North London Forever

Ali Yaqub for The Players' Tribune

I’ve always had this weird connection to Arsenal. It started long before I signed. I don’t even really know how to explain it, except with one little story.

I’ve never been that much into video games. I am of that generation that always played outside, but the one exception was FIFA. I mostly played Career Mode. You know, where you get to be the manager?

The club I always chose to manage was Arsenal. They were my FIFA team.

Growing up in Norway, I watched a lot of Premier League and I just had this good feeling about Arsenal. I’d seen clips of Thierry Henry and the Invincibles. I knew the club had a history of developing playmakers like Fabregas, Nasri, Özil — really smart, technical players, who were good on the ball and played the difficult passes. My kind of players. 

As I got older, around the 2015 edition, I started actually appearing in FIFA. I didn’t look much like me at first. I think I was like a 67 overall, but I was actually in the game and it was a big deal. So, naturally, one of the first things I did when I was pretending to be Arsène Wenger on Career Mode was to buy myself. Haha!

Me and Arsenal. It just seemed like a good match in my head. 

That special connection turned into a reality when I signed here two years ago. It was a decision that changed my life around. I come into training smiling every day. But my story is definitely not Career Mode. This has been a very different journey to how I imagined it on FIFA. In real life, you can’t just select where you want to go and everything will be perfect.

Me and Arsenal. It just seemed like a good match in my head. 

Martin Ødegaard

People always want to know what it was like for me growing up as a teenager in Norway with all that crazy hype. And, to be honest, I don’t know how to answer that. It’s strange to say but, at the time, it felt … normal.

I think I was too young — maybe a little too naive? — to fully understand, you know?

I think people imagine that I had to avoid everything they were saying about me in the press and live in a bubble, but I didn’t. I actually used to read everything they wrote about me. I would literally sit down and read the newspapers. But I read them like, O.K., cool. That’s nice. And that was it. I moved on.

I had a good family around me, good friends, a good life. I was just a kid who loved football. Proper, proper loved it. I was obsessed. There was an artificial pitch right next to my house in Drammen — literally 100 metres away — and I lived there for my entire childhood. Sometimes when I go back home now, I see kids on that same pitch just chatting, taking shots casually and I’m like, what are you doing?! That’s not how my friends and I played. We were out there playing tournaments, one-on-ones until it got dark. This was serious. 

Courtesy of Martin Ødegaard

I was also lucky that I had my dad, Hans Erik. He was my club coach at my childhood club Drammen Strong and then at Strømsgodset until I was 13 and my personal coach from when I was a baby. He’d played in the top division in Norway as a midfielder, so if I wasn’t playing with my friends, I was training with him. Really training

Maybe you think you know the story? Pushy dad making his son practice every day. But actually it was the opposite. I was the one pushing him. He knew things the other parents didn't. So I wanted him to teach me, to give me an edge. 

He was particularly obsessed with me developing my awareness and quick feet. He was always getting me to look over my shoulder before receiving the ball. In winter, when we couldn’t play outside, he took me to the indoor sports hall and we would do drills where he’d play the ball off a bench and it would bounce back to me. He would come up behind, pressing me from one side and I had to look and adjust before receiving it. 

These days, when you see me turn away from a defender, using that touch and quick reading of the game, that’s the sports hall. That’s my dad.

When you see me turn away from a defender, using that touch and quick reading of the game, that’s the sports hall. That’s my dad.

Martin Ødegaard

I was so focused on being the best at that time. I knew I was talented but I wasn’t getting ahead of myself. I was just enjoying playing with my friends for my hometown club.

Then things started progressing really fast.

When I was 13, I made my debut for Strømsgodset. 

When I was 15, I became the youngest player to play for the Norway national team. 

That’s when things really went crazy. 

Vegard Wivestad Grott/AFP/Getty Images

I remember coming on for the last 20 minutes of a Euro 2016 qualifier against Bulgaria at the Ullevaal Stadion in Oslo and the whole stadium, more than 20,000 people, going mad. Every time I touched the ball, they cheered. I can still hear that sound. 

The thing is, in Norway, we hadn’t had a “superstar” in such a long time that the fans were a little desperate and when they started hearing this talk about this young guy from Drammen, they just wanted to believe it, even if they didn't actually know if I was any good. It added to this strange hype. 

And then the hype just builds more hype, and suddenly you’re linked with Real Madrid. 

My dad handled everything with the clubs, and there were a lot. We went to Bayern, Dortmund, Man Utd, Liverpool, Madrid, Arsenal too. We got flown around in private planes and made to feel special. 

I’m not just saying this … I was actually close to choosing Arsenal. When we went there, I got to train at London Colney. I met Arsène Wenger. He took me and Dad out for dinner. That was cool, but strange too. It’s Arsène Wenger, you know? He’s this legend I grew up watching on TV, and now I’m sitting across from him eating steak. I was so nervous I was just sitting there thinking, Is he analysing me right now? Is he going to judge me if I eat the fries? Maybe I should just leave them. Hahaha!

I’m not just saying this … I was actually close to choosing Arsenal.

Martin Ødegaard

So, why Real Madrid then? I talked about it a lot with my dad and the rest of my family. In the end, Madrid is Madrid. They were the Champions League holders with the best players in the world. Back then, I loved Isco — he was so smooth on the ball. Another one of my kind of players! But the really key thing about Madrid’s offer was that they had a B team where I could play competitive football immediately. And the manager of that team? Zinedine Zidane. It felt like the total package.

Before we officially told them, I remember sitting with my dad on the sofa watching a Real Madrid game on TV. At one point, he turned to me with his phone in his hand like, “Is it time? Should we tell them?” 

We’d been speaking about the decision for so long, as it was so hard to turn down all these other amazing clubs. But then we did it. 

He’d had the draft saved in his phone for like a week or two already. This really simple message.

It was something like: “Martin has decided he wants to come, if you still want him.”

I just told him, “Send it.”

Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP Images

Let’s talk about my presentation day.

I’m actually cringing thinking about it now … but I know a lot of people talked about this at the time. I was basically a meme. So let me clear up what happened.

They sent a plane to pick us up from Norway in the morning. Really early. So, I wake up but I’m still half asleep. My hair is all over the place. I didn’t have time to shower. I just put on whatever clothes I could grab quickly, throw something smarter into a bag and we take the flight. I figure that once I arrive at the hotel in Madrid I can get changed, take a shower, prepare myself, you know?

But then we land, we get off the plane and I realise they are taking us directly to the training ground to do the medical and then the press conference. No hotel stop. 

I know a lot of people talked about this at the time. I was basically a meme. So let me clear up what happened.

Martin Ødegaard

And I’m like, Wait, we’re doing this now?

Suddenly, I’m sitting next to Madrid legend Emilio Butragueño — who’s wearing a really smart suit, of course — and they are introducing me to the world.

I know you’ve seen the pictures.

Me, in this old stripey jumper, not even showered, trying to flatten my hair with my hands.

This was the biggest day of my life, images going all over the world. I’m supposed to be this player that Real Madrid has beaten everyone to sign and I look like a random school kid they just pulled from the stadium tour.

Butragueño is introducing me and in my head I’m like:

God, I wish I’d changed my jumper.

Someone could’ve told me.

Why didn’t anyone tell me???? Hahaha!

Victor Carretero/Real Madrid/Getty Images

The other thing I’m thinking about at that moment, sitting there in front of all these people, is my Confirmation. If you don’t know, it’s a common ceremony for kids in Norway to go through where you celebrate becoming an adult. I did mine when I was 15. It’s just for family and close friends and it’s normal that at the end of the event, the kid gets up to do a short speech to thank everyone for coming. Except at mine, I froze. I was too shy to speak in front of my family — the people I’m most comfortable with! I was confident on the football pitch, but speaking in front of people? No way.

One year later, I’m front and centre at a Real Madrid press conference. In this stripey jumper. 

Haha can you imagine??

I was so out of my comfort zone. You can see the fear in my face.

When it’s my turn to speak, I have these big headphones on and I’m practically whispering in Norwegian like, “Uh yeah … It’s a great pleasure. Ummm, I’m very proud.…”

But in a weird way, I think that moment actually helped a lot of people’s perceptions of me. As soon as you get famous, people expect you to be a certain way. Like you’re this superhero, who can do anything. You can play football, so you also must be able to speak well, be confident, give everything of yourself at all times. But that’s not realistic. 

I think that press conference helped people connect to what I was going through. I was just this shy little kid. I mean, have you met a 16-year-old recently? They felt for me and saw how normal I was.

A few days after the presentation, I went into training for the first time and, honestly, that was just surreal. I’m not old enough to drive, so my dad actually has to bring me in to play with Isco and Ronaldo and Ramos and Modric and Bale and Benzema, like he’s dropping me off at school.

I think that press conference helped people connect to what I was going through. I was just this shy little kid.

Martin Ødegaard

All I’m thinking is about how these guys will treat me when I walk into their dressing room. This little kid who didn’t speak any Spanish. But they were all very kind, and the ones who spoke English — Kroos, Modric, Ronaldo — took extra care of me in the beginning. They gave me advice and helped me a lot. But honestly I don’t think any of them were particularly worried about a 16-year-old from Norway taking their place in the team.

We made this plan with the club that I would train every day with the first team but get regular game time with the B team. It seemed like a smart plan at the time, but it worked out that I ended up not finding my place with either group.

With the B team, I wasn’t with them regularly so I didn’t find that connection. In the first team, I was just some kid who came to train. I wasn’t involved in matches. I felt a bit like an outsider. I was stuck in between.

I stopped playing with the spark that was typical of my game. I went a bit too safe for a time. I was worrying more about not making mistakes than actually playing my game. And my game was always about making a difference. Playing the difficult pass. I can understand why it happened now. I was still a little kid, but I’ve learned that you have to be ruthless. You have to not give a f***. You have to show the real you on the pitch.

After a couple of years, I just wasn’t progressing.

The press came after me for not immediately living up to the hype. I was an easy target. If you really know me, you know I smile a lot, but I think from the outside sometimes my face looks more grumpy than I actually am! It made it easier for them to write about how I was struggling to adapt.

I remember reading a headline like: “NOW IT’S MAKE OR BREAK TIME FOR MARTIN ØDEGAARD”

And I’m like, make or break? I’m 18 years old!

Ali Yaqub for the Players' Tribune (2)

Maybe if I’d been Spanish, I might have been given a bit more time to grow. Honestly, I don’t know. In the end, it’s just the nature of the hype machine. There is no in-between in modern football. You’re either the best signing in history, or you’re sh**.

Listen, I want to make it clear that I am not complaining about my time at Real Madrid. Not at all. Going to Madrid was a good thing for me. I learned so much about what it takes to reach the top. I watched, trained and learned from the best players in the world, my idols. I played at the Bernabéu. I learned to be tough and to face challenges. It’s part of who I am now. It’s the reason I’m where I am today.

But when things got tough, I never lost sight of the bigger picture. In my head I was always like, How can I change? How can I get better? Because in the end, I will never be the guy who is happy to just train at the biggest club and maybe get a few minutes here and there. I was always thinking about what I needed to do to be the best version of me I could be. That’s why I needed to move on.

Back when I was coming up in Norway, it seemed like I had all the options in the world. Only a couple of years later, I had to come to terms with the fact that clubs weren’t lining up for me anymore.

If you’re playing Career Mode and you go from Real Madrid to Heerenveen, maybe you think something has gone wrong. No offence to the Dutch league! But honestly, for me, it was a fantastic experience. I got to play regularly at first-team level, which was exactly what I needed. I owe a lot to my loans at Heerenveen, where I grew as a person, and Vitesse, where I grew as a player.

At Heerenveen, I got my driving licence (I didn’t need my dad taking me to training anymore), I learned to be by myself and to take responsibility. Then at Vitesse, I met the manager Leonid Slutsky. He was amazing. He believed in my ability without asking me to be magical every time. He improved my decision making and teamwork. Soon I was finding the difficult passes again.

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

After two and a half seasons on loan in the Netherlands, I was ready to come back to La Liga and settle down at Real Sociedad for at least two seasons. In the end, it didn’t work out that way. It’s an amazing club in a beautiful part of the world, with fans that are so connected to their team. In a way, the Basque culture is more like Norway. People are more reserved on the outside but once they take you into their hearts, they are so caring and protective. You become one of their own. I loved that.

I was playing well and I was really happy there, but after a year when Madrid called I thought, I have to take this chance now. This is the dream I’ve been following since I was 16.

I had a good connection with Zidane from when he coached the B team and he took good care of me, so I wanted to believe it would work out this time.

But then I got COVID. I started the first two games of that season in 2020-21, but I wasn’t fully recovered. I didn’t perform at my best and after that, I didn’t get many more chances. Almost nothing. Meanwhile, I’m watching Real Sociedad on TV thinking, I could’ve still been there.

I was thinking about this a lot.

I spoke to my agent ahead of the January transfer window, “Look, we need to do something … I didn’t come back to just be there. I came back here to play. I need to play and keep improving.”

He tried to calm me down, telling me we’d just cancelled one contract to come back to Madrid. I’d always said I wanted stability and now five months later I wanted to move again? But I had made up my mind. 

I can only thank Madrid for investing in a 16-year-old kid. Everybody had good intentions and I don’t blame anyone, but I needed to find a place where I could settle. I needed to find an actual home. 

I found it in North London.

Ali Yaqub for The Players' Tribune

Career Mode

This little memory in the back of my mind just flashed up the second my agent mentioned that Arsenal were interested. It just felt right.

I spoke to Mikel Arteta on a Zoom call and he told me all about the project. At the time, Arsenal were not doing well. They were way down like 15th in the table, but that meeting … Honestly, I challenge anyone to come away from a meeting with Arteta and not believe everything he tells you.

He is next level. It's hard to explain. He’s passionate, he’s intense and sometimes, yeah, he’s a bit crazy … but when he speaks, you understand that whatever he says will happen, will happen.

He told me his plan, everything he was building towards. He knew exactly what needed to change at the club. He told me all about these amazing young players in the squad — Saka, Martinelli, Smith Rowe, etc., etc. He told me how he wanted me to fit in and how I was going to improve. 

I got this strong feeling that he was onto something really special.

Not that I needed any more convincing but I also got so many messages from Arsenal fans on Instagram telling me to sign. Not just me, my whole family, friends and everyone I follow! It’s such an amazing, active fan base. Random people I know would show me how the comments on their posts were full of stuff like “Tell Martin to sign for Arsenal.” 

That was just … Wow. 

I have to say, the fans have been amazing since I’ve been here. Maybe some people think that doesn't matter to us as players, but it matters. At the Emirates, every time you make a tackle to knock the ball out for a throw-in, the whole stadium cheers like you've scored a goal. They give you this confidence that you can do anything.

At the end of my first season here in 2020-21 , when we finished eighth, it seemed like no one at the club lost faith in what we were doing. Everyone believed in us. It was all part of the plan. Even last season when things got really tough. Obviously, we took it hard losing out on Champions League qualification when it was in our hands like that, but we learned from that experience.

We came back closer, stronger, hungrier. 

Clive Rose/Getty Images

We’re in the title race now, but there’s a long way to go and, trust me, no one is thinking about May yet. It’s a cliché but we are taking it game by game, training session by training session. One piece at a time. 

I will say this, though, if there’s anyone left who still doesn’t fully believe in this team, take it from me: there are no limits on what we can achieve. No one can tell me otherwise.

I’m so proud to be captain of this club and I feel like I’m going to be here a long time. 

After the win over West Ham on Boxing Day, I got the chance to speak to Wenger — it was the first time he’d been back to the Emirates since 2018, and the first time I’d seen him since that steak and fries all those years ago. We had a good chat and he mentioned that he’d kept a close eye on my career even after I chose Madrid. He was honest and said that at one point he was actually worried about the way things were going for me, but now he’s so happy to see me doing well in the right environment. 

I’m so proud to be captain of this club and I feel like I’m going to be here a long time. 

Martin Ødegaard

He’d recognised something. Ever since I left Norway, it’s like everything has felt sort of temporary. I haven’t had that stability, that real deep connection, until now, and that’s so important. 

Whenever I lead the team out at the Emirates, I have this moment to myself. I want to really feel that atmosphere, that electricity from the fans. I always listen as they play North London Forever over the speakers and I start singing along under my breath.

I get goosebumps every time. 

I close my eyes, and I think about myself as a kid out on the artificial pitch in Drammen. If you’d have shown that kid a snapshot of this moment and told him this was in his future?

He would have died for this.

It’s been a hell of a long road, but I’m living my dream.

I’m home. And the best is yet to come.