Freddy Adu, Nii Lamptey, Cherno Samba. Football’s history is littered with the skeleton frames of burned-out teenage prodigies. After his move to Real Madrid was confirmed on Thursday, people have been quick to voice their fears that Norwegian boy wonder Martin Odegaard will be the next husk to haunt that dusty beach road.
Attacking midfielder Odegaard had his pick of Europe’s super clubs. He could, should he have been so inclined, have played for Barcelona. He was courted by Bayern Munich. Any one of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool would have happily snapped him up.
Instead, he chose Real Madrid, a club with a dangerous habit of splashing out millions on attacking midfielders every time they feel a little down. He could not have chosen a side with more competition for first-team places. Not that he will be playing for the first team any time soon. He’ll be dispatched to Zinedine Zidane’s B team for at least the near future.
You can understand why some thought a move to a club like Ajax, with its excellent prospects for development and progression, might have been a better fit for him. But Tor-Kristian Karlsen, former scout and ex-CEO of AS Monaco, disagrees.
“I think Ajax are very competitive, they’re very attractive for young players, especially from Scandinavia,” he said, “but I don’t think they’re competitive when it comes to the real top talents, the top five or 10 in the world.
“If you have the choice between going to a top Premier League club, a top Bundesliga club, a top Italian club or Ajax, I think Ajax is a good choice. But if you are perceived to be the best 16-year-old in the market, then I think you choose between Barcelona and Real Madrid. When clubs like them come calling, you have to go for it.”
There is certainly no doubt over Odegaard’s potential. He is two-footed, he can play anywhere in front of the midfield, he is swift in mind and body and, perhaps most importantly, he has a clear awareness of the game around him and a pleasing lack of ego on the ball. He is more than happy to pass from a goal-scoring position if a teammate is in an even better goal-scoring position. There are obvious reasons that every major club chased his signature.
“If you study his development in the last three years, you’ll see that he’s overcome every challenge in front of him,” Karlsen said. “He made his first-team debut at 15 in Norway; he was outstanding. He made his debut for the U-21 Norway side and he was outstanding against Portugal, a very good side at that level. Then he made his debut for the senior side and was outstanding again. Whatever challenge is thrown at him, he takes it in his stride.”
The issue with players of such tender years is that they will develop as much as men as they will as footballers. Odegaard is 16. Even 16-year-olds in conventional circumstances find that life offers increasingly attractive distractions. For those with money and fame, the temptations will be intense.
“There are so many factors, but he is so level-headed and mature,” Karlsen said. “He’s good at school, he has a strong religious background, he’s intelligent and articulate. If I was going to have any doubts, they would be in the opposite direction. The best footballers tend to have a bit of needle, a bit of fire.”
It should also be noted that there could hardly be a better mentor for Odegaard than Zidane, one of the finest footballers of all time and a man who can guide the youngster on and off the pitch.
Just because global superstardom has hit Odegaard young and just because innumerable young talents have failed to build on their potential, it doesn’t mean that the Norwegian will necessarily share their fate. Michael Owen made his debut for Liverpool at 17, for England at 18 and played almost 500 games before a series of serious injuries brought his career to a stuttering halt. Theo Walcott made his debut for Southampton at 16, signed for Arsenal at 17 and has played more than 300 games at the age of 25.
And then of course, there’s the most famous teenage prodigy of them all. Back in 2003, a 16-year-old Lionel Messi made his debut for Barcelona. Life didn’t turn out too badly for him.
The truth is that what happens from this moment on is entirely down to Odegaard. He has not made it yet. If he slips up, he’ll be on loan at Queens Park Rangers before he has time to say “Who’s Karl Henry?” But if he works hard, learns from those around him and takes his chance when it comes, who knows? Nothing is set in stone yet.