Martin Odegaard and the hillside pitch where his journey began
Light sprinkles of April snow are falling on the patch of artificial grass, overlooked by statues of Nordic animals on the surrounding rocks and grassy mounds, in the hills above Drammen.
If you didn’t know, you would wonder what on earth a perfect pitch was doing here on the highest edge of town, a quiet neighbourhood with not much around except stylishly-painted clapboard houses dotted along the winding road and a small school.
This is Martin Odegaard’s place. He grew up here, attended that school, and spent virtually all his spare time on this piece of ground, with a football at his feet.
It is known as Kjappen, which translates roughly as “Quick” because of the high-speed movement shown on it. In his youth, the surface was gravel, before a few of the local parents clubbed together to fund an artificial pitch. Once Odegaard’s talent demanded attention far beyond Drammen, he ensured some of the proceeds of his sale to Real Madrid went into another renovation of it for the next generation.
From the edge of Kjappen, you can see the centre of Drammen, a port city built around a fjord, down below. Even the low buzz of a town with a population not much greater than the capacity of the Emirates Stadium feels distant. It is so quiet, so low-key here.
At 11:30am, the serenity is broken by the sound of kids spilling out of their classrooms at breaktime.
Filip, in the year group aged 11-12, emerges in possession of a ball. His admiration of Odegaard, the local hero, is written all over his face. “He’s a great player and a great person,” Filip says. “He used to be here 24/7. I played with him when I was in kindergarten and he came back here.” With that, off he runs to join his friends and, on that carpeted green, the kids disappear into their own world, smacking the ball up into the air, competing playfully, larking about.
The leap from here to the spotlight of one of the most legendary football clubs in the world in the space of a few years seems mindboggling. Those who know Odegaard don’t, however, seem too surprised.
He was always so advanced, so dedicated, compared to everyone else. From a young age, he was miles ahead of his peers. His father recognised his potential at the age of around six, and that influence was crucial.
Odegaard’s particular brand of close control is a product of his single-minded obsession with training — practice that began here, as often as he was allowed. Fortunately, with a dad who was a professional player and went on to be a respected coach, there was no shortage of encouragement and exacting, carefully-programmed work.
Martin’s father, Hans Erik Odegaard, represented Stromsgodset, the biggest of Drammen’s football clubs, for a decade. He was a patrolling midfielder, an energetic presence who was more box-to-box than the creative style his son would naturally develop. He devised refined training drills and essentially taught Martin how to extract the most efficient improvement out of sessions, whether that was when working with him, by himself, or with other kids and other coaches. He taught not just how to train but how to train every time with quality.
Jostein Flo, the former Stromsgodset striker who is their director of football today in this town a short drive west of capital city Oslo, laughs as he remembers the little boy appearing around the club all the time and hanging around for someone to practice with.
“It was football 24 hours for him,” Flo says. “He turned up with a ball and a packed lunch. His father had a firm of clothes shops and worked a lot, so he would deliver his son in the morning and pick him up in the evening. Martin would sit there until the older boys came and he would join them.
“You could see his talent was better than normal — something you had never seen. He was a quiet boy, just waiting to play. Then on the weekend, his father was teaching him skills a lot, which made him much better than his age.”
Flo, once of Sheffield United and the Norwegian national team, and the elder brother of former Chelsea front man Tore Andre, was a team-mate of Hans Erik’s at Stromsgodset. One of the photographs on the wall of his office depicts him with arms aloft in celebration, Hans Erik about to congratulate him. Flo and Odegaard are certainly two major names in the club’s history. He looks like a big, tough guy, but Flo almost grows sentimental when he reflects on young Martin’s formative years, and how proud he is of the wonder he has become.
It is the Monday morning after the first game of the 2022 Eliteserien, the top division of the Norwegian league. Stromsgodset lost, 1-0, away to promoted FK Jerv.
Flo plonks a pot of hot black coffee on the table. Joining us are two other members of the Stromsgodset administrative team — general manager and head of marketing Rune Marthinsen (a boyhood fan of the club from the 1970s who also dotes on Newcastle United) and Magne Jordan Nilsen (chief executive and head of communications, who also shares his Stromsgodset passion with a fondness for Leeds).
After Martin’s boyhood playing for Drammen Strong, a grassroots team his father ran, there was an inevitability that Odegaard would join Stromsgodset, which he did when the time was right — at the age of 11. He invariably trained and played in teams two or three age groups above his own. With no problem. His capacity to elevate his football to an older stage came naturally.
Marthinsen is a long-time friend of the family. He still sounds amazed by Odegaard’s precocious talent.
“He always took the next level,” he says. “When you are young, you play against one or two years older but he could play against adults! And he just took it. He played for the Norwegian national team when he was 15, and he just took it.”
At 13, he was training with the Stromsgodset first team. The physical difference between him and his team-mates was extraordinary.
Odegaard was never a particularly powerful specimen. He was small and thin for his own age, so it was remarkable to be so significantly promoted. He played a match for the first team and Marthisen’s eyes light up as he proclaims, “He just danced away with the ball! It was something else.”
By 14, he was playing regular senior football for the club’s third team in the Norwegian fifth tier. He made his full Stromsgodset debut at 15 in April 2014. Already, there was bubbling local anticipation. Everyone around had heard of Odegaard. “For the first time when he came on in the first team, the crowd was gasping whenever he was on the ball. The atmosphere was unbelievable,” recalls Flo.
Just after that moment, it was time for his first professional contract. The rules in Norway preclude players under 15 from playing more than three matches per season; to Stromsgodset’s delight, he was now eligible for a more prominent role.
Flo observed Odegaard’s behaviour closely when the day came to complete the paperwork at the club’s offices. “He could not sit still,” Flo says. “He was moving around with a ball in the meeting. He looked at the contract and there was one thing he was looking at: it was not money. He was not interested in that. The clause he cared about was that he could train whenever he wanted. That was the main thing.
“He signed the contract on a Friday. We played on the Saturday, and he was in the squad. An hour after signing the contract, I was in the office; around 5pm, and everyone was gone. There is a fitness room on the second floor and I heard some music, although there were no lights on. I couldn’t figure it out, so I went upstairs and there was Martin, training, with his music.
“He signed his first contract, he was in the squad for the following day, and, that evening, he trained.”
Drammen sits in a valley. Stromsgodset’s compact Marienlyst Stadium is in the centre of town, with a picturesque view of the hills arcing over the stand behind one of the goals. It holds just under 9,000 but is not usually full on match days. Before long, however, clubs from all over Europe were calling to ask for tickets.
Odegaard still needed delicate handling. “That was the discussion when he was promoted to play in the first team — with the ball, he was advanced in skill but without it, defensively, he had steps to take,” recalls Flo. “Especially when he played away games. It was a discussion with the coaching staff whether he should play or not.”
Was he targeted, pushed around, by gnarled, far older opponents? “They tried…” says Marthinsen with a raised eyebrow. The kid’s team-mates looked after him on the pitch and Odegaard just pressed on, hungry to do what he does best. Some notably brawnier players on other teams lost their composure as he demonstrated his technical supremacy at their expense.
Nilsen remembers seeing a few outbursts from frustrated members of the opposition. “It wasn’t that they wanted to injure him but here was this little boy, bossing everyone around,” he recalls. “They got provoked by that. Some players lost it because of this 15-year-old boy weaving around with the ball.
“The captain of the Norway national team made a famously ugly tackle. He was screaming in the tunnel at half-time, ‘The kid is making fun of us!’.”
Marthinsen chips in: “I remember Frode Kippe, a man-mountain who was hard as a rock and played for Lillestrom (and, briefly, Liverpool and Stoke City), snapped. Martin made a fool of him and scored twice in the first half.
“It was a great moment! He was just dancing.”
Odegaard only played 25 times for Stromsgodset (scoring five goals, with six assists). He was too good. The situation was too big, too fast. The club’s motto is “Ekte Kjaerlighet”, which means “true love”. For all their infatuation with the wonder boy, they knew they could not stand in his way.
“He had to go,” says Flo. “He was almost growing out of the club before he played.
“Normally, we have them in the first team and sell them out, and we have a focus on that because we are a selling club. We are used to selling to Europe. But he took the steps through the club very, very early. Nearly every big club in Europe was here. It was difficult for us with Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and all the leaders of these clubs coming to our little club to watch him.”
It became an unlikely circus. Marthinsen refers to it as “Martinmania”. “I took him to see some sponsors in the Norway Cup and it was madness. The press were closing in. He was too big for this little city.”
It was intense, and a teenager was at the centre of it all. “For some of the other players in the team, it was too much for everyone,” adds Nilsen. “And Martin didn’t want it anyway. We couldn’t handle it over a longer period. It couldn’t carry on like that. It was time.”
It was a relief that Martin’s father had enough experience in the game to try to keep things under control. The extended family are very down-to-earth and the club officials at Stromsgodset only had what was best for the player at heart.
“Hans Erik is a football man who knew the levels and that helped,” recalls Flo. “They went from club to club to talk to them. Everything was up to him and everyone wanted to take him — as soon as possible.”
Father and son went on tour throughout the continent. The list of interested parties included Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund. Some tried harder than others to be persuasive. At one club, the manager they met barely looked up from the paperwork he was scanning, so Hans Erik grabbed his boy and said: “Let’s go.”
Real Madrid secured the golden ticket. Hans Erik got a job coaching in their youth set-up and Martin was parachuted into the reserve team with a strong spotlight around him. It was not easy to settle in with his new team-mates as, quite apart from adapting to a new country, he had the publicity and salary of a special case hanging over his head.
There are plenty among the football community in Norway who regret that Madrid were not the best choice. One of Norwegian football’s most experienced writers, Knut Espen Svegaarden from newspaper Verdens Gang, felt strongly that Odegaard should have chosen a club known for carefully developing youth players while giving them the chances to shine and grow at the same time.
He argued Ajax in the Netherlands would have been ideal, with their established Scandinavian connection and history of developing prodigies including Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Christian Eriksen. Otherwise Arsenal, with Arsene Wenger’s enthusiasm for giving chances to youngsters, or Dortmund, with their reputation of being one of Europe’s outstanding finishing schools, appeared a much more nurturing yet progressive environment.
The way Odegaard’s trajectory stalled in Madrid was unusual for teen prodigies.
Some seem on an unstoppable path. Countless others just disappear. Odegaard just went from loan move to loan move for years, seemingly stuck forever in development.
Marthinsen went to visit Odegaard in the Spanish capital and said the lad made him some very good tacos, but he would have preferred the highlights to have been his footballing skills, not his culinary ones. “It was a big mistake at Real Madrid — that’s how I see it,” Marthinsen says. “Once he got to Real Sociedad, he was in the team of the week all the time, so things changed.
“It says something about his character and personality he was able to rise up again after he took a step back in Madrid. Martin has some values. He probably couldn’t have coped with Martinmania when he was here if it wasn’t for that solid base and for his family background. That’s also why he was able to go up again. He is so humble and his parents, brother and sisters are all down-to-earth.”
Six years of reserve-team football with Real Madrid and loans to Dutch sides Heerenveen and Vitesse Arnhem, La Liga’s Real Sociedad and lastly Arsenal, never knowing what his next step was or when he was in a stable football environment, was a prolonged plateau. It is remarkable to think he only turned 23 in December.
During that final loan to Arsenal for the second half of last season, he was made captain of Norway by coach Stale Solbakken. That was a surprise.
Flo, Marthinsen and Nilsen crack up laughing and quip “better than (Erling) Haaland” but there was a serious point, too. Although they noticed that Odegaard had become more vocal than the shy teenager they had known, more listened-to and respected, the critics wanted him to sort out his club situation before taking on such a role where he had to care about the bigger picture.
“Enough with the loans,” observed Svegaarden last summer. “We got worried about his development when we saw only loan clubs. At some point, he needed to settle down. It was time to belong. It was time to feel at home.”
Mikel Arteta agreed wholeheartedly.
After getting to know each other during that loan spell, both club and player understood that Odegaard was Arteta’s No 1 summer-window target. The deal they arranged with Real Madrid delighted Arsenal.
Even so, it took time for Odegaard to fully regain his confidence and relaunch his career. His form this season was tentative at the start, and he spent a month on the bench, out of the starting XI for four straight league games, from mid-October.
It was reasonable to wonder whether he might be more of a latter-era Mesut Ozil type, who drifted and didn’t dominate games for all his delicacy of touch, than an-early era Ozil, who facilitated so much attacking play with his finesse working within the team framework.
Those who know Odegaard well felt this was a key moment in his career, to establish whether he could figure out how to best use his technical expression to dominate games.
He hit a sweet spot over the winter where he began to consistently orchestrate matches with his progressive passing. He kept being chosen as Arsenal’s man of the match. It was obvious he was rediscovering his mojo.
Flo has been impressed with how it has gone for Odegaard in north London: “He misses a bit physically and to go to the Premier League is the hardest in the world. I was wondering if it was the right choice for him, but he has leapt up since going there.”
“There is something in the environment at Arsenal, with the way Arteta is working with the players, that feels right,” observes Nilsen. “At Real Madrid, everyone is a big star. It is too much to say they train for themselves but it is not quite that they train as a team. You just give them the ball, they are so good. The environment is better for Martin at Arsenal.”
Marthinsen could not be more chuffed: “He is happy. I know that for a fact. He likes London and loves Arsenal. He has a big connection with Arteta. We are so proud of him. He is a good character with the right focus and he loves football. He can play 10 years for Arsenal.”
He is certainly a strong contender for the Arsenal captaincy, which is up for grabs at the end of the season. He has responded well to taking the armband recently — helping a team that had fallen to three demoralising defeats at the start of April pick themselves up and beat Chelsea and Manchester United back-to-back to relaunch their bid to secure European football next season after missing out for this one.
A chat with the man who made him captain of Norway just over a year ago makes a strong case for his candidacy. “On the pitch, he has a great understanding for the game,” enthuses Solbakken. “He knows his own position but I also think he knows what is best for the team and he can bring the messages, tactics and ideas of the coach onto the field.
“Outside the pitch, he is a quiet leader. He isn’t the guy who speaks loudest or most, but when he speaks, he speaks sense and he is very concrete with good values. That makes him respected on and off the pitch.
“When I made him captain, the noise around it didn’t bother me because we have a longer project with this Norwegian team. Our big aim when I took over was to reach Germany 2024 (the next European Championship). Making Martin captain at this early stage was a big part of that. I wanted him to learn and if you see Captain Odegaard now compared to the captain who started, he has grown a lot, he is more secure. That is not just down to Norway or him but also Arsenal and Arteta, and the way they have taken care of him.
“He has coaches who trust him in the national team and the Premier League. He needed to settle down more — no more loans. He needed to find his club and Arsenal are a very good club for him, because they are also developing something. They know they are not quite there but they are on the way with a young team; the same as Norway. Martin can feel the similarities and feels he has responsibilities in both camps.
“A little problem in Norway is they have expected him to score 100 goals and make 100 assists. For me, he is more of a Luka Modric type of midfielder, who can be a third-assist player, who has great stamina and runs a lot for the team. I don’t think he will ever be a 20-goal or 25-assist-a-season player in the Premier League, but he will be the player who can come up with goals and assists, but always have the stability and be able to bring the tactic of the coach, and the leadership he has developed to the team.
“Also, when Arsenal get even better, with even better players, he will be a key figure.”
Maybe that is the key. Next season, with the different centre-forward options to play around that are being promised, could see another little jump.
Odegaard is very much needed to be a difference-maker in the toughest encounters. To truly fulfil his potential, Arsenal want him to help to decide as well as decorate the highest-pressure matches, similar to Modric’s central role with those around him at Real Madrid.
Oslo. A group of Arsenal supporters meet up to watch the games together at Bohemen Sportspub. Although there is a pub called Highbury not too far away which they used to frequent, these days, the group prefer Bohemen because it is a proper football pub, covered in memorabilia. The beer here is also 10 krone cheaper.
The gathering includes friends thrown together from Australia, Argentina, Poland, Denmark, Ireland and England, as well as locals. Naturally, they are keen to see Odegaard do well, although they are hard-core enough that club comes before countryman.
There is a concept in Norway called nisselue, which is a habit of seeing the success of their own players through rose-tinted glasses, and the local TV commentary team were raving about Odegaard’s performance, his calm touches in the maelstrom, as one of the best he has played this season. Arsenal will be hoping for even more in the critical five games ahead.
Back in Drammen, Bjorn Furuheim comes over to show off his Arsenal tattoos. He pulls up a trouser leg to reveal the crest on his calf. The old motto, Victoria Concordia Crescit, is scripted on his left forearm.
Furuheim spent some years as the head of the supporters’ group Arsenal Norway, and was recently in London to watch a couple of first-team games and the under-23s.
He is also head of security for Stromsgodset, and is watching Odegaard’s progress with special interest.
“When Martin was 14 and started training with the first team, given my relations to Arsenal, I tried to call someone at the club to make a recommendation. ‘You have to see the guy, he is so young, so good…’” he recalls. “I had Paul Davis’ number, from when some legends used to come to Arsenal Norway. I said, ‘You have to tell someone at the club about Martin’.”
Although it didn’t happen back then, he is thrilled that Odegaard is an Arsenal player now.
“Arteta loves him. He has friends in the club. I heard so many people say that when he came to Arsenal, everything changed. It is a fantastic story.
“It is so good to see my club, Arsenal, can make him that good because of the way they treat him. He has come to the right club. It is like a family for him. Everybody needs to be taken care of, even a super-super-class player.”
Up in the hills at Kjappen, the kids play and talk about which teams they follow in England — mostly a mixture of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. They all admire Odegaard and feel that closeness to their “super-super-class player”, who will be back on a visit soon. He always does.
And even now, when he does come home, until the light fades, he goes out with some friends to train where it all began.
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Tom Slator)