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From 'PR exercise' to the real deal: Madrid outcast Odegaard finally ready to wow the Bernabeu

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The Norwegian sensation struggle to prove his worth after joining Los Blancos as a 16-year-old but he is now flourishing on loan at Real Sociedad
No player will walk out onto the pitch at Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday night with more wind under his wings than Martin Odegaard.

The Norwegian playmaker, who is on loan from Real Madrid to Real Sociedad, will be facing his parent club for the first time and would dearly love to belatedly make his mark in the Spanish capital.

Odegaard arrived in Madrid from Stromsgodset in 2015 labelled as football’s most exciting wonderkid, having made his international debut at just 15 years and 253 days old.

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Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Ajax, Arsenal and Manchester United had all invited him for a visit, but the attacking midfielder ultimately decided to move to Madrid.

With Madrid’s squad stuffed with star names, breaking into the first team was impossible, even though he regularly trained with Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. while featuring for the club's B team.

However, Odegaard was by no means given a warm welcome.

The then 16-year-old's salary of €3.5 million (£3m/$3.8m) per year provoked envy among team-mates almost twice his age, with his attempts to endear himself to his new colleagues unsurprisingly hindered by the language barrier.

Worse still, neither senior team coach Carlo Ancelotti nor Castilla boss Zinedine Zidane were happy to have Odegaard on board.

The Italian sought reinforcements elsewhere, while Zidane was unconvinced that the teenager was even ready for second-tier football.

"When Florentino [Perez] buys a Norwegian footballer, you simply have to accept it," Ancelotti subsequently wrote in his book 'Quiet Leadership'.

"Furthermore, the president decided that he would play three games with the first team as a public relations exercise.

"He could be the best player in the world, but I don't care because he was not a player who I asked for. That signing was to do with PR."

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Eventually, Odegaard and the club decided that it would be best for him to leave Madrid, escape all of the scrutiny he was under by going out on loan.

An underwhelming spell at Heerenveen in Eredivisie was followed by a far better one at Vitesse last season. And this term, at Real Sociedad, the now 20-year-old Odegaard is finally looking like the special talent Madrid thought they were signing five years ago.

Stability has played its part. Odegaard signed a two-year deal with Sociedad during the summer and, for the first time in Spain, he now feels like he is on solid ground.

“I think my long-term loan is positive," he told TV2. "It’s important for young players to play and take responsibility, to feel that you are part of the team.

“That didn’t happen to me in Holland. In my first loan, I arrived half-way through the season and it was more difficult.

"The second year was better for me, I felt more important, I improved a lot despite having two injuries. It’s also true that after being one year here, another year there, I wanted some stability.

“I think [loans are] good for my growth but it’s hard when you change environment all he time. To be in San Sebastian for two seasons makes me take things a bit more calmly, and focus more on improving and enjoying myself.”

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In the north of Spain, Odegaard has been the key creative force in a side which surprisingly sits fifth in the Liga standings, just two points behind joint leaders Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Odegaard has scored two goals and created three others in 11 appearances, quickly becoming an essential part of coach Imanol Aguacil’s set-up.

Indeed, he had played 90 minutes in every match until suffering a heel injury, which has ruled him out of La Real’s last two games.

However, he has trained with his team-mates this week and will be available for selection against Madrid.

His eagerly awaited return will doubtless dredge up some painful memories from his failed attempts to established himself at the Bernabeu but, at this stage, Odegaard has learned to deal with the pressure that comes with being touted as 'the next big thing'.

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“I don’t care much about hearing criticism," the 20-year-old stated. "When I started in Norway at 15 years old I had a lot of attention, above all positive comments.

“Later, when I was at Madrid, they were negative, maybe some very negative attention. I think that it’s not always black and white. I try only thinking about the next day and to keep improving; that’s the most important thing.

“When you play football you can’t always think about what other people say.”

If he does decide to tune in, these days the comments are only warm and respectful.


Article continues below
Odegaard turned heads in the capital with his fine display in Real Sociedad’s 2-0 win over Atletico Madrid on September 14, not just for his well-taken goal but passing between the lines, vision and quality on the ball.

“Before signing him we had seen him and we knew what he could do,” Alguacil said afterwards. “What surprises me is how he [performs] day by day.”

Odegaard is flying again, his self-confidence clearly soaring. He believes he belongs at the Bernabeu. Do not be surprised if he shows why on Saturday night.

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