Haaland and Odegaard gained recognition as talented young players in Norway, but pursued different paths to achieve success in professional football. They are now set to face each other as key players in an exciting Premier League narrative.

Erling Haaland and Martin Odegaard are the great hopes of Norwegian football (Getty Images)

The school playground is always the ideal place to gauge a nation’s passion for football, and in Norway, there has been a significant shift. The prevalence of sky blue attire is one noticeable aspect, but what is more striking is the increasing presence of Norwegian names on the back of children’s football jerseys.

Norway has had a long-standing love affair with English football, dating back to the acquisition of TV broadcasting rights in the 1960s. However, the national obsession has intensified with two of the top players in this year’s captivating Premier League title race hailing from Norway. Martin Odegaard, Arsenal’s captain, and Erling Haaland, Manchester City’s superstar, are set to face off at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday night, in what could be a decisive match determining the league’s ultimate winner.

Odegaard’s ascent to football stardom was a rapid one, but it was not without setbacks. He was raised in Drammen, a small city situated 20 miles west of Oslo, where he caught the attention of coaches from a young age, starting at just 11 years old. Odegaard’s father, Hans Erik Odegaard, was also a football player and coached the team that Martin played for before eventually signing on with Stromsgodset, the main local club, at the age of 13.

At the age of 15, Odegaard made his professional league debut and soon caught the attention of major football clubs, including Manchester United and Arsenal. Despite the interest, he ultimately decided to join Real Madrid. However, he struggled to establish himself at the renowned club and was subsequently loaned out to several other teams. One of these teams was Arsenal, where he had a virtual meeting with Mikel Arteta who explained the club’s vision and goals to him. At the time of the meeting, Arsenal was performing poorly, ranked as low as 15th in the table. Nevertheless, Odegaard was convinced by Arteta’s pitch and wrote in The Players’ Tribune that “I challenge anyone to come away from a meeting with Arteta and not believe everything he tells you.”

During the virtual meeting with Mikel Arteta, he laid out his plans and vision for the club, including the changes needed to turn things around. Arteta also spoke highly of the young players on the team, such as Saka, Martinelli, and Smith Rowe, and outlined how Odegaard would fit in and improve the squad. This convinced Odegaard that Arteta was building something truly special at Arsenal.

Since joining Arsenal on loan two summers ago, Odegaard’s move has become permanent, and he has excelled as the team’s midfield playmaker, even taking on the captaincy this season. However, despite his success, he remains in the shadow of Erling Haaland, who has become the ultimate star of Norway’s football scene. Even though Odegaard is Norway’s national captain, it is Haaland who receives the lion’s share of media attention, and carries the weight of the country’s expectations. With Norway having failed to qualify for a major competition in almost 25 years, the pressure is on Haaland to help them reach Euro 2024.

Haaland’s father was also a professional footballer, and Erling was born in Leeds while his father was playing for the local team. When he was three years old, the family returned to their hometown of Bryne, a small town near Norway’s western coast. From a young age, Haaland displayed exceptional athletic ability, setting long jump records and dominating on the handball court, but it was his prowess on the football field that truly set him apart.

Like Odegaard, Haaland made his professional league debut at the age of 15, but their paths diverged from there. While Odegaard opted for the bright lights of Real Madrid, Haaland took a more low-key step to one of Norway’s top clubs, Molde. There, he quickly established himself as their top scorer and won the league’s young player of the year award.

Managed carefully by his father, Haaland took a deliberate path, spending a productive year in Austria with Red Bull Salzburg (scoring 28 goals in 22 games), and then three outstanding seasons with Borussia Dortmund (netting 86 goals in 89 games), a club known for giving young talent the chance to flourish on the European stage. Manchester City came calling, and with 48 goals in 42 games – along with the opportunity to win a historic treble – it seems to have been a wise move so far.

Haaland is still frequently linked with a move to Real Madrid, the club he dreamt of playing for as a child. Perhaps Odegaard may also return to Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu someday, with something to prove. They certainly make a good combination for Norway and have a strong relationship, always speaking highly of each other. Odegaard and Haaland need each other as much as their country needs them.

But for now, they are opponents in one of the most enthralling Premier League title races in years. Norway is as captivated as Manchester and North London. The outcome of their match will determine the colors filling school playgrounds in the coming months.

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