There was a football pitch in Drammen. But like most other outdoor pitches in that part of Norway, it was made of hard gravel: built for durability rather than control or technique. So in 2005, Hans Erik Ødegaard and about a dozen other parents simply forked out £50,000 to build a state-of-the-art all-weather surface, just a few hundred yards from the lavish villa he shared with his family.
Money wasn’t a problem. The Ødegaards ran a chain of high-street clothing stores and Hans had been a professional footballer in his younger days. But he had even grander ambitions for his son di lui, Martin, who even at the age of six could shoot a football at 40mph and possessed an unusual and extravagant range of skills. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but the artificial grass that Hans was paying for might as well have been a red carpet, spiriting his son to the most exclusive enclosure of the professional game.
And so when Mikel Arteta speaks of the “very specific development process” that has led Martin Ødegaard to this point, he is speaking about more than talent and hype, the journey that takes a ferociously gifted young footballer to Real Madrid at the age of 16 and the captaincy of arsenal at 23. Perhaps the most interesting part of the Ødegaard story is the way it upends the usual footballer narrative of triumph over adversity, of conquering insurmountable odds. Almost from the moment he could kick a ball, there was a predestination to Ødegaard’s rise, a career mapped out with the precision of a business document, the sense that if everyone worked hard and did their jobs, this would be the only logical conclusion.
You can almost see it in the way he plays: that luxurious extra second he seems to enjoy, the way he glides across the pitch as if on wheels, the lack of stress and struggle with which he receives the ball in the most crowded area on the pitch. Individually and collectively this has been Ødegaard’s best season, and even the team around him could have been hand-picked to expedite his talents: speed and movement, youth and hunger, the best available training facilities and support network, a coach teaching him new tricks every day.
If it all feels inevitable now, then of course there were moments when it was anything but. There was the bumpy landing at Madrid, who signed him for £2.3m and a litany of bespoke clauses: guaranteed training time with the first team, guaranteed game time, a coaching job for Hans in the academy. “A PR signing,” Carlo Ancelotti, the then manager, would later call it. There was the whirling carousel of loan moves: Heerenveen and Vitesse in the Dutch league, before a breakthrough season at Real Sociedad. Then back to Madrid, and the long waiting game. “I’ve told Ødegaard that there are eight players in his position,” said Ancelotti, by now back for his second spell at the club.
The path from stardom to obscurity is well trodden. Alen Halilovic – once the new Lionel Messi – is back in Croatia playing for Rijeka. Gaël Kakuta, feted as the new Zinedine Zidane, is playing Ligue 2 football with Amiens. Freddy Adu – the new Pelé at 15 – is 33 and searching for his next club. What claimed Ødegaard’s career amid a torrent that has claimed so many others? Perhaps, ultimately, it is that original conviction, one founded not in what one can do with a football but what one can do with the self: an almost religious faith in one’s own salvation, the idea that the destination is forgotten and every setback merely takes you a step closer.
“He is very strong mentally, has great self-confidence and can play consistently for a long time,” Leonid Slutsky said after managing Ødegaard at Vitesse. “He takes care of himself, eats properly and is hyper-professional. Almost like a robot. Martin has one of the highest levels of professionalism I’ve ever seen.”
A little luck helps, of course. Had Madrid’s finances not been decimated by Covid then there might not have such an urge to sell in the summer of 2021. Ødegaard could easily have squandered his first years in the Madrid store cupboard, watching Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Fede Valverde play him out of a career. The club he joined, meanwhile, were not the broken home they had been for much of the previous decade. There was a direction of travel, a restless energy, a project to build and a midfield to gild. And perhaps one of the reasons Ødegaard is such an effective mentor to Arsenal’s young stars is that he was once one himself: a man who knows what it is to have photographers turn up at your school, who has walked the fire-walk of hype and expectation and early hunger and emerged not weakened but strengthened by the process.
Ødegaard is now captain of Norway as well as Arsenal. His numbers this season – seven goals and five assists in 16 games – put him alongside Kevin De Bruyne and Bruno Fernandes in the bracket of the Premier League’s best creative midfielders. Going into Sunday’s North London derbies, Arsenal are five points clear at the top of the table. Put like that, it all sounds faintly implausible. For the Ødegaards, however, you get the feeling this was exactly how they planned it.