Long read: Odegaard on a life in football

Martin Odegaard celebrates scoring against Manchester United at Old Trafford
Martin Odegaard celebrates scoring against Manchester United at Old Trafford

"I was 16 and replacing the best player in the world"

After completing a successful first year at the club, the matchday programme spoke exclusively to Martin Odegaard about his meteoric rise as a young footballer in Norway, life as a teenager at Real Madrid and writing the next chapter at Arsenal.

Martin Odegaard was always destined for a life in football. The son of Hans Erik Odegaard, who himself had a successful career in the Norwegian league in the 1990s and 2000s, Martin grew up surrounded by the sport - not that he would have had it any other way.

Whether it was playing or watching, our No. 8 has always had a deep love and passion for the game.

"I've always been a huge football fan," he begins. "Ever since I can remember, I always tried to watch basically every game on TV. The Premier League was always by far the biggest league, with the most interest in it, so I watched it every single weekend.

"I used to get together with friends and watch all the games and I loved it. I also went along to the games of my hometown club, so yes I always enjoyed watching football.

"I think the first time I ever went to watch a game in a stadium was one of my dad's games," he continues. "He was playing in the top division in Norway and I was quite young at the time, maybe five or six years old. But I remember going to those games to watch him.

"I was born and grew up in Drammen, but he actually moved to a new club when I was really young, so I don't remember him playing much for the club in Drammen. He moved to a team called Sandefjord and I would go and watch him there, it was about an hour from home."

It's perhaps not surprising then, that Martin is one of football's true early starters. A quick recap of the achievements he racked up as a teenager in Norway. When he was 13 he played for the Stromsgodset first team in a friendly, and the following year represented the reserves in senior football. Then, aged 15 years and 118 days, he became the youngest ever player to appear in Norway's top flight, when he made his debut in April 2014. In May, he broke the league record for the youngest goalscorer, and two months later he made his debut in the Champions League, at the qualifying stage.

By this time he had already represented the national team at under-15, under-16 and under-17 levels, and in August of 2014, he would become his country's youngest ever full international. He was just 15 years and 253 days old when he played the full 90 minutes of a friendly at home to the United Arab Emirates.

"I was basically playing football or watching football my whole life when I was growing up," Martin, who turned 23 in December, says. "There was never really one moment when I thought 'I want to be a footballer'.

"My parents have told me that from the moment I could walk, I started to kick a ball in the garden at home. So I don't remember a time that I haven't had an interest in football. My father played as well of course, so it was always around me. Then growing up all my friends played as well, we all had the same interests, so it was just natural that I started playing too."

What also appeared to be natural, was the incredible gift he displayed so soon after starting out. It was clear that Norwegian football, and specifically Stromsgodset, had a prodigy on their hands.

He was going to have to get used to the increased attention and interest, but as he explains, it never felt out of the ordinary to him.

"When I started playing at youth level, there are not too many people watching those games.

"We don't play in stadiums or anything, it's just a few parents and others standing around the pitch. But I played my first game for the first team when I was 15, so I was playing in front of crowds from that age. Those are the first ones I really remember, apart from that I played some games for the national team at youth level, but there isn't really a game that stands out as having a large crowd or loads of people being there, before playing first-team football."

That was soon to change. Signing for arguably the world's most famous club, Real Madrid, at the age of 16 will have the effect.

Again however, the inevitable rise in profile after stepping up from the Norwegian Eliteserien to Spain's La Liga, is something that Martin took in his stride.

"I wouldn't say it was a shock, but yes it was definitely a big change," he says.  

"The stadium at Stromsgodset held about 7,000 people, then all of a sudden you are at the Bernabeu in Madrid with 80,000 people there. So it was a big change, but I didn't feel like it was too much at any point. Honestly, I just enjoyed it.

"I love playing in front of people and I've always thought the fans are so important to help you on the pitch, to help the team, and to give energy. So I've always enjoyed it. I never felt it was a massive change from what I had already known."

There is a hint of relief in his voice though, when he reveals he was spared one of the traditions that high-profile signings to Madrid have to participate in - being paraded before the media and fans inside the stadium while showing off your ball skills.

Martin Odegaard meets the press as he signs for Real Madrid

"Ha ha no I didn't have to do that!" he grins. "Although I was training with the first team, I wasn't 100 per cent a first team player when I joined, I played games for the second team at that time. I had a presentation, but it was only in front of the press and a few pictures, so I didn't have to go in front of all of the fans and do the ball juggling!"

The fans were out in force when he made his debut though. Having spent his first season in the Spanish capital playing for Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid Castilla (essentially second string) side, he finally got to appear for the first team on the final day of the 2014/15 campaign.

Real Madrid's last game of the season was at home to Getafe, and with the hosts 5-3 up just before the hour mark, Martin was summoned by Carlo Ancelotti.

When he entered the pitch, he broke the club record as their youngest ever La Liga player, aged 16 and 157 days. They went on to win 7-3.

"Yes, I replaced Ronaldo," he confirms. "It was the last game of the season I remember, and I had been waiting for my debut for a long time. I was really eager to play, and before the game they had told me I would come on.

"But then during the game we had two injuries so we had already used two subs and I was nervous that I wasn't going to get my chance. But then they told me to warm up, and I came on.

"The reception from the fans was good, and I think they were quite interested to see me play finally as well, so I remember the reception was good when I came on.

"I came on for Ronaldo, so it was all a bit unreal. I was 16 and replacing the best player in the world at the time. It was all a bit crazy, but when you are that young, I didn't really think too much about it or thought that it was anything different. It's only now, looking back that I realise how special it was, and coming on for Ronaldo made my debut even more special. When you are in that moment though, you just live it and enjoy it."

Rather than be overawed by the prospect of playing in one of the world's great stadiums, Martin says it inspired him: "It takes a bit of getting used to, because it's harder to hear what your team-mates are saying, to communicate and things like that. That was quite a big thing at first, but still, I don't remember thinking there was anything negative or more difficult about playing to a huge crowd. I thought it was cool, I liked it, and I've always liked feeling that presence from the fans.

"Playing in an empty stadium is just terrible, because you don't get that adrenaline and that feeling of pressure, which I have always found to be a positive pressure. I like that pressure of having to perform for people, of having them there. I need it."

For the next three or four seasons, Martin got the bulk of his experience while playing on loan, firstly with Heerenveen and Vitesse in the Netherlands, then Real Sociedad back in La Liga, before he joined the Gunners, also initially on loan, in January 2020.

Those early years gave him the chance to sample different styles of the game, and play in front of different fanbases. So is there anywhere in the world he has particularly enjoyed playing, due to the atmosphere they created?

"I've played for a few clubs in different countries too and have been lucky enough to play for some good fans. I enjoy playing here especially, with our fans in the stadium. I enjoyed it in Spain as well, at Real Sociedad the fans were brilliant as well. And of course Madrid is a very special place to play.

"But as for teams I have played against, I think Anfield has a very good atmosphere, they bring a lot of energy to their side, and of the places I've played here in England, that's the one I've been most impressed, of places away from the Emirates. I'm lucky enough to have played at a lot of good stadiums, it's difficult to say which is the best in terms of atmosphere."

The Premier League generally though, is certainly finding favour with Martin. Nominated for the Premier League Player of the Month award for December, a year after making his Gunners debut, he is established in the league, and he says the fans are a big part of that.

"The atmosphere in England is different to anywhere else I've played" he states. "I love the passion from the fans here - how much they care about football and their own team, and also the connection they have with the club. There are lots of traditions here in English football that I love and I think it's a great place to play."

The first 18 of his games of his Gunners career were all played behind closed doors, but since we have returned to playing in front of fans, he's scored four times in the league - including away to Burnley, Manchester United and Burnley. So what has he made of the welcome he gets in away games in England?

"Well it's true that sometimes it can be more difficult in stadiums with a big atmosphere. That's the good thing about playing at home, you know the fans will support you, give you energy and make it harder for the other team. So for sure it can be more difficult playing away, when the fans are pushing for their team, whistling you and all that kind of thing.

"It can affect you in the game, but at the same time it's something I really like about football. The fans are such a big part of the sport, you feel that energy when you are playing the game and that's really cool. There's nothing like it when you feel that backing from your own fans."

Martin says he's felt that connection with the Arsenal fans from the moment he joined last January - in fact, he was building a bond before he even put pen to paper.

"I've met plenty of fans when I've been out to eat or things like that," he says.

"It's easy to see the interest people have, and that they really, really care about the team. It's probably more on social media though than in public - Arsenal are pretty big on social media!

"I get a lot of messages, especially when I was about to sign here. The fans were really pushing for me to come, they were messaging me all the time, messaging my family and everything! It was something new to me, sometimes it can be a bit much, but in general I think it just shows the passion they have and how much they care."

And now he's part of the Arsenal family, sharing in that passion, and enjoying life in London, Martin is settled and ready to continue fulfilling that huge promise he first showed as a kid back in Drammen.

"I love London life generally," he beams. "There's lots to do but also it's close to home so it's easy for me to travel to see my family, or to have them to visit me. I love it. When you are a footballer, there is not much difference in your daily life whatever club you are at because everyone has the same routines and schedules.

"So it's the stuff off the pitch that makes the difference, and it's so nice to be in London, with plenty of places to go and things to do - I definitely feel at home here."

Player Profile

Martin Odegaard
Squad number
December 17, 1998/Drammen, Norway
National team
Arsenal debut
v Manchester United (h), Premier League, January 30, 2021 (drew 0-0)
First goal
v Olympiacos (a), Europa League, March 11, 2021 (won 3-1)
Previous clubs
Stromgodset, Real Madrid, Heerenveen (loan), Vitesse (loan), Real Sociedad (loan)
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