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Martin Odegaard: European football's most coveted 15-year-old

By John Sinnott, CNN
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Martin Odegaard grabbed another slice of history on Monday, coming on as a substitute during Norway's clash with Bulgaria to become the youngest player ever in European Championships qualifying history at 15 years and 300 days.
Martin Odegaard grabbed another slice of history on Monday, coming on as a substitute during Norway's clash with Bulgaria to become the youngest player ever in European Championships qualifying history at 15 years and 300 days.
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The nurturing of a football prodigy
The nurturing of a football prodigy
The nurturing of a football prodigy
The nurturing of a football prodigy
The nurturing of a football prodigy
The nurturing of a football prodigy
The nurturing of a football prodigy
The nurturing of a football prodigy
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Martin Odegaard became Norway's youngest international in August
  • The 15-year-old made his professional debut in April
  • Potential is "unbelievable" according to one former Norway international
  • Odegaard's father Hans Erik played in the Norwegian league

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(CNN) -- He's just 15 and the world is seemingly already at his feet.

Last month, Martin Odegaard became Norway's youngest international footballer in a friendly against the United Arab Emirates, provoking huge media interest and the hungry attention of Europe's top clubs.

Such is the focus on the midfielder that 35 scouts from some of those teams -- including Manchester United and Liverpool of the English Premier League -- came to watch him at a recent Under-21 match.

"In the beginning it was unreal and a little bit surreal that all these clubs wanted Martin, but it's strange what you can get used to," his father Hans Erik Odegaard tells CNN. "Almost every top European club has been in touch."

His international debut is not Odegaard's only record-breaking feat this year. In April he became the youngest player in the history of the Tippeligaen when he made his debut for Stromsgodset in a top-flight game against Aalesund.

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He followed that up by scoring the fourth goal in a 4-1 win over Sarpsborg to become the youngest scorer in the Norwegian league.

Former Norway international Morten Gamst Pedersen has described Odegaard's potential as "unbelievable," while manager Ronny Deila -- who gave the teen his Stromsgodset debut before joining Scottish club Celtic -- says he can "become the best in the world."

Odegaard's father, a former footballer at Stromsgodset and Sandefjord, recalls the moment when he realized his son might have what it takes to play professionally.

"I saw from a very early age that 'he had the feeling,' but I remember very well when I knew he'd be quite good," he said.

"I was still playing and Martin must have been no more than eight. I was out on the pitch running some intervals. He was, as always, with me. When I was finished I wanted to go home, but we couldn't before he had done 50 more shots (at goal).

"Then I understood he also had a talent for training and that is the most important talent you can have."

"Quite good" probably doesn't do Odegaard's myriad talents justice, given he has been compared to Lionel Messi or -- closer to Scandinavia -- the legendary Denmark international Michael Laudrup, who played for Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

"I'm sure you can compare him with many, but I don't like to do that," reflects Hans Erik. "Those players are and were so good and Martin is at the start of his career."

Former Monaco chief executive Tor-Kristian Karlsen, who is Norwegian and has watched Odegaard's progress over the last few months, is a fan.

"He's obviously still in the early stages of his development but his understanding of the game is very impressive," says Karlsen.

"He plays in bursts, so you might not notice him for five minutes, but he has good movement and can take people on."

Young, gifted and talented

Books such as Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers," Geoff Colvin's "Talent is Overrated" and "The Talent Code" by Daniel Coyle all explore the idea that to become an expert you need to practice any skill for 10,000 hours.

What's clear from Odegaard's prodigious development is that his success has been helped by a specialized training regime and his thirst to learn and practice.

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"I have been a regional trainer for the best boys in this area, and I checked how much they trained with the team and by themselves," says Hans Erik. "Martin is training more than double than these boys did -- at least 20 hours a week."

It's not just how much he trains -- it's also the type of training he has focused on by doing everything with the ball.

"The boys loved it when I joked about other teams that warmed up with running instead of using the ball," adds Hans Erik. "I always said that they should maybe do athletics."

Hans Erik believes Martin has been able to cope with the demands of professional football and making his international debut at such an early age because of the work done to develop his first touch and "quick feet."

"It's the pace of the game that makes the difference in adjusting to different levels," says Hans Erik. "We've used so many hours in working with his first and second touch to take off the pressure.

"We have worked a lot on bringing the ball closely to his feet, so he can change direction quickly, so even if he's physically weaker than the others he doesn't get caught because he's able to get away."

Family fortunes

Now 40, Hans Erik admits that, as a player, he was "a runner with a big heart and scored some goals" -- so does Martin's talent come from his mother Lene?

"She played handball and sprinted," says Hans Erik, before joking: "She tells us she was fantastic, but none of us, or any others, has seen that."

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While Hans Erik's professional career has given him advantages in overseeing Martin's progression as a player, he admits it has given him difficulties as a father in his relationship with his son.

"I was always afraid of favoring him. We were always changing captain, but he was never picked," he says.

"The expectations were high on him so it happened that I sometimes yelled at him and one day another parent came to me and said that I was too hard with Martin.

"Then Martin and I agreed that he should always get the feedback when we were alone in the car after the game. That was a good solution.

"We've always -- and still do -- talked so much about football. His natural understanding for the game makes him a very smart player. Since he was 10 I could discuss football with him as an adult."

Stay or go?

Hans Erik, who has so far avoided using agents to advise on his son's career, concedes that "the level of the Norwegian league isn't as strong as many other European leagues."

So what's next for the wunderkind from the port city of Drammen who has already visited Manchester United as well as German clubs Bayern Munich, Stuttgart and Borussia Dortmund?

Karlsen believes going to a country like the Netherlands would benefit the 15-year-old.

"If he went to some other countries they might take something out of his game, by telling him to get rid of the ball," Karlsen says. "In Holland, they are not so concerned with the results."

Whatever Odegaard does next, his father insists the decision will not be influenced by money.

"In the end it's all about development," he says. "Nothing else matters. I'm allergic to boys who are satisfied getting into an academy or winning a first-team contract, because you haven't achieved nothing

"It's a danger when there's so much attention to him from clubs and the media. I think he has handled it very well so far and he has his feet on the ground.

"When we are talking with the clubs we have just talked about sport. We're also in a position that it's not obvious that he will go abroad now."

And amid all the hype and record breaking, Odegaard's father insists that his son's education will not be forgotten.

"He will still, of course, go to school. I don't think it's good for any young boy just to play football and PlayStation. You need to work with your brain too and to develop as a person."

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