Around Europe: Real Madrid shadow lingers over Martin Odegaard during Dutch loan spell

In this week's Around Europe column, Ian Hawkey focuses on Real Madrid's Norwegian prodigy on loan at Dutch club Heerenveen.

Martin Odegaard, right, is on loan at Heerenveen from Real Madrid. Getty Images
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It is a year this week since Martin Odegaard felt genuinely close to the big-time. That was the last time he could call Cristiano Ronaldo a teammate in the strict sense of the word.

He had travelled alongside Ronaldo and James Rodriguez to Real Madrid’s Primera Liga match away at Leganes. He stepped up off the bench, put on his substitute’s bid and warmed up along the touchline.

That was as close as he got to adding to the single Primera Liga appearance he made in his first two years as a Real Madrid footballer. He was not among the three replacements used that night in a 3-1 victory.

And the next time Odegaard pulls on a Madrid jersey, or even jogs along a touchline in a Real Madrid bib, will be a while away. Indeed, he will nearly be out of his teens if things go according to forecast.

Odegaard is the child prodigy whose predicted impact on elite football has been somewhat delayed. His assignment on Friday night is his new club Heerenveen’s meeting with Go Ahead Eagles in the Dutch top division. Low key compared with the expectations pinned on him when, shortly after his 16th birthday, in December 2014, he was presented by Madrid in a ceremony with all the bling of a superstar signing, on a salary, over €3 million (Dh11.64m) a year, that put him in a rarefied class.

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Back then, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and other heavyweights had been keen on the sensation from Stromsgodset, Madrid boasted. Ronaldo dutifully labelled Odegaard the most promising teenager he had seen in a long time.

Ronaldo saw a lot of Odegaard in practice because part of the deal that helped persuade the Norwegian, who had already won his first senior international cap — against the UAE — at the age of 15, was that he would train with Madrid’s first-team even though he would play, initially, with Madrid’s feeder side, Castilla, in Spain’s third division.

Promisingly, or at least poignantly, it was as a substitute for Ronaldo that Odegaard made his first appearance for Madrid’s seniors, aged 16 and a half. The Madrid assistant manager that day, Paul Clement, remembers how Ronaldo, not used to being taken off, asked who would be replacing him, and being surprised to hear it was the teenager. Carlo Ancelotti, the then manager of Madrid, later described Odegaard’s signing as “a public relations exercise.”

Martin Odegaard. Denis Doyle / Getty Images

Certainly, Odegaard was made famous globally for joining Madrid so young. The limelight will trail him forever for that. And when he began what is scheduled as an 18-month loan spell with Heerenveen in January, he and Madrid made a point of stressing this should not be read as a setback.

“This move does not mean I have finished my time with Madrid,” Odegaard said. A spell in Holland’s Eredivisie, rather, would form part of his growing up.

It has been brutally hard in some ways. In his first seven matches for Hereenveen, two opponents were sent off for fouling Odegaard. That might be taken as evidence of two things: one, that the nimble skills on the ball that made him stand out as a 14- and 15-year-old can still vex adult defenders. Two, that Odegaard is regarded as a precocious upstart whom senior professionals want to leave a bruise on.

Reports that Madrid’s loan deal with Hereenveen specifies that the more minutes Odegaard plays, the less the Dutch club will pay the lending club hardly make his life easier, if his teammates suspect he is enjoying favoured status.

Odegaard, now 18, will need to earn their approval. So far, has been able to apply his feathery touches effectively only rarely, though last weekend he set up one of the goals in a 3-0 win against Roda JC.

The hope is that he can exert that sort of influence regularly. The hype is something he has to bear long term.

Player of the Week: Serge Gnabry, Werder Bremen

Werder Bremen, not long ago regular participants in the Uefa Champions League, are becoming accustomed to battles against relegation. They hover just above the drop zone going into Saturday’s Bundesliga meeting with rock-bottom Darmstadt, thankful to their young striker Serge Gnabry for their cushion.

All-Rounder

His latest three goals — one a header, one with his right foot, another with his left — have been worth two wins for the club, against Mainz and then Wolfsburg, where his double took Gnabry to 10 goals so far for the Bundesliga campaign. Not bad for a 21-year-old winger new to the German top flight.

From Rio with brio

Not bad either, given he came into the club without a pre-season with his colleagues. He was waylaid by drawn-out transfer negotiations with his former club Arsenal, completing his move to Bremen only on summer deadline day and delayed for being away in Brazil.

Six and silver

He was busy at the Rio Olympic Games where his performances only hardened Arsenal’s wish to renew the contract of a player they had signed as a teenager. For Germany’s Olympians, Gnabry scored six times in the tournament, and ended up as its joint top scorer. He scored in the penalty shoot-out that settled the final, too, but Brazil proved sharper from the spot and Germany finished second.

Farewell to frustration

Gnabry was insistent on joining Bremen because, after five years on Arsenal’s books, he felt he was still valued for his potential rather than his present ability. He had spent the first half of last season on an unfulfilling loan at West Bromwich Albion. He admitted to losing some of his focus.

Happy homecoming

Gnabry, the son of an Ivorian father and German mother, was born in Stuttgart, scouted by Arsenal and whisked off to London just after turning 16. His turn of pace and powerful shot were among the assets that impressed. He made a promising start, both in Arsenal’s age-group teams and for the first XI. In Germany that was noted, and he continued to be picked in the national youth teams.

Hat-trick hero

He has rapidly established himself as Bremen’s go-to striker, capable of galvanising a team low on confidence from various positions, attacking from wide left, at centre-forward, or just behind. He had been back in Germany barely two months when he was called up by the senior national team, the world champions, and promptly hit three goals in a rout of San Marino. Gnabry can expect his next international call-up later this month, for a friendly against England — a chance to show English football what it missed.

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