Halftime Sports

The 16-Year-Old with the World at His Feet

January 26, 2015

Pirlo, Hummels, Courtois, Reus, Pogba, de Gea, Matic: these soccer superstars share a few things in common, including the fact that any top team would be more than overjoyed to have them in their squad.

However, they also share another less glamorous similarity: each of these players now earns less than a 16-year-old Norwegian footballer named Martin Odegaard.

So who is Odegaard, who has less of the household name than the aforementioned football superstars?

Simply, he is considered by many as the next best thing in the world of football. He debuted professionally just last year, on April 12, 2014, making him the youngest player to play in the Norwegian First Division Tippeligaen, and soon became the league’s youngest goalscorer as well. He finished his first and last season at his hometown club with five goals and seven assists in 23 appearances. Internationally, Odegaard became the youngest  to play for Norway and the youngest player to feature in the UEFA European Championship.

Oh, and did I mention that he accomplished both of these feats when he was just 15 years old?

Following the end of the Tippeliagaen season in November, Odegaard and his father traveled all across Europe, meeting with potential suitors who would engage in a subsequent bidding war for his signature. The usual names – Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Barcelona – had been thrown around as potential destinations for the young Norwegian, but clubs that might aid his development even more – like Celtic and Ajax – had been rumored to have appealed to Odegaard as well.

After the world’s premier clubs jostled for weeks to lock down Odegaard, Real Madrid won the race. The 2014-15 La Liga champions provided him with a private jet to travel to Madrid, and hired his father Hans Erik as a coach for their youth team. They also had international superstars and new-teammates Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale greet him upon his arrival and provided him with the presidential box for the Madrid derby.

Lastly and most importantly, the club promised the 16-year-old a weekly wage of around $120,000 a week.

At the moment, everything seems bright for the young Norwegian. Odegaard has just joined one of the world’s greatest and more storied football powers and will be playing with a lucrative salary that could last him a lifetime.

However, though Odegaard to Madrid seems like a match made in heaven, there is much reason to believe that this deal will eventually turn out to be a deplorable long-term career move for the young Norwegian.

The latest Galáctico does show immense potential, but that promise can only be carried out if he continues his development on and off the pitch. Keep in mind that Odegaard has only played one season of professional football and that one season was played in the Norwegian First Division– an association that is not considered to be a top-tier league in the footballing world. Odegaard needs to further his experience in professional leagues in order to continue rising the ranks as one of the world’s top talents. Granted, training with Real Madrid’s plethora of stars and receiving coaching from one of the world’s premier training staffs might provide something that cannot be offered at other clubs, but appearances in actual matches are imperative to development of young footballers.

There is a reason why top clubs often loan top prospects away to gain match experience with clubs that can guarantee them a first team role. Sticking in the Castilla won’t be enough to bring out the most of his immense potential. Odegaard needs the right balance of competitiveness to coax him further and protection to make sure he does not burn out or ignore the hardworking aspects of football. Castilla would fail to provide either of the two.

History speaks for itself: the only notable Real Madrid players to come out of their academy in the past decades are Raul and Casillas, but other players, such as Juan Mata and Samuel Eto’o, have left the academy once they realized that it was not the right environment for their development. Both Mata and Eto’o chose to leave Madrid’s squad of world class players in order to pave their own paths as members of  other clubs.

So is there a chance that he can succeed by being a part of Real’s first team?

The short answer is, well, no. It will be hard to see Odegaard getting a show in the Real Madrid first team, considering his age and the constant overflow of stars at the club. Can anyone imagine Odegaard rightfully ousting Bale, Benzema or Ronaldo at the moment, or moving ahead of Jese Rodriguez and even Chicharito on the bench?

Not a chance.

It will be a solid few years before Odegaard will be able to justify his wages and his name on the back of the Real Madrid jersey. Considering the fact that he probably won’t be challenging for a permanent position on Madrid’s starting eleven makes it even more absurd that he is earning more than first team regulars Dani Carvajal and Isco.

Odegaard’s ridiculously high wages raises another issue other than his technical and physical development as a footballer: the pressure. At where he stands, the Norwegian’s career will be deemed a failure unless he becomes one of the greatest players in history. Any other result would brand him as a disappointment, an underachiever, a waste of money – especially at a club with such a high-demanding and brutal fanbase (just ask Bale, who is regularly targeted for mistakes despite the success and results he brought the club since his arrival).

Media has hyped the 16-year-old so much in the past few months that fans will certainly expect brilliance in the short outings he has for the first team, which is a largely improbable expectation. To convey how the pressures of the spotlight and the glamorous life of a young footballing star can ruin a player’s development, refer to Freddy Adu. Adu, who was supposed to be the Michael Jordan of American soccer, became the youngest athlete to sign a professional contract, to appear in an MLS match, and to score in an MLS match.

Since his initial successes as a member of DC United, however, he has been at eight clubs in the last eight years, and was last signed by FK Jagodina in the Serbian league – for whom he has only played once. He is now a free agent.

No one knows whether Odegaard will develop into the superstar everyone is hoping he will become or if he will fail to live up to all of the hype. But with his signing with Real Madrid, unfortunately, he might have taken the wrong first step.

Will the world see another Ronaldo or another Adu?

Only time will tell.

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