As the Twiteratti were happy to remind us on Thursday, most people were living quite modest lives when they turned 16. The discussion was sparked by Real Madrid’s capture of Norwegian soccer player Martin Ødegaard’s, who at the last check (Friday morning) was 16 years and 37 days old. In a bid to measure up against the teenager’s reported $90,000-a-week salary, users were tweeting about memories from when they were sweet 16. Nobody’s matched up.
Given the frenzy surrounding Ødegaard — which most of have been guilty of feeding into, including Soccer Gods — you would think Florentino Pérez had built a time machine and signed a teenage Pelé; or the Real Madrid president had unearthed the fifth Beatle, someone who set to usher in new era of Hamburg dive bar-inspired soccer.
If publicity was part of the goal in finding Ødegaard a new club, John Lennon and Co. would have certainly been proud of the job done by the prospect’s tour manager, who also happens to be his old man, Hans Erik. A former soccer player in Norway himself, the elder Ødegaard has been very particular about his son’s future. Far from keeping him out of the public eye, he’s been busy building a brand for his teenage son, all while exploring potential landing spots for Europe’s most sought-after teen.
On the pair’s tour, they flirted with Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Liverpool and many more before eventually agreeing to a deal with Pérez and Madrid. Every week, a different club, a new news story garnering clicks; the duo was photographed at most airports within a stone’s throw of a potential Champions League winning club. Hans Erik also took to Twitter himself to ensure Martin was added to Football Manager. Martin was so young, he needed permission from a parent.
Lost in all this is the fact Martin may be a soccer player; a very good one, apparently, even it not that many people can be particularly sure of that. Many of us claim to be experts in the field of Ødegaard in one way or another (I heard of him way before you), but there are probably very few who can say with any honesty that they’ve seen him play a 90-minute match; even fewer who’ve seen ha decent sample (like, beyond a single match); even fewer who have seen him live, in the flesh.
What we do know suggests he can’t be bad. He made his debut for Strømsgodset in Norway’s top flight as a 15-year-old, though he had been training with the club’s first team since he was 13. An international call-up followed, and while still 15, he debuted for his country. Ødegaard’s made two more appearances since.
And then there are the YouTube videos. We will always have that rite of passage to help work out whether we have finally unearthed the new Lionel Messi, though it helps the process when the best videos are named something like “Martin Ødegaard: The New Lionel Messi.”
We also know those in the game have high expectations. Europe’s biggest clubs surely wouldn’t have let themselves be used like a rich kid’s trinkets if that kid wasn’t a little special. Pep Guardiola was said to be smitten, and history tells us the Bayern boss tends to know his soccer.
Yet along with the awkward (if perfectly legal) touting of a teenager around Europe, there’s something uneasy about the final choice. Los Blancos’ effort supposedly superseded everyone else’s — with Zinedine Zidane giving a guided tour, Cristiano Ronaldo dishing out noble advice and Pérez ultimately signing a fat check (dad Hans-Erik has also been given a job with the club’s academy) — but is El Real unequivocally the best bet for his development?
He’ll train with Carlo Ancelotti’s first team this week and play for Zidane’s third-tier Castilla side by weekend, but after his father hinted the priority was to find the best club for his son’s evolution, it feels like he’s reneged on those sentiments. Madrid could prove able to host Ødegaard’s growth, but other clubs may have done it better. Yet those clubs wouldn’t have paid more, which is what it looks to have been the deciding factor.
As for Madrid, the club was determined to land a show pony of its own. As Pete Jenson wrote in The Independent, Perez became obsessed with the idea of developing the next Galactico in-house, having grown tired of paying the rates demanded by the likes of Daniel Levy at Tottenham Hotspur. With Ødegaard, he could have the next
Messi Ronaldo for a mere 3 million euro fee, with incentives possibly lifting that sum to 8 million.
To hit Galactico levels, though, Ødegaard needs to live up to all of that hype, and quickly. Los Blancos want him to be a superstar. They don’t want to develop him for other clubs, like they’ve done with players such as Juan Mata and Álvaro Morata. Nor do they want him to have a question mark above his head like the one following Jesé Rodríguez. Madrid needs him to be Martin Ødegaard, the legend everyone is already reading about. And it needs him to be a legend not in three years, when he’s 19, but now.
With those labels to live up to, and various circumstantial records to be achieved, his opportunity is likely to come sooner than later. Madrid’s director of institutional relations, Emilio Butragueño, says he’s available for Ancelotti whenever he wants him. That gives Ødegaard 60 days to become La Liga’s youngest ever goal scorer; 50 days to become the youngest player to play in the Champions League; and more than 100 days to become the youngest to score in the competition designed for Europe’s upper classes. He’ll never be Real Madrid’s youngest ever player (that’s René Petit, who took his bow as a 15-year-old, when World War I was kicking off), but the other records would provide quick substance to the hype.
If the subject of that hype is feeling overwhelmed by all this, it didn’t show at his presentation on Thursday. Speaking confidently in Norwegian, he explained that he’s an attacking midfielder who likes to touch the ball (aren’t we all?). He seemed relaxed, smiled happily and said that he is not feeling the pressure.
Considering how well he came across, it’s hard not to wish him well. To that end, the story may have had the ending it deserves; at least, this chapter of it, one that is now mercifully over. As clever as the process may have been, the whole European expedition began to feel like a circus: Liverpool impressing with it juggling; Guardiola nimble across the tightrope; Barça still demonstrating its knack for producing elite gymnasts.
Madrid and Pérez may have been proud of that spectacle. It drew quite a crow. In the end, however, cash was all that mattered, part of the reason the 16-year-old is Real Madrid’s newest Galactico.