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Martin Ødegaard: How teenage prodigy finally found his home at Arsenal

Arsenal’s Martin Ødegaard celebrates after progressing into the Champions League quarterfinals. Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

As he led the team out inside of a raucous Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night, Arsenal captain Martin Ødegaard had the weight of expectation on his shoulders.

The Gunners needed a turn over a goal deficit from the first-leg against Porto to secure safe passage into the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the first time in 14 years – in a tournament Arsenal has never managed to win.

But amid all the spine-tingling, goosebump-inducing noise swirling around the ground, the Norwegian looked like the calmest man in the stadium.

It’s fitting, perhaps, that the first thing Ødegaard would have seen when he walked out of the tunnel before kick-off was a huge sign unfurled on the opposing stand which read ‘Our House’ in Spanish.

Because Ødegaard looks to have finally found his home at Arsenal.

Despite the pressure, the midfielder was laughing and joking with the children lining up in front of the players before kick-off, doing his best to reassure them amid the boisterous atmosphere created by the fans desperate to see their side progress in Europe’s premier competition.

His composure was a sign of things to come. On a magical night for Arsenal fans, Ødegaard produced another sensational performance, proving once again to be the creative spark for Mikel Arteta’s team.

His delicately weighted pass in the final moments of the first-half sliced open Porto’s defense and gave Leandro Trossard the perfect opportunity to level the scores on aggregate.

Thereafter it was Ødegaard driving the team forward. His relentless running set the standard for his teammates to follow and his vision on the ball proved to be a constant threat to the resilience of Porto’s defense.

Even when the hosts looked to be tiring, there was Ødegaard orchestrating the crowd, pleading for more support for his team.

Unsurprisingly, the Arsenal captain was first to step up in the nerve-shredding penalty shootout, dispatching his effort without a fuss, then celebrating by pumping his chest and slapping the badge on his shirt.

It was a celebration he was able to repeat moments later after Porto missed two of their efforts, with the Norwegian leading his team on a victory lap around a bouncing Emirates Stadium.

Arsenal’s Ødegaard produced yet another superb performance on Tuesday against Porto. Andrew Boyers/Action Images/Reuters

Since being made captain in 2022, the playmaker has become used to carrying the hopes of Arsenal. Along with the likes of local star Bukayo Saka, the Norwegian international is helping to usher in a new era for the club after it struggled to deal with former manager Arsene Wenger’s departure.

He might only be 25 years old, but Ødegaard has been making history on a football pitch for over a decade.

The naturally-gifted midfielder was only 15 when he started attracting global attention after becoming the youngest player to feature for both his club Strømsgodset and the Norwegian national team.

His performances caught the eye of some the biggest clubs in Europe, with the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool among those expressing interest in signing the precocious young talent.

“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 Ødegaard told CNN Sport back in 2014. “Almost every top European club has been in touch.”

Real Madrid struggles

Speak to soccer fans now and they’ll likely remember hearing about a young Norwegian teenager who was widely touted as the next world star and who, in 2015, eventually signed a high-profile deal with Real Madrid.

His move to La Liga was supposed to be the first step in his journey to greatness, with the then 16-year-old moving to the Spanish capital to learn from the best, namely former France midfielder Zinedine Zidane who was the coach of Madrid’s reserve team at the time.

Heralded as the future king of Los Blancos, Ødegaard became the club’s youngest player when he made his debut in 2016, but it wasn’t to be.

Ødegaard was unable to make an impact after moving to Real Madrid as a teenager. Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Stuck in a bottleneck behind Real legends like Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos and Casemiro, Ødegaard’s opportunities in the first-team were severely limited.

So in search of regular playing time, the teenager spent two loan spells in the Dutch league before a season at Spanish side Real Sociedad. He continued to show glimpses of his talent but struggled for consistency.

Then came a loan move to Arsenal in 2021.

This time, it felt like a perfect fit. Looking to usher in a new era at the north London club, manager Arteta signed Ødegaard on a permanent deal, in a move that finally gave the playmaker stability.

In many ways it felt like Ødegaard’s last chance to make it at the top of the game, and he has taken taken it with both hands.

A place to shine

North London has since become a place where he has finally recognized his potential, leading Arsenal’s recent resurgence and producing world-class performances.

“At a very early age, he had huge expectations,” Arsenal manager Arteta said of Ødegaard when he signed a contract extension in 2023.

“Martin is the player that he is today at that age because of what he has been through in the last four or five years. That’s what is making the player and the person he is today. We are really happy that he’s found home.”

As well as being Arteta’s go-to man, the Norwegian has also become a firm fan favorite – with countless Gooners proudly wearing replica shirts with his name on the back.

“The spirit here around the whole club is just unbelievable. It’s the best I’ve ever seen in my life as part of a team,” Ødegaard said in his pre-match program article – something the Arsenal captain pens before every home game – ahead of the Porto tie.

“We have something special for sure, and that’s showing on the pitch too, how much we enjoy playing together.”

This resurgent Arsenal team is looking to win major trophies this season. Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

However if he’s to match the level set by some of his predecessors at Arsenal, the current captain will need to lift more than one major trophy during his time at the club.

Many fans still hope it’ll happen this season, with the Gunners facing a quarterfinal tie in the Champions League and a tight title race with English Premier League rivals Manchester City and Liverpool.

There are still doubts, of course, whether this young Arsenal side has what it takes to get over the line in either competition. Few of the players have ever won a major trophy and the manager is still relatively new to the big stage.

But, in Ødegaard, Arsenal finally has a leader who looks determined to lead this team to success. And, in Arsenal, Ødegaard finally has a place to shine.

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