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Umeå prepares for Arsenal clash

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07:45 CEST+02:00
On Saturday, the team will defend its UEFA Cup title in a match against British club Arsenal.

"We're psyched," said Hanna Ljungberg, her freckles and blue eyes sparkling as she heads out for the team's afternoon practice.

"Arsenal is a good team, it'll be a good fight.

Hanna Ljungberg is Sweden's biggest football star and has been a member of Umeå IK for years, despite lucrative offers from abroad and other Swedish teams for the 28-year-old striker.

According to Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, the recent influx of foreign talent means that Umeå IK now has a "terrible trio of strikers."

When Brazilian female football star Marta Vieira da Silva was offered the chance to play for Swedish side Umeå, she jumped at the opportunity. Umeå is one of the best teams in the world, drawing the top female players -- the latest from China.

In Sweden, a bastion of gender equality, "there is much more interest in women's football. Here, I get help, in Brazil I didn't get any help," said the 21-year-old forward who now speaks Swedish after three years in the country, albeit with a heavy Portuguese accent.

"It was a little hard with the language, but the hardest thing was the climate," she laughed, a pink baseball cap on her head, recalling the bitterly-cold winter temperatures of minus 20 degrees C (minus four degrees F).

But her hard work in Sweden paid off. In December, FIFA, the world football's ruling body, voted her the top player of 2006. Her face lights up at the mention of the prize.

She hopes that the distinction will help improve conditions for women footballers in Brazil, where a "macho" attitude prevails, she said.

Sitting in the kitchen of Umeå IK's clubhouse, located near the Umeå stadium and where the walls are adorned with the team's many trophies, Vieira da Silva gesticulates wildly as she talks and plays with her cell phone and keys.

It's easy to see that she is an impatient young woman, both in life and on the field.

According to Umeå IK coach Andrée Jeglertz, Vieira da Silva is a "an unparalleled player ... there's no one like her."

From a modest family in Alagoas in northeastern Brazil, Vieira da Silva left home for Rio de Janeiro at the age of 14 to join the club Vasco de Gama.

She attended school between the ages of nine and 14, but hopes to resume her schooling one day when her football career is over.

With the money she earns playing in Umeå -- she does not want to disclose the amount -- she is able to help out her family and put a little aside for herself.

Umeå IK is Sweden's top team, and has won the premiership five times and the UEFA Cup twice.

The club has attracted other foreign talents in addition to Vieira da Silva, including Elaine Moura, another Brazilian player, and Ramona Bachmann of Switzerland.

The latest recruit is Chinese star Ma Xiaoxu, who was recently named Asia's top player. The 18-year-old forward from Chinese side Dalian Shide arrived in Umeå in March after signing a six-month contract.

She will return home in time for the 2007 women's World Cup, to be played in China this autumn.

Umeå IK "is a great team, the best in Europe ... I hope to return home with a lot of positive experiences," she said.

But the first weeks in Sweden have been difficult for her. "Xiao", as her teammates call her, speaks neither Swedish nor English.

"I feel very alone," she said through an interpreter.

On the field however "there's no problem."

"We sometimes draw pictures to communicate with the coach," she said.

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