Martin Odegaard could be the next Lionel Messi, but it's OK if he's not
You have probably heard quite a bit about Martin Odegaard by now. You almost certainly know more about him than you would expect to know about most 15-year-olds.
You will know that he has something of a knack for breaking records, for example: the youngest player to appear in Norway's top flight, the Tippeligaen, for his club, Stromsgodset; the youngest player to represent his nation at senior level; and, as of Norway's 2-1 win against Bulgaria on Monday, the youngest player to take to the field in a competitive European championship qualifier. He is still 64 days shy of his 16th birthday.
You may also know that he has, for some months now, been the subject of quite intense scrutiny from many of Europe's grandest clubs. One scout estimates that as many as 30 have been to Drammen, south-west of Oslo, to see this slight, technically adept, supremely confident midfield player -- compared to Lionel Messi because of his age and his promise much less than his style and his role.
You may know that he was a Liverpool fan as a child, but that such loyalty does not always mean much when the likes of Real Madrid, Chelsea and Bayern Munich are fluttering their eyelashes in your direction. He has already trained with Manchester United, as well as spending time in Germany with Bayern, Borussia Dortmund and Stuttgart.
That is just a snapshot, a highlight reel of a life, albeit a short one. Odegaard may seem an overnight sensation, but there has been hype around him -- in Drammen, anyway -- since he was 6, some nine years ago. He first trained with the senior team at Stromsgodset at 13, and played in a practice game that same year. He was given his competitive debut earlier this year by Ronny Deila, before he moved to Celtic. Those who have watched him say that he is already his team's creative hub; everything Stromsgodset do flows through him.
PLAYERS WHO FAILED TO MAKE IT
1. Nil Lamptey: Hailed by Pele as rightful heir.
2. Wayne Harrison: Once World's most expensive teenager.
3. Diego Latorre: "New Maradona" flopped at Fiorentina.
4. Carlos Marinelli: Middlesbrough's own Maradona.
5. Kerlon: Brazilian best known for his "seal dribble".
6. Freddy Adu: Much Adu about nothing?
There is more. Odegaard's father, Hans-Erik, is a former Stromsgodset player himself, and now functions as an assistant manager and as his son's agent. That means Martin comes not only from one of the richest countries on the planet but from relatively -- though not obscenely -- wealthy stock, too. Mentioning that is not just gossip-magazine tittle-tattle; it is of crucial importance when understanding how Odegaard's career is likely -- or rather was likely -- to play out.
To explain: the plan for Odegaard was a simple one. Despite all the interest from the great and the good of European football, he and his father had decided that the logical next step when he leaves Stromsgodset -- either in January or next summer -- would be to join a mid-range club in the Bundesliga, with the possibility of being loaned back to Norway for a season. He would still only be 16, after all. That is why he went to train not just with Bayern and Dortmund, but the altogether less lofty Stuttgart, too.
According to some sources, the thinking was that he would be able to establish himself as a first-team player there much quicker, settle in to the rhythm of a major European league, and adapt his game as his physique changes, which it invariably will when he has embarked on his professional career at such a young age. He would spend a couple of seasons there before making the leap to one of the game's great houses.
That Odegaard senior and junior could map that career path out is because of the comfort of his upbringing: they had decided that they did not need to listen to agents promising the earth at this early stage. There was no financial imperative to do so.
Things have changed a little in the last two months. Real Madrid, for one, have intensified their courtship considerably; they are already talking about lodging an offer worth around 12 million euros. Odegaard senior has been in consultation with a number of agents; several have suggested that perhaps the original plan was not one they would recommend. It may be that Odegaard (junior) does not take the slow route to stardom. It may be that he goes supernova straightaway.
This would be a bit of a shame. Not simply because young players who go to big clubs tend to get lost in the tumult and end up seeing their careers delayed, rather than accelerated, by aiming too high too soon. That is part of the shame, but only part of it.
No, it would be a shame because it would perpetuate one of football's worst traits: the obsession with, the search for, the identification and commodification of Next and New. The Next Messi. The New Ronaldo. The Next Maradona. The New Pele. The Next Big Thing, the New Star.
So much of football is hope: the hope that the next game will be the next win, the hope that this season will be the season, the hope that this player will be just what you needed. It is understandable to seek promise, to long to have seen something special, to have found the missing piece.
But it is also hugely damaging. It is damaging to the raided club, because selling a player as a teenager is almost invariably less valuable than selling a player at the age of 21 or 22, when they have been given chance to develop. It is damaging -- as outlined above -- to the buying club, because so often the money is not spent wisely, in hindsight. Most of all, though, it is damaging to the player because they may struggle with the pressure. And even if they cope with that, they may not prove to be what they were supposed to be.
The list of players who never quite fulfilled their early promise is a long one, but it might start with Nii Lamptey, Wayne Harrison, Diego Latorre, Carlos Marinelli, Kerlon and, of course, Freddy Adu. Some had personal problems, some injuries, some probably never warranted all of the hype in the first place.
But even those who do manage to forge a career among the elite often do so in a way completely at odds with what they were expected to become.
It will surprise readers less far down life's long and winding road to learn that James Milner, when he first emerged at Leeds United, was not the steady, industrious midfielder he has become. He was exciting, attacking, brave and adventurous. He was a winger, quick and tricky, full of ideas. He became an excellent player, one of the most underrated in England, but he did not become what we thought he would.
Then there are those -- and there is no better example of this than Wayne Rooney -- who seemed to burst into our consciousness fully formed, at the very peak of their powers.
Rooney remains one of the world's best footballers -- top 50, definitely, which is no bad thing -- but it is debatable as to whether today's Rooney is significantly better than the Rooney who scored that goal against Arsenal for Everton, or the Rooney who got a hat trick against Fenerbahce for United. He started at an impossibly high level; he did not have it in him to kick on.
At this stage, it is impossible to suggest which of those paths Odegaard might follow. Indeed, he might follow none of them: he might be like Ronaldo, who has seemingly improved every season since he first broke through at Sporting Lisbon. It is unlikely, but it is not beyond the realms of imagination.
If he does not, though, he faces the unappealing prospect of always being judged for what he might have been, and not for what he is. That is the fate all of these prodigies face if they do not prove to be one of the two or three every generation who touch the stars.
It is only ever exacerbated if they are subject to the scrutiny, the hope, the emotional desperation that comes from a high-profile move so early in their career. It is too late to some extent, of course. Odegaard's fame has spread across the globe, thanks to social media and YouTube. But he can still divert the worst of it. He can still allow his talent to burn slowly, rather than stoking the flames now, and risking burning out.