The 18-year-old Norwegian has joined Heerenveen in the Netherlands on loan due to a lack of first-team opportunities in Spain. But will he be back?


SPECIAL REPORT


It hasn’t happened yet for Martin Odegaard at Real Madrid. The teenage Norwegian was touted as the game’s greatest young talent when he moved to the Santiago Bernabeu in January 2015, but his future is now very much uncertain.

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Odegaard joined Madrid as a 16-year-old from Stromsgodset in Norway and expectation was high from the outset. In his unveiling alongside Real legend Emilio Butragueno, he was asked whether he would be playing for the first team.

And when he was not used by coach Carlo Ancelotti, the media asked what was wrong. Rarely, perhaps never, has there been such pressure on a footballer of only 16 years of age.

The Norwegian made his first-team debut in Ancelotti’s last match as he replaced Cristiano Ronaldo in a 7-3 win at home to Getafe on the final day of the 2014-15 season. However, he failed to feature at all last term and has made only one appearance since, starting his first Madrid match (679 days after signing) against Cultural Leonesa at home in the Copa del Rey on November 30.

However, the attacking midfielder – who turned 18 in December – has now left Real on loan to join Heerenveen in the Netherlands on a loan deal which will last one and a half seasons, his path to the first team blocked back in Madrid.

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“Real Madrid is a good club, the best in the world,” he said at his presentation. “But everyone knows how hard it is to get playing time there. I don’t regret my choice, because I played at the best club in the world. To train and develop there is very good for a young talent.”

His use of the past tense is interesting. Whether there is a future for Odegaard and Real Madrid is now unclear, but it will depend on his progress in the Eredivisie – and in many ways it was the only solution for a player whose progress has been somewhat stunted in Spain.

The problem for Odegaard is that he is not good enough for Madrid’s first team at the moment, but too good for their B team, Castilla, in Spain’s Segunda B. With established playmakers like James Rodriguez and Isco struggling for minutes, it is no wonder the Norwegian has found himself out of the reckoning with Zidane (who was his coach at Castilla).

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Expecting to feature more for the first team and reported to be unhappy at the state of the pitches in Spain’s Segunda B, Odegaard has been often been played out of position instead of his favoured number 10 role and has struggled for goals, with just five in his 62 matches, although he has racked up a number of assists for Castilla.

Left on the bench by Zidane at one point, he has shown glimpses of his talent and extraordinary technical ability, but has not had quite the impact expected by the club at the time of his signing.

He needs to develop, though, and also to build up his physique, and Madrid believe that the best way to do that is away from Castilla, so they will watch him closely during his time at Heerenveen.

Other players, like Marco Asensio, Dani Carvajal, Casemiro, Alvaro Morata and Lucas Vazquez, have all had to leave Real and gain experience elsewhere before returning to the Bernabeu. And that, in theory, is the idea with Odegaard too.

It may take time. Striker Mariano Diaz, who started at Sevilla in the Copa del Rey on Thursday, is breaking through at the age of 23. Odegaard is only just 18 and he will hope to follow the likes of Carvajal and Casemiro to the first team after a year out in a kind of study abroad programme prior to graduation and honours at the highest level.

This is a move carefully chosen by Real and the Spanish side will have been given guarantees by Heerenveen that the Norwegian will feature and have the chance to develop in the Netherlands. He is now in a league with plenty of spaces, where his technical ability should stand him in good stead. Just 18, he leaves Madrid still as a boy, but the club hope he can return as a man.

Madrid believe Odegaard is better suited to the first team than the physical nature of Spain’s Segunda B, but he is not yet at the level to feature for Zidane’s side in the biggest games and, like others before him, he will first need to prove himself at a smaller side on the continent.

But contrary to mischievous media reports of a poor attitude and an unwillingness to play with Castilla, Odegaard has remained professional and dedicated – and he is looking forward to his new challenge.

“I don’t see myself as a wonderboy,” he said after signing for Heerenveen. “I look at myself as a normal guy and I don’t really pay attention to what other people say of me.”

That is good. And away from the bright spotlight of Madrid, he has the chance to get his head down and work hard to become the player the club hoped he would. At 18, there is still plenty of time for Martin Odegaard to make it at the very highest level, but he will need to fulfil all of his potential to make it at Real.