The man in charge of Manchester City’s transfer business had a choice to make. Did he tell the truth? Or did he say something that was untrue because he knew, ultimately, it might work out better for City that way?
Sitting opposite him was a fresh-faced Martin Odegaard, just turned 16 and already a Norway international. The boy was with his parents, Hans and Lene. The scene was City’s training ground and everything, it seemed, was going swimmingly.
It was late 2014 and Txiki Begiristain, City’s director of football, was hosting Odegaard at a time when almost every elite club in Europe wanted the player who, eight years on, captains Arsenal in their bid to become Premier League champions.
Manchester United were on that list and, never reported until now, their manager, Louis van Gaal, flew to Norway to try to persuade Odegaard that Old Trafford was the best choice. Odegaard had already spent time with United as a 14-year-old, training for three days in their academy. A year on, the scouting reports were so impressive United took a top-level decision that there was no need to offer him a trial. They just wanted to sign him.
But City had a plan of their own. They were managed at the time by Manuel Pellegrini but already had Pep Guardiola prominently in their thoughts. It was Begiristain’s job to make Project Pep happen and, within a year, everything had been put in place. Odegaard, the wunderkind of Norway, was viewed as ideal for Guardiola’s way of playing.
He had been shown around City’s village-sized training complex, because how could that not impress him? He had heard from Begiristain about their vision to dominate English football. The money was good because, with City, it always is.
But the player’s father had a question. Real Madrid, he said, had promised his son would go straight into their first-team squad and train with the Galacticos. So could City offer the same?
That was the moment when Begiristain knew the whole deal hinged on his reply. Did he try to pull the wool over their eyes? Or did he tell the truth?
“I could make the same promise as Real Madrid,” he said. “But I have to be honest with you and, realistically, it is going to take longer.”
Ten out of 10 for honesty. The bottom line, however, is that it had consequences for City.
“We had him in the building but we couldn’t make it happen,” says one City executive, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We thought it was close. But you can be close in football and also a mile apart. The truth had to be told and the truth in this instance was not what they wanted to hear.”
Eight years on, City should not beat themselves up too badly about missing out on the player who, at 15 years and 253 days, had become Norway’s youngest international.
Kevin De Bruyne joined the following summer. Ilkay Gundogan has shown why Guardiola wanted him as his first signing. Bernardo Silva has not done too shabbily since he arrived a year later.
Still, though, it is tempting to think Guardiola might have a few regrets when it comes to the player who, perhaps more than anyone, is inspiring Arsenal’s attempts to depose City as Premier League champions.
Not that Guardiola is alone on that front. All the major clubs were chasing Odegaard after his breakthrough with Stromsgodset in Norway’s Eliteserien. He had offers from all over Europe and, before making up his mind, he and his family embarked on a tour of the relevant cities and stadiums — the superstar footballer’s equivalent of university open days.
Erling Haaland did something similar before moving from Borussia Dortmund to City last summer. With Odegaard, however, it is always worth bearing in mind his age. His father, in particular, had a considerable say. He and Odegaard made it a condition that he wanted to learn from the best by training with the elite players — or there was no deal to be had.
The right decision? Van Gaal is on record saying it was a mistake. Odegaard, he said, needed the “best education” and Madrid was not that place.
So, was United? Odegaard and his family talked at length to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the club’s most successful Norwegian. But United encountered the same issue as City.
In an email exchange with The Athletic, Van Gaal recalls part of the conversations. “His (Odegaard’s) management wanted him to train with the ‘A’ team if I remember correctly… after that, I did not hear or see anything of him.”
Barcelona were keen and that appealed to Odegaard bearing in mind he had grown up, like many boys his age, with posters on his bedroom walls of the team’s most famous player.
It was a unique selling point for Barca. They had the sunshine and the allure of Camp Nou, but nothing was more attractive for prospective signings than being offered the chance to play alongside Lionel Messi.
Odegaard was shown around by Andoni Zubizarreta, then Barca’s director of football. There was a tour of the stadium and an invitation, three days after his 16th birthday, to watch Messi in action.
On December 20, 2014, Luis Enrique’s team had a game in la Liga against Cordoba. Messi scored two in a 5-0 win. It was a peacock-like spreading of Barca’s feathers. They were on their way to the Spanish title and, watching in the stands, Odegaard took it all in.
Unfortunately for him, Barcelona had also been given a 14-month transfer ban for breaching FIFA’s rules on the recruitment of players under the age of 18. That meant they could not sign anybody throughout the whole of 2015 and that counted against them. Even at such a young age, Odegaard did not want to put his career on pause.
Madrid, on the other hand, had their own, simple way of seducing prospective new signings: presenting their offer in the room where they displayed their record haul of European Cups.
Madrid had just ended their long, obsessive wait for ‘La Decima’, their 10th European Cup. It was the team of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, managed by Carlo Ancelotti. Of course Odegaard was keen. Of course he wanted to pull on that silky white shirt and imagine getting his hands on that trophy.
It was not until the autumn of 2019 that another detail, initially unreported, came out via Football Leaks, amid its stream of revelations about the financial secrets of Europe’s top clubs.
Odegaard’s father had been offered a job coaching Madrid’s under-11s. Hans, a former footballer himself with Stromsgodset and Sandefjord, had been the assistant manager at Mjondalen in Norway’s second division. He accepted Madrid’s offer and, on the day his son put pen to paper, signed his own three-year contract.
This happens in football, especially at the highest end of the sport, where it is a common ploy for clubs to offer jobs to family members.
There was, however, one detail of the Football Leaks story that jumped off the page: Odegaard Sr’s contract was allegedly worth £2.7million ($3.5m) — roughly 10 times what would ordinarily be expected for a job of that nature.
As it turned out, Odegaard eventually came to realise that Van Gaal was correct: maybe Madrid was not the best place for him, after all.
It felt right at the time, though, and Madrid tried everything to put themselves in a favourable position. A private jet was sent to Norway to pick up the Odegaard family. Florentino Perez, the Madrid president, was waiting at the Bernabeu and, midway through their first meeting, there was a knock at the door. Zinedine Zidane walked in.
Zidane introduced himself and told Odegaard he had been looking forward to meeting him. He said he had heard all about his talent and would personally be involved in his development. For Odegaard, it was exactly what he wanted to hear.
The deal cost Madrid an initial £3.5million, with roughly the same in add-ons, and the player signed a three-year contract. Financially, it was life-changing. It just quickly became apparent it was not going to work out the way Odegaard had anticipated. Madrid already had Modric, Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Sami Khedira, James Rodriguez and Isco. Ancelotti left the Bernabeu at the end of the season and his replacement, Rafa Benitez, also had no room for a player who was still too young to buy a bottle of Estrella in Plaza Mayor.
Odegaard trained during the week with Ronaldo, Bale and all the big hitters, but played for Castilla, the B team, and found the pathway blocked to the first team. It was an unorthodox arrangement and it did not always go down well with some Castilla players. Zidane was the manager but he, too, seemed uncertain of Odegaard after replacing Benitez the following year. Increasingly peripheral, Odegaard made only 11 first-team appearances in six years with Madrid, spending season-long loans at Dutch clubs Heerenveen and Vitesse, as well as a similar arrangement with Real Sociedad.
All of which brought him back full circle to Arsenal, bearing in mind the London club, then managed by Arsene Wenger, were among the other stops on Odegaard’s 2014 tour.
“I always remember getting a call from one of the people in Arsenal’s recruitment department,” Jan Age Fjortoft, then Norway’s general team manager, recalls of the time. “He asked me, ‘Do you know this Martin Odegaard?’. I said, ‘This is a coincidence — I’m on my way to see him as we speak because he is playing today against Valengera in Oslo’. That was the first time I saw Odegaard play. After 15 minutes, I called the Arsenal guy again. ‘This guy is amazing’, I said. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’.”
Wenger saw him as Arsenal’s future. At a lot of the clubs Odegaard visited, he was shown around by boardroom executives. Wenger decided to get involved personally. He even took Odegaard out for dinner. “I really liked him,” Wenger said in an interview with Norway’s TV2 channel last month. “The way he analyses the game now, he also did that as a 15-year-old. I was desperate to sign him. Fortunately, he is there (at Arsenal) now. He really is like a young Cesc Fabregas… the complete player.”
According to Odegaard’s father, there were offers from more than 30 clubs. Ajax thought they were close. Roma had a stab at it. Celtic were another one, under the management of Ronny Deila, who had given Odegaard his debut for Stromsgodset.
Chelsea, perhaps surprisingly, did not join in. “I have heard a lot about him,” their manager, Jose Mourinho, said at the time. “I have read that he will be going to 25 clubs. We are not in a position to compete with 25 other clubs for him. We are a different profile.”
Liverpool, managed then by Brendan Rodgers, did push hard, though. Odegaard and his father were Liverpool fans and there were obvious attractions about moving to Anfield.
As for Odegaard’s admirers in Germany, Borussia Monchengladbach optimistically made a pitch. Stuttgart arranged a visit of their own and it was inevitable that Bayern Munich were involved.
Bayern, in fact, were among the first clubs to give Odegaard the red-carpet treatment while he was still 14. Odegaard spent four days training with the Bayern academy but, for reasons never fully explained, flew back to Norway without receiving an offer.
In the following year, as the hype went up and up, that became a major issue at the top of the club. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bayern’s chairman, wanted an explanation. The most successful club in Germany knew they had missed out on a rare talent.
At least one person within the Odegaard circle has referred to it as a mistake on the part of Michael Tarnat, then the sporting director for Bayern’s youth team. The Athletic has been told there was an inquest behind the scenes involving all of the Bayern hierarchy, including their manager at the time… Pep Guardiola.
Odegaard was invited to Bayern for a second time in 2014 and Rummenigge was determined to make up for what had happened. Odegaard, he said, was “a beautiful bride”. Bayern hoped to be the “fortunate groom”.
Fjortoft, who won 71 caps for Norway and regularly gave advice to the Odegaard family, recalls a chance meeting around this time with Guardiola in Qatar. “He came over with his finger pointing — typical Pep Guardiola — and he pointed at my chest, ‘Get him to Bayern! Get him to Bayern! I will make him the best player in the world’.
“We were amazed. I’d said hello to Pep before but I’d never met him properly. I was thinking what to say because I didn’t have that influence over Martin. I said to Pep, ‘But we have a problem, don’t we? You will probably leave Bayern soon’. It’s funny, when I remember how keen Arsenal were to get Martin last year, I wonder whether part of it was Mikel Arteta’s connection with Pep (as Guardiola’s former assistant at City) and that meant there was something in his reference book.”
Borussia Dortmund were also on the scene and, on the morning of November 9, 2014, their manager, Jurgen Klopp, spent an hour with Odegaard, trying to sell the club to him.
Dortmund had a game that day against Gladbach but Klopp broke away from his players to show Odegaard how serious he was about signing him. Odegaard was invited to watch Dortmund win 1-0 and experience the crowd noise of the Yellow Wall, the Westfalenstadion’s mammoth south terrace, for the first time. He was impressed — just not impressed enough, and Klopp was “extremely disappointed” not to clinch the deal.
“You can only imagine how many talents — huge talents, crazy talents — I have seen over the course of quite a while in this industry,“ he said. ”At the time, Martin was 15 and already playing in the Eliteserien in Norway. The whole world went berserk.
“We had a long conversation, together with his father. Maybe I was too honest. I told him he was still a boy, he was still going to school, all these things. We wanted to create an environment where he could grow and develop.
“If you compare the city of Dortmund and the city of Madrid, I would perhaps have made the same decision. But I would have loved it if he had signed for us.”
Klopp has never held a grudge judging by the warm embrace he shared with Odegaard after Liverpool’s visit to Arsenal last season.
Jurgen Klopp & Martin Odegaard speaking at full-time 👀 pic.twitter.com/wunBH4hG7K
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) April 3, 2021
It has not been an orthodox story and Odegaard, now 24, has kept everyone waiting to see all that rich potential flower fully. But for Arsenal, enjoying the view from the top of the league, it has been worth the wait.
“Martin ended up with a shortlist of four: Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Arsenal and Liverpool,” says Fjortoft. “He was 16 when he made his decision and I remember telling him, ‘Martin, when I was your age I couldn’t move out of my house’.
“A lot of clubs wanted him and some of the personalities he met — I won’t name names — didn’t make a good impression. One of the high-profile ones didn’t make a good impression at all. That’s why that club was straight out of the door.
“The main reason he went to Real Madrid was, first of all, it’s Real Madrid, the holy grail for a lot of footballers. And, secondly, they had a second team, managed by Zinedine Zidane. Martin needed the best college and Real Madrid was Harvard, with Zidane as one of the most famous professors in his class, which was called the second team.
“I remember the reaction from Bayern when they heard one of the reasons he had chosen Madrid was because they had a second team. Their head of sport, Michael Reschke, said to me, ‘If I had known that, we would have made a second team just for him’.”
(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Samuel Richardson)
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