Martin Odegaard was the youngest Real Madrid player ever but is showing La Liga he's more than a piece of trivia
SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain -- Martin Odegaard has spent his life listening to others talking on his behalf. He's tired of that now.
He's bored of those he doesn't know or respect singing his praises and then writing him off. He's read the comments on social media where he is hailed as the second coming and then derided as a flop. He is aware that for the small amount he talks to the press, there will be a sensationalised headline back home in Norway. He ignores it all.
As we talk at Real Sociedad's idyllic training base in the heart of Basque Country, he shares these frustrations in the most understated way.
"Sometimes it can be [hard being Martin Odegaard]. I just try to focus on myself," he tells ESPN. "When I'm playing football, that's when I'm enjoying life the most. Football is the most important thing and I just want to do everything to reach my potential and be the best I can be."
Not surprisingly, the young midfielder still retains a youthful innocence when you meet him despite his rapid adolescence in Madrid. He pinches his neck, restless, as he picks over the inevitable questions of the pressures of being an archetypal "wonder-kid" and whether he will ever be a success at Real Madrid, having signed for the club at age 15 and become their youngest-ever player, a tag he still owns nearly four years later.
Then comes this beaming smile and it hits you: he's only 20. He has already played 20 times for Norway and in three separate leagues. He's also smashed all the records as the youngest Real Madrid and Norway debutant but that was when he was, as he puts it, a "child."
Before our interview, Odegaard was having lunch with Xabi Alonso, the legendary Spain midfielder who's now coaching Real Sociedad B. The youngster still has to pinch himself sometimes that he is rubbing shoulders with one of his heroes but the relationship is peer to peer. After all, Odegaard is there on merit.
Two days after we talked, Odegaard put in a Man of the Match performance against Atletico Madrid. He scored Real Sociedad's opener and swung in the cross that led to their second goal through Nacho Monreal. The Spanish press were, and continue to be, awe-struck by his form this season but for Odegaard, this was by design, not chance.
I feel I'm playing like more of an adult now," says Odegaard. "I feel like I'm creating more, running more, feeling stronger on the pitch, and I feel like it's part of growing up."
Let's get the inevitable question out of the way first.
He wants to play again for Real Madrid. There has been regular contact from the club. He is playing brilliantly for Real Sociedad, winning their Player of the Month award for August, and is here on loan for the season with the plan for another season to follow. His contract with Real Madrid was recently extended until 2022. He has no thoughts of signing elsewhere.
"My intention is to stay [at Sociedad] two years and I think that's important for me, too," says Odegaard. "I have had two seasons in a row where I've changed teams. To have some stability is good [and] this is a great club and hopefully we can get European football for next season."
As he sits in a t-shirt, jeans and trainers at their Zubieta training base on the outskirts of San Sebastian, surrounded by beautiful rolling greenery -- the sort of place where finding a phone signal is an after-thought -- he is wonderfully at ease. But there is a quiet determination evident when we talk. It's what impressed the Real Sociedad sporting director Roberto Olabe when he signed Odegaard.
"We should remember he is still very young, even if he seems like a true veteran," Olabe tells ESPN. "Let's keep helping him to grow naturally through patience, perseverance, affection and encouraging him to get better."
Take the fact that our interview was delayed. Why? Because Odegaard likes to fit in extra gym work before he has lunch. "His commitment to the job makes him special," says Olabe. "The way he manages himself day to day is important for the younger players to understand how a professional athlete prepares for high performance."
Odegaard makes the most of his days at work and in the evening, he'll catch up on a TV series or watch football and eat some chicken. He'll phone his family. It's all very normal.
"Some people would call me boring, but that's just the way I am and I'm not that stressed about things: I'm just trying to relax and take things as they are," says Odegaard.
Despite the endless scrutiny that's followed him since sealing that Real Madrid move, he rarely stops to soak up his fame or bask in the spotlight. He craves and loves his own company, savouring the relative anonymity when he heads into San Sebastian for a coffee.
"I don't feel famous, I just live a normal life," said Odegaard. "Sometimes people want to take a photo but that's just nice, it's not too much. It's a quiet life."
He has learnt to cope with the hype, lies and speculation. "There's been a lot of crazy stories, and a lot of things that aren't true. Sometimes I laugh when I read things. I think it's more difficult for my family than for me because they will read everything. If they see my name, they want to read it. For me it's not that important to see everything but they are more like... if someone says something bad about me, they feel it but I don't care about it, but they feel about it more than me."
In these days of teenage mega-money signings, Odegaard's reported £3.5m transfer fee appears like an accounting error. It doesn't even put him in the top 20 transfer fees for a Norwegian player, and it looks tinier still when considering Real Madrid's relentless readiness to spend in the pursuit of success. Since they signed Odegaard, they have spent £575m on new players.
We speculate about how much he'd cost now. Immediately, he finds the thought embarrassing. He laughs, his grin widens and again starts pinching his neck.
"I'm glad they didn't pay as much as they are these days," says Odegaard. "For me it's a bit crazy, nowadays. I don't feel I'm worth that much money, even the money they paid for me... that's too much! It feels strange for me and now it's getting more and more crazy. I don't like it really, to be honest."
Like millions of other teenagers, Odegaard loved the game and wanted to be a professional footballer. At the age of 15, Odegaard was at the centre of a transfer tug-of-war when he broke through at Stromsgodset only to be suddenly coveted by every big team in Europe. He trained with Manchester United, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Manchester City but signed for Real Madrid in January 2015.
He was presented to the world media by Real Madrid legend, Emilio Butragueno, just 25 days after his 16th birthday.
"As I started so young, there were unrealistic expectations," says Odegaard. He joined against the backdrop of deafening hype and was expected to immediately slot into Real Madrid's first-team, aged 16.
On May 23, 2015, he made his debut for the first-team as a second-half replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo against Getafe in Real Madrid's final home match of the season. In doing so, he became Real Madrid's youngest debutant in their history at the age of 16 years and 157 days. That 33 minutes from the bench, and a solitary start in the Copa Del Rey, remain his only appearances to date for Los Blancos.
"It was never the plan to go there and get straight into the first team -- I knew it was going to take time," Ødegaard says.
"One of the reasons I went to Madrid was because I knew I could play for Castilla and still train with the first team. For any young player if you go to a big team, it's difficult to play but in Madrid I had the security that I'd get games for the second team and another reason was [Zinedine] Zidane was then coach of the second team.
"I never stressed about it. Of course I wanted to play some more games and a few more in the first year, but that's football.
"In the beginning there were a lot of positive things said and I tried to keep the focus as always on training and the next game and after a while, there was a lot of negativity. I tried to keep the same focus all the time because if you get affected by these kinds of things then it will affect your performance."
Odegaard played 58 times for Castilla but wanted more regular first-team football and in January 2017, he moved on loan to SC Heerenveen for 18 months. "The most important thing is my development and that is why I'm here," Odegaard said on arriving at his temporary home. "Real Madrid is the best club in the world but the best play there and that is why I decided to come here."
He played well and stayed in the Eredivisie for the 2018-19 season, joining SBC Vitesse. It allowed him to continue flying under the radar, escaping the glare of Real Madrid -- a place with an intimidating history of success and two daily newspapers dedicated to covering the club -- and develop on his own terms.
Odegaard sees it as a key step in his career. Last year, he was the only non-PSV or Ajax player to make the Eredivisie Team of the Season. "For young players you have to play at the highest level possible and it was crucial for me to play games."
Over the summer he was shown around Ajax and Bayer Leverkusen, but ended up settling on Real Sociedad.
"It's better to be here and getting used to La Liga and the language, so it was the natural step in this way. There were a lot of teams interested after last season but for me, it's important to have the feeling the club really wants you and the way this club plays suits me. These things are more important than Champions League football to me at this stage.
"I got really inspired here, and I felt like the project was perfect for me. I felt like the club really wanted me and the way the coach wanted to play was the perfect match for me. It felt right."
The Spanish press that once questioned him now call him "Real Madrid's Viking" given his starring role in Real Sociedad's win against Atletico. It's still hard to escape that umbrella of Real Madrid but with every outstanding performance for Real Sociedad comes a growing clamour for Zidane, Odegaard's old Castilla coach and now boss of Real Madrid, to recall him.
Odegaard laughs at these suggestions, keenly aware of football's unpredictability. Some of Real Madrid's exciting young talent -- Achraf Hakimi (Borussia Dortmund), Dani Ceballos (Arsenal), Takefusa Kubo (Mallorca), Andriy Lunin (Real Valladolid), Sergio Reguilón (Sevilla) and Jesus Vallejo (Wolves), to name a few -- is spread around Europe on loan. The dream is one day they will all play in the same Real Madrid team together but there is little chance of that. If Odegaard ends up back at Real Madrid, he'll have to contend with fellow loanees and incoming superstars, like linked players Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes and Donny van de Beek. Once again, Odegaard will have to prove his worth.
"Of course I want to play there but I'm still young so I'm happy here at the moment," he says. "I am here two years and after that we will see... Madrid will always sign good players, that's important for the club, they want to be the best club in the world and that's normal."
And with that he's off back home, ready to recharge and to focus on their next match. He tells us how his father is visiting and what specific blend of spices he'll put on his chicken. Since we spoke, he put in another Man of the Match showing against Alaves, including an assist of such precision and audacity that it sent social media into meltdown. But he will give it little attention. While everyone is writing about how good Odegaard is, he'll be back in Zubieta, doing his extra hours in the gym and focusing on improving and progressing.
"I'm dreaming to be the best I can be. You never know what happens in football but my dream, and what I'm hoping for is to play for Madrid."