The fact that China missed out on a semi-final place at the ongoing  Algarve Cup  following successive defeats to USA and Sweden was widely attributed to the absence of  Ma Xiaoxu .
 
The striking prodigy is flying to Sweden from Beijing today to complete her move to Swedish champions Umea IK, and although she recently told FIFA.com that China "can play well without anyone," such humility undoubtedly does scant justice to her importance to the Steel Roses. 

Last year illustrated that perfectly. The teenager was, after all, hugely influential in China recapturing the continental title at the AFC Women Championship and then almost single-handedly steered her country to the final of FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup, picking up a  Golden Boot and Golden Ball double  for her troubles.
 
This meteoric rise was recognised last December when Ma was bestowed with an historic awards double by the AFC, who named her Youth Player of the Year and Women's Player of the Year, and most recently she was nominated for the prestigious Laureus Breakthrough of the Year honour. By moving to Umea, whom  she agreed to join last month , she will also become the first Chinese woman footballer to compete in a European league, and will join a  star-studded line-up  that also features the likes of  Marta  and Hanna Ljungberg.
 
A prodigious talent
Ma might have risen to global prominence at Russia 2006 but her unique gifts as a talented striker were first spotted in her school days, when she usually trained with boys rather than girls.

One of the goalkeepers she came up against as a youngster was 2005 AFC Youth Player of the Year nominee and Shanghai Shenhua's current No1 goalkeeper, Wang Dalei.
 
"I don't remember how many goals I fired past him," Ma recalled with a smile, "but such experiences did make me tough in difficult matches."
 
The unusual experience of facing up to boys made her stand out against players of her own gender and she was quickly found to be head and shoulders above her rivals at continental level, earning the Golden Boot with both the youth and senior national teams at their respective Asian championships last year. 

Culture clash
However, for all Ma's heroics in the  U-20 side's march to the final at Russia 2006 , China's senior side have been far from convincing against European opposition in recent years, a fact their star striker is quick to recognise.

"We have to overcome strong European opposition if we are aiming to achieve anything in the Women's World Cup in September," said Ma. "They (European players) are physically stronger than Asians, so we must learn how to play against them."
 
Having played in  January's Four-Nation Championship  that saw China finish second and then watched her side lose to the US and Sweden at the Algarve Cup, Ma is in no doubt that she - and the national team - will benefit from her move to Umea.
 
"You can only improve by playing against strong rivals so it is not a bad idea to move to Europe," she said. "I hope I can learn enough before I return to China in August to join my team for their final preparations for the World Cup."