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Now it's Freddie's turn to be sheepish

By Claire McNeilly

Swedish football superstar Freddie Ljungberg last night played down the international row over Northern Ireland striker David Healy's face being superimposed on the body of a sheep.

Healy was furious after one of Sweden's main newspapers, Sportbladet, put out the spoof front page item with the headline "Lambs to the Slaughter, " suggesting that Healy and his team-mates have no chance of success in tonight's Euro 2008 qualifier in Stockholm.

But West Ham midfielder Ljungberg, who models underwear for Calvin Klein, said it was all meant to be a bit of fun.

"I certainly hope David didn't take any offence as we have nothing but respect for him and Northern Ireland," said Ljungberg, who, in keeping with the "fun" element, was depicted as a donkey in yesterday's afternoon editions of the Belfast Telegraph.

"David is a really good player who has scored a lot of goals in this competition," added Ljungberg - no doubt noting the two that the Killyleagh man bagged against the Swedes at Windsor Park in a memorable victory earlier this year.

But Northern Ireland fans will travel to Sweden today more in hope than expectation.

Their team will have to pull off something of a mission impossible by defeating the Swedes in their own back yard to stand any chance of qualifying for the Euro 2008 finals next summer.

That hasn't stopped nearly 2,000 members of the fabled Green and White Army - men, women and children - descending on the expensive Scandinavian city to cheer on Healy and his team-mates.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Geoff Wilson, head of marketing and communications at the IFA, confirmed that there were almost 2,000 Northern Ireland fans going over to Stockholm for the game.

"Travelling support has become very, very popular," he said.

"We have 1,650 coming to this match, which is brilliant. We're absolutely delighted; three or four years ago we were only bringing over a couple of hundred."

Mr Wilson also revealed he believes football is no longer the preserve of groups of lads, with many women eager to accompany their other halves to matches in foreign locations.

"There is a lot of family support, with women representing the biggest growth area," he said.

"Before we would just have groups of mates, but now men bring their girlfriends and fiancees. They go for a city break, go to a game and get sucked in by the atmosphere and the camaraderie."

Gary McAllister, spokesperson for the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters Club, arrived in Stockholm late on Monday night.

"The mood here is optimistic," he said.

"Hopefully we'll get a good result. We didn't come here expecting to lose; we're hoping for a win."

Mr McAllister also slammed the Swedish newspaper that poked fun at Our Wee Country's footballers.

Belfast Telegraph


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