A Norwegian boy by the name of Martin Odegaard made his professional debut in a Real Madrid shirt on Sunday. Having turned 16 a few weeks back, he was four or five years younger than most of his teammates on the Real Madrid Castilla, the reserve team, as it took on its Basque opponents, Athletic Bilbao B. There was not a man on that field at Alfredo Di Stéfano Stadium in Madrid who was able to match the experience that Odegaard already has — or the $45,000 a week that he is reported to be making, with some stories having him making far more.
He doesn’t train with embryonic players; he trains every day alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos and the rest of the superstars of the first team. Odegaard is among the 23 names that Madrid has registered for the next round of the Champions League — and if the team is in a position to give him playing time in the coming weeks, it is not out of the question he could play against the Germans of Schalke 04.
Odegaard has represented Norway at the full international level for months now. He has played — and scored — in the senior league in Norway since last April, and he has been giving grown men the runaround in training since he was 14.
During his debut game with Stromsgodset, at 15 years and 117 days old, the creative midfielder was able to carve out a goal for a teammate. “He loses three or four guys, and I get to score,” Thomas Sorum, the Stromsgodset striker, told local reporters. “That’s a good deal!”
Courted by big clubs
It is now up to Real Madrid’s managers, Carlo Ancelotti with the senior team and Zinédine Zidane with the developmental squad, to guide Odegaard. And it is up to Ronaldo and company to accept this precocious kid, and so far the stars have made encouraging noises around him. They may see what top scouts and managers have spotted: that this is an exceptional kid. Real effectively won an auction that had gone on for 18 months, though it accelerated once Odegaard turned 16, a week before Christmas. He was by then on his own grand tour with his father, visiting Bayern Munich, Liverpool, the Manchester clubs, Arsenal, Ajax before finally settling on Real Madrid.
Good coaches, among them Norway’s national team manager, Per-Mathias Hogmo, say they are astonished, not simply by Odegaard’s left foot, but by his awareness of everything around him during play and his ability to make the right decision. They say Odegaard is an old head on young shoulders.
Some might ask how is this legal to sign a player so young? Barcelona is banned from buying players until 2016 because it breached a FIFA regulation by signing players under the age of 18 from outside its region. Real Madrid – which doesn’t have Barcelona’s longstanding record of educating youngsters (including Lionel Messi from age 13 on) — is now also being subjected to FIFA scrutiny over the signing of 51 players.
But Real says that it has done nothing wrong and that the youth players under its wing came from properly registered teams or from within the FIFA limit of 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) from the club or from inside the European Union.
Odegaard already had professional status, and Norway is a member of the European Free Trade Association, which counts for the E.U. designation.
It is complicated, it is business, and it is FIFA.
Only time will tell if Odegaard is a shooting star, a shining light like those of the extraordinary auroras in the Norwegian sky. If he is, in fact, a youth way ahead of his years, closer to his peak at age 16 than his teammates are to theirs at age 20. To sustain that peak, as Messi and Ronaldo have done, takes an obsessive amount of dedication that goes beyond the gifts developed from childhood on.