assists in 39 games. Watching the 20-year-old last season his quality was clear to see. Ødegaard is comfortable in tight spaces and has an eye for a pass, working well as an outlet for Vitesse when in transition from defence to attack.
It is then no surprise that only Hakim Ziyech (six years his senior) averaged more key passes per game in the league last season (source whoscored.com). By the end of the campaign Leonid Slutsky’s side had finished 5th in the Eredivisie, and no Vitesse player had provided more assists, completed more take-ons, or created more chances than Ødegaard. He also posted some of the best defensive pressure numbers in the Eredivisie.
“I don’t know exactly what kind of club would be good for Martin,” said Slutsky, “but he’s 100% ready for another level.”
Ødegaard has since found his next level with Real Sociedad. The Norwegian recently signed a new contract with Real Madrid until 2023 and has now been sent on loan to Real Sociedad until 2021 (with an option to end the loan in 2020) amid interest from the Bundesliga and a failed bid from Ajax.
Speaking to Vitesse TV earlier this year he revealed his dream is to one day return to Real Madrid and play there. In the meantime, he is ready for the test La Liga can offer him.
“I came here because Real Sociedad is a club where the young players are able to develop. This was my decision,” he said. “Real Madrid wanted the best for me and showed a lot of respect. They want me to be happy and to develop into the best player I can be.”
Still calm, still relaxed, Ødegaard is also still only 20. His estimates as a teenager placed the fruition of his talent arriving at the age of 25, but if his progress continues, we may see him back at Real Madrid under the guidance of Zidane even sooner than that.