When Martin Ødegaard made his Real Madrid senior debut, 16 years and 157 days old, it was Carlo Ancelotti who put the young Norwegian in the game, a 7-3 victory over Getafe in the final match of 2014/15. Now, Ancelotti is back at Real Madrid and Ødegaard is 22, heading into what could be the most important season of his career.
We don’t yet know if Ødegaard will be staying at Real Madrid for 2021/22 or if he’ll be getting further stamps on his passport by being sent out on another loan, but we do already know a lot about his past dealings with Ancelotti. So, let’s take a look.
When Ødegaard was signed by Real Madrid from Strømsgodset in January of 2015, Ancelotti had a few concerns about the signing. We know this because he later reflected on it in his book ‘Quiet Leadership: Winning Hearts, Minds and Matches’. The Italian’s description of Ødegaard’s arrival as “a PR exercise” made headlines, but he actually said a lot more than that.
So, to avoid taking anything out of context, here’s the full Ancelotti passage on Ødegaard’s arrival in 2015: “When Real Madrid decided to sign a kid from Norway, 16-year-old Martin Ødegaard, I thought ‘I don’t care if he comes in or not because he’s not going to play for me now’. He could go on to be the best player in the world after I’m gone, but I’m not interested in the signing because it isn’t of importance to my job. Of course, when he arrived I treated him with the same respect I would give to any young player, but why would I want to be involved in his recruitment? He is being recruited for the future, for other managers after my time. It is still vital to respect the vision of the owners. Florentino Pérez was well known for his Galácticos approach, where the biggest and most expensive superstars in world football are recruited, so players would arrive and depart who would not necessarily have been my choice, but it was my job to make the team work with whatever assets I was given. It is a waste of time and energy to fight against something which has already happened. You must manage it. After all, that is why we are called managers. If the president decides that, for a PR exercise, he needs the Norwegian boy to play three games with the first team, I will work out a way of doing that.”
To me, this is fascinating. It’s rare for coaches to release such a book while still working and it’s even rarer for coaches to then return to a club they’ve discussed in such depth or to work again with a player they’ve publicly dissected. But, get the popcorn out, because this is the exact scenario we have here.
Perhaps the most fundamentally important line from Ancelotti’s passage on the Norwegian is “I treated him with the same respect I would give to any young player”. While the Italian may have had some concerns with Real Madrid signing such a young star and jettisoning him into first-team training, he backed the midfielder like he does with all his players. In April of 2015, Ødegaard was briefly dropped from playing for Castilla, but Ancelotti swatted away all criticism of the teenager. Whenever there was talk of Ødegaard having a poor attitude in training, Ancelotti dismissed that. “We’re all convinced that he’ll become an important player for Real Madrid, but we must have patience,” the coach said that spring.
Eventually, Ancelotti handed Ødegaard his debut at the very end of the 2014/15 campaign, giving the youngster half an hour in what proved to be the Italian’s final match in charge of the club. There’s no way he’d have done so had there been something on the line in that game, but, with nothing to play for, that victory over Getafe was essentially a friendly dressed up in LaLiga Santander colours. And it allowed Ancelotti to tick that “PR exercise” box.
As mentioned before, it is important to take Ancelotti’s comments in the proper context. Thankfully, that’s exactly what Ødegaard has done. “I think maybe it was misinterpreted a bit by some, but that’s the way it is and it’s not something I stress about,” the playmaker told TV2 in Norway when discussing his new coach’s book. “What he said was probably just that I was a player for the future. He is a coach I know and with whom I had a good relationship when he was last there.”
When he was last there was a long time ago, though. A full six years have passed since Ødegaard’s first Real Madrid training sessions under the Italian and the Norwegian is no longer a “boy”. He has been on four separate loan spells in three different countries, maturing a lot.
Now, in this pre-season, Ancelotti has encountered a very different Ødegaard and reports coming out of Valdebebas explain that the coach has been very impressed by the midfielder in training. It was Ødegaard who was reportedly the star of the 3-1 behind-closed-doors friendly victory over Fuenlabrada, even scoring one of the goals.
Ancelotti is known to love No.10s, which is why there is still a good chance of Ødegaard staying at Real Madrid for 2021/22. There are friendlies against Rangers and AC Milan coming up in the next few weeks, ones which we will be able to see, and they could be key to determining Ødegaard’s future and his role.
“He is for other managers after my time,” Ancelotti said in that book. Well, even if he never expected it, Ancelotti is now that manager.