Martin Odegaard’s 10th Norway cap against Macedonia represented a full circle for Real Madrid’s almost forgotten midfielder. It had been a year-and-a-half since he had played for his country’s senior side and it was Odegaard’s first game under the demanding regime of Lars Lagerback, who assumed the reins in January after masterminding Iceland’s historic run to the quarterfinals of Euro 2016.
Speaking to Norwegian daily Dagbladet on his return to the national fold, Odegaard displayed a maturity that was lacking when he first arrived at the Bernabeu in 2015: “Real Madrid are very pleased with my progress […] but I won’t be going back in January. I’ll go back in June and we’ll see from there. I think that in a couple of years I’ll be at my best, although I’ve got a long career to go and sometimes that’s something that you forget when you started out at such a young age like I did.”
For Odegaard, the step up to Real Madrid from Stromsgodset was a case of right club, wrong time. The then 16-year-old perhaps suffered from a less than altruistic contribution on the part of his father to his career development when he signed in January 2015, Odegaard Sr acquiring a coaching role in the academy as part of the deal.
A move to a club with a focus on youth, such as Ajax, would have been more profitable for Odegaard but now that Florentino Perez has elected to ditch his policy of throwing money around in favour of a coherent building process, the midfielder has a place at the Bernabeu. Last summer no recruit was aged over 22 and with his 19th birthday approaching in December, Odegaard fits the considerably reduced bill nicely.
Odegaard’s decision to go to Heerenveen on loan has been cathartic, not least because it is the first time he has stepped out of his comfort zone. On his arrival at Valdebebas there was a sense that Odegaards Sr and Jr considered Castilla beneath the teenager. In fairness to Odegaard, as a full international and feted in Norway as the second coming of Jorgen Juve — who coincidentally went on to work as a journalist at Dagbladet after firing his way to the position of Norway’s top scorer, which he still holds — it was understandable.
It also did not help that as part of his original contract with Madrid, Odegaard was largely spared the ignominy of training with the reserves. He was simply parachuted into the Castilla side at weekends after spending Monday to Friday rubbing shoulders with Cristiano Ronaldo and company.
At Heerenveen Odegaard has received no preferential treatment and this season, after a shaky start in the Eredivisie that the Dutch press were quick to highlight, he has become a key player in Jurgen Streppel’s side. The loan spell is a path well-trodden by several of Madrid’s current first-team squad, among which only Nacho, Achraf Hakimi and Luca Zidane have made the transition from Castilla to the seniors directly.
Odegaard’s scoring and assist rate are below what would be expected of an attacking midfielder but he has started all 13 of Heerenveen’s league and cup games this season and showed flashes of the precocious genius that persuaded Madrid to sign him in the first place, against Excelsior and Sparta Rotterdam.
The main obstacle to Odegaard making a successful return to the Bernabeu may well be Zinedine Zidane. The current Real boss was not a huge fan of his teenaged charge at Castilla and handed him just one senior start in the Copa del Rey against Cultural Leonesa last November with Madrid holding a 7-1 advantage from the previous leg. Odegaard would depart the Bernabeu a few weeks later.
But the midfielder has two cards, both of which reside in Perez’s sleeve. Firstly, the Real president is not one to give up on a personal investment and it was a matter of some pride to the construction magnate that he landed Odegaard ahead of numerous European suitors. Secondly, given Perez’s previous when handling a manager who has failed to deliver at least one trophy in a season, Zidane’s position is not as iron-clad approaching the winter break as it was in June.
In any case, it would be unfair to label Zidane as a coach whose only turning ability lies in his trademark roulette. Isco and Mateo Kovacic are evidence that players can emerge from the shadows on the Frenchman’s watch and Madrid have been keeping a careful eye on Odegaard’s progress. His contract extension is unlikely to have been sanctioned without Zidane’s approval and Odegaard’s switch to a predominantly right-sided role at Heerenveen is a boost to his credentials given that Real may be looking for such a player in the summer.
It would be in keeping with the club’s recent policy to look in-house for a solution. It would also be a shame if Odegaard is not afforded the opportunity after being used as a pawn in a power-play by the Bernabeu board when he was clearly not prepared for it.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.