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February 2015

FOOTBALL.BLUE (4) - Headhunted

24 Feb 2015(Tue)

Below is an English-language version of my new exclusive column for Football.Blue, a new website presenting European football news to Japanese fans in association with The Independent newspaper.

 

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In 1982, a 20-year-old winger called Paul Canoville became the first black player ever to represent Chelsea. His debut, a Second Division fixture at Selhurst Park, was memorable for the worst possible reasons. As he rose from the substitutes’ bench to begin his warm-up, Canoville was met with cries of “Sit down, you black cunt” from the stands. A gathering of spectators then sang in unison: “We don’t want the nigger, we don’t want the nigger, la la la la”. A banana was thrown.

 

Perhaps most troublingly of all, these were not the actions of Crystal Palace supporters. The vile, racist profanities had come from the away end – the Chelsea fans supposedly there to cheer on Canoville and his teammates.

 

Numb with shock, Canoville’s reaction was to supress the trauma. In a climate that liked to pretend there was no issue, this was probably the only way. After one game, he went home and relayed to friends with forced excitement how he had scored the opener. He deliberately left out the part where Chelsea fans had shouted to him that, in their view, the score was still 0-0 – a goal by a black man didn’t count.

 

After two years of unrelenting humiliation, Herman Ouseley of the Ethnic Minorities Unit at the Greater London Council went to visit the Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, and suggested they work together to stamp out this abuse. As Ouseley later recalled to The Guardian, “He (Bates) said they didn’t have a problem, and that the security people will see me off the site. And some big goons in their anoraks saw me off the premises.”

 

In 1986, a drunken teammate called Canoville a “black cunt” during a fight in preseason. This was not an isolated incident but proved to be the final straw. Rather than supporting their victimised player, who had helped them avoid relegation to the Third Division then win the Second Division championship, the club recommended he accept a £50,000 transfer to Reading.

 

Out of sight, out of mind. The racism, and its tacit acceptance, was not a story because nobody wanted to talk about it. This was just how things were in English football back then.

 

In 2015, Canoville is back representing Chelsea again. Sometimes for the Old Boys team, but more significantly as part of the club’s Building Bridges initiative. Now 52, he goes around local schools hosting anti-discrimination workshops where he talks about his experiences and ensures that today’s children know how, and why, racism is totally unacceptable.

 

Chelsea have actively supported Kick It Out, an organisation formed by the now Lord Ouseley in 1993 to kick racism out of football; as well as Show Racism the Red Card, a charity established in 1996 to spread the message through educational initiatives. With Building Bridges, matches at Stamford Bridge are preceded by videos promoting equality and accompanied by anti-discrimination messages on the stadium’s electronic advertising hoardings. As had been planned for some time beforehand, last Saturday’s home fixture against Burnley was specifically designated as a “Game for Equality”.

 

Here, the Building Bridges logo was emblazoned upon the Chelsea players’ shirts, while the club’s official website published accompanying features opposing racism, homophobia, sexism and all forms of discrimination under the campaign slogan: “Support Chelsea, Support Equality”. One such article was an interview with star striker Diego Costa on eliminating “discrimination of any kind, not just in football, but in the wider community”. Identifying the Blues’ responsibility as one of England’s leading clubs, the Brazilian-born, Spain international declared, “Chelsea can set an example with regards to equality within the game”.

 

Chelsea’s activities have been extraordinary, yet not singularly so. Every football club has done its bit to help realise an enormous paradigm shift on our terraces over the past quarter of a century. This is just how things are in English football today.

 

And this, of course, was why it was all the more appalling to witness the utterly repulsive actions of a small group of so-called Chelsea ‘supporters’ on the Métro ahead of the Champions League visit to Paris Saint-Germain – on the same day that Diego Costa interview was posted. The old excuse offered by many casual purveyors of racial abuse in the 1980s – that they were just going along with the crowd, doing what everybody else did – doesn’t hold anymore (if it even did back then) in a society where we are categorically taught that discrimination is taboo.

 

There has been an outpouring of sympathy for the victim, condemnation of the perpetrators, and emphasis that the actions of a minority do not speak for Chelsea supporters or English football as a whole. As José Mourinho said ahead of the Burnley game, “I felt ashamed when I found out, but these supporters do not represent the club”. But at the same time there is a profound sadness that these racists, no matter how small a minority they may be, should exist at all in 2015.

 

Like with hooliganism, racism in football is not a social problem caused by football, but rather symptomatic of problems in deeper society for which football is used as a convenient stage to surface. English society in the 1980s endured a ferocious rich-poor divide under the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, which battled with labour unions and sneered upon the football-going classes. The manifestation of these tensions was a root cause of the foul discrimination and violence that characterised many football terraces during this most unpleasant era for the sport. The far-right National Front infiltrated many hooligan gangs, including the Chelsea Headhunters, distributing literature and orchestrating the reception that black players like Canoville would receive.

 

To English football’s great credit, it recognised that the power for social problems to manifest themselves here could be turned on its head; since the 1990s, football has used its influence to play a leading role in quashing racism within society as a whole. Yet, as Stan Collymore warned The Guardian in 2012, we might have been complacent in thinking we had won the battle already. Today’s racists, he says, are not just a small bunch of middle-aged skinheads stuck in the past: “They’re from every age and every background, and a lot think the eastern Europeans have come over and nicked their jobs, just like dad said the blacks and Asians did years ago. And in a recession, we know right-wing ideas and principles tend to come to the fore.”

 

Certainly, the economic situation draws some parallels with the 1980s. Politically, a profound lack of public confidence in any of the three major parties has catalysed the sudden rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – a coyer far right offering which smiles and says no, no, we’re not racists, we just don’t want any Romanians living next door. But another new factor is social media, where anonymity leads some to air extreme views without fear of reproach (evidently ignorant of the legal action successfully pursued against online abusers of public figures like Collymore in the past). Just as dangerously, the more openly far right Britain First has exploited the propensity of others to retweet before they think in order to propagate its innocent-at-first-glance, populist agenda.

 

As I wrote at the time, Chelsea arguably missed an important opportunity a couple of years back when it chose to prioritise the reputation of its club captain, John Terry, over the reemphasis of a clear, anti-racism message. The same could be said about Liverpool and Luis Suárez over the Patrice Evra affair. But it is absolutely vital that no such mistake is made this time.

The power of our sport and of social media is already being harnessed for good in identifying the Paris Métro racists to the police. English football must now ensure this affair serves to ensure its endeavours to kick racism out are furthered, not forgotten.

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FOOTBALL.BLUE (3) - On paper

17 Feb 2015(Tue)

Below is an English-language version of my new exclusive column for Football.Blue, a new website presenting European football news to Japanese fans in association with The Independent newspaper.

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To many of us Brits, over on our island, the European Union can be a frustrating thing indeed. For me personally, the frustration derives from how it is patently such a wonderful thing in principle, yet often falls ever so slightly short of what it should be due to its hypocritically meddlesome, idealistically myopic nature. In football parlance, it is a bit like a deep-lying midfielder with the prodigious technical skill to glide past three opponents – who then loses the ball when needlessly trying to nutmeg a fourth, chastises a teammate for not passing to him 30 seconds later, then attempts to dictate his own ideas for tactical reorganisation over the manager’s head.

 

You see, where Western European nations basically spent two or three millennia at war with each other until the 1940s – and with Eastern Europe until the 1990s – instead we now have open borders, free migration, cultural and economic exchange. Coinciding with the growth of air travel, we now enjoy greater opportunity to understand and appreciate our neighbours than was previously even conceivable.

 

Yet it doesn’t always work quite so smoothly when immigration is not a perfect synonym for integration and responsibilities for rectification are undefined. Meanwhile, the principles of freedom and openness are challenged by the fact that membership is restricted to countries within the arbitrary geographical boundaries of ‘Europe’ (Morocco was refused membership for this reason in 1987). Countries that have willingly opened their borders to workers and scholars from the rest of the EU thus maintain control of overall immigration through much heavier visa restrictions on those from outside – for example, it is now much harder for skilled professionals from the United States or Japan to work in the United Kingdom, and for the UK to benefit from the qualities they could offer.

 

The single currency, too, is a brilliant idea on paper. Intra-European trade is fertilised by the absence of tariffs, of risks associated with rate fluctuations, and even of minor losses surrendered to banks during currency conversion. Tourism is enhanced as visitors not only cross national borders freely, but do so in the knowledge that the cash in their pockets will still be useful on the other side. However, the countries embracing this model have also had to surrender jurisdiction over fiscal policy to the European Central Bank – which is forced to attempt one-size-fits-all coverage for a vast variety of different national economies, cultures, and industry structures. When things go wrong, individual governments can no longer make adjustments to suit unique local circumstances.

 

Of course, the UK cunningly avoids some of this kerfuffle – Schengen, the Euro, etc – by pointing to the Channel Tunnel when it suits us to be part of Europe, and to the sea when it doesn’t. But the impact that the EU has had on our national sport has been deeply profound. In most cases, while preaching liberty and fairness, ‘Brussels’ has unwittingly catalysed the financial chasm which has grown to characterise European football over the past two decades.

 

The most obvious example is the Bosman ruling. Again, this began with a noble, and entirely correct pursuit of justice. Jean-Marc Bosman, an unremarkable midfielder at RFC Liège in the Belgian First Division, was out of contract and desired a move to French side Dunkerque. However, the latter were unable to meet the transfer fee stipulated by Liège, who thus refused to transfer Bosman’s playing registration and forced him to remain in Belgium on reduced pay. He took the case to the European Court of Justice, who in 1995 found in his favour that the football transfer system – which had allowed clubs like Liège to demand transfer fees or refuse transfers even for players whose contracts had expired – was in violation of EU laws on restraint of trade and free movement of workers.

 

But what the ruling failed to foresee was the impact on wages and youth development. Players on expiring contracts, like Edgar Davids and Steve McManaman, were able to use the carrot of a zero transfer fee and negotiate personally lucrative deals with new overseas suitors. Clubs today are panicked into offering improved salaries virtually every season to avoid their stars entering the ‘dangerous’ final two years of their existing contracts. Those who cannot afford to do so might receive little or no compensation for a player into whom they had invested years of coaching.

 

As an addendum to the Bosman ruling, the EU made it illegal for UEFA or national federations to impose the foreigner restrictions (typically three players per team; not unlike the J. League) that had previously been custom. Once more, this was perfectly grounded in European employment laws and there was no reason that sportsmen should not be granted the same freedom to ply their trade in other member states as anybody else. But inevitably English clubs, with their newfound television money, deduced that if they could offer nice salaries to as many grown-up overseas players on Bosman free transfers as they liked, then this might be a lot quicker and cheaper than investing in the training of local youngsters.

 

Fast forward to February 2015, and this television cash has now risen by 70% for the second straight three-year deal with the announcement last week that Sky Sports and BT Sport will pay a combined £5.136 billion for live domestic coverage of the Barclays Premier League. The EU is highly complicit here too. In declaring that the 15-year monopoly Sky held on live broadcast rights until 2007 was in contravention of European competition law, the EU paved the way for new bidders to enter the UK digital television market and vie for a proportion of matches. This, in turn, triggered an arms race for quadruple play (television, telephone, internet, wireless) packages as BT, essentially the British equivalent of NTT, and Sky used football as a means to expand into each other’s industries.

 

It all sounds brilliant, of course – loads of money comes flooding in to make English football better, while trading monopoly for competition sounds like a principle designed to bring better value to the consumer. However, the inflated bank balances have largely served to further clubs’ reliance on purchased talent and to inflate the gap between football’s rich and poor – from Premier League to Football League, player to fan, stadium to community. Meanwhile, the competitive viewer experience isn’t really competitive in the slightest. Sky and BT don’t show the same matches; they each offer a separate, exclusive set of games, meaning that fans now have to pay for two subscriptions instead of one in order to see everything on show. And these subscriptions are naturally getting more and more expensive to cover the vast outlay incurred by the two television stations in trying to outbid each other for the best fixtures.

 

It comes to something when UEFA has to fight the battle of responsible sustainability against the EU, as it has for the past ten years in trying to forge loopholes – such as the homegrown rules – to European law. But even Financial Fair Play can only be defined through percentages of income, rather than in absolute terms, meaning that Premier League clubs will be spending more rampantly than ever when the new television deal kicks in next year.

 

The latest rights contract represents a crossroads for English football, but also an opportunity. It is vital that the clubs, football authorities, and both national and European governments work together to ensure that finances are reinvested for the wider benefit of our game – and all its stakeholders from top to bottom.

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FOOTBALL.BLUE (2) - Harry's game

10 Feb 2015(Tue)

Below is an English-language version of my new exclusive column for Football.Blue, a new website presenting European football news to Japanese fans in association with The Independent newspaper.

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On Saturday afternoon, in a parallel universe, Harry Redknapp took his seat in the directors’ box at Loftus Road to rapturous applause from the Queens Park Rangers faithful.

 

He was slightly late, of course. The England manager’s attempts to leave the lunchtime kickoff at White Hart Lane ten minutes from time were foiled by the usual demands for handshakes and autographs from fans of the side he led to the Champions League final in 2013. On course for a sixth straight North London derby win thanks to goals from Gareth Bale and Luka Modrić, Tottenham Hotspur had been left in the healthiest of states when Redknapp finally stepped down after a year combining duties for both club and country. It had been expected that he would retire altogether after the World Cup in Brazil, but that barely credible run to the semis – and another penalty shootout defeat to the Germans – generated an irresistible, nationwide clamour for four more years.

 

Of course, in reality – or at least in our reality – it was Roy Hodgson who made the journey of a little under 20km between stadiums to observe a second set of candidates for the England national team. Harry the manager did not get his happy ending. Instead, it would seem that his career in the dugout ended at 5.30 in the morning after transfer deadline day with a phone call to QPR chairman Tony Fernandes explaining his 67-year-old knees could no longer handle the job.

 

However, that particular job always looked a dubious fit for Redknapp after the way things unravelled so suddenly for him at Spurs – no Champions League place despite finishing fourth, no call for the England post vacated by Fabio Capello, and then once he had finally abandoned his Euro 2012 ambitions, no contract waiting for him at the Lane either.

 

If Redknapp was bruised and vulnerable at this point, it would be quite understandable. But into whose arms should he fall but those of a near neighbour in need of a saviour herself; a struggling Rangers with an ambitious but naïve owner not yet aware that his personal wealth and purchasing power was not actually that remarkable by Premier League standards. Like most lustful, later life liaisons in the aftermath of a true love that has died, this never seemed likely to end in much of a dignified manner.

 

When, as an FA Cup winner, Redknapp left Portsmouth for Tottenham in October 2008, his new club were bottom of the table with just two points from eight games. Four years and a month later, QPR had only four points from 12 matches before his appointment. But the similarity ended there. Despite the big money arrivals of Loïc Rémy and a patently unfit Christopher Samba in January 2013, the R’s finished the season still in 20th position – their relegation confirmed with three games to spare.

 

That the malaise grew deeper throughout their subsequent promotion season speaks volumes. Despite accruing 26 points of a possible 30 from the start of 2013/14, the biggest wage bill in the Championship proved only good enough for a distant fourth place. In the playoff final at Wembley, Redknapp sat with a distant, emotionless expression as Bobby Zamora pounced on a mistake by Derby County defender Richard Keogh to score a 90th minute winner with 10-man QPR’s only shot on target all game. Their opponents, dominant throughout, were managed by Steve McClaren – who had temporarily served on the coaching staff at Loftus Road until the previous September and was widely credited for the good results achieved at the time.

 

Ahead of the current season back in the top flight, Redknapp decided he needed another experienced helper. The man chosen, Glenn Hoddle, had been out of professional football since leaving Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2006 and spent the intervening eight years sitting in television studios explaining how the losing team could solve all their problems by simply adopting the 3-5-2 formation so fashionable when he was England manager at France ’98. Finally, Redknapp’s QPR could be the perfect case study.

 

Continuing the somewhat retro theme, Rio Ferdinand was recruited to serve as the trusted linchpin of the back three, having made his senior debut under Redknapp at West Ham United in 1996 and his full England debut under Hoddle a year later. It was a plan so guaranteed not to fail that QPR’s entire summer transfer kitty was spent on players designed specifically for their new system. Mauricio Isla, a specialist wing-back, and forward Eduardo Vargas arrived fresh from the Chile team which excited us all at the World Cup in their 3-4-1-2 (all back three styles are basically the same, right?). Leroy Fer, Jordon Mutch, and Harry’s old favourite Niko Kranjčar came in to offer a plethora of options for the attacking central midfield places.

 

Inevitably, Spurs of all people tore Ferdinand and company to shreds in a 4-0 shellacking on only the second day of the season. Redknapp realised that his new assistant’s philosophies had left their relevance in the 1990s. Rio was dropped, the back four restored in a system with no number ten, and Isla, Fer et al were suddenly now square shapes in round holes.

 

But the damage was done. Having splashed the cash and failed, Harry could never again escape the ‘wheeler-dealer’ stereotype he has always despised. Even his final day in the job was a transfer negotiation farce as QPR tried to loan Matt Jarvis from West Ham, from whom they had already borrowed Mauro Zárate a few weeks earlier. Premier League regulations prevent simultaneous loans between the same two clubs, and when Rangers therefore tried to send Zárate back to Upton Park, they found that doing so inside the same transfer window was against the rules as well.

 

One would have thought that Redknapp of all people should have been au fait with such things. But indeed, his final legacy may yet be to cripple QPR upon their likely return to the Football League next season. Financial Fair Play violations related to their spending last term in the Championship could reportedly see the League impose a fine of anywhere between £27 million and £54 million. Refusal – or, given the club’s other debts, inability – to pay may result in the League refusing membership and QPR being demoted to the fifth-tier Conference.

 

It is sad that Redknapp’s management career should end like this. But his brief affair at Loftus Road was always a match made in hell; a rampant rebound into a culture of irresponsible spending left behind by former owners Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone to be perpetuated further by their Formula One friend Fernandes. As Guardian journalist and QPR season ticket holder Michael Hann puts it: “Could anyone succeed at this cursed club?”

At Tottenham, he had the big club resources with which he could pursue the players he truly desired; as well as a chairman, in Daniel Levy, who was economically astute and strong-minded enough to keep everything in control. This was the ideal marriage for Redknapp, who proved himself to be a more intelligent tactician than even he gives himself credit for (at least publicly). This was the attractive, attacking team which proved for the benefit of all English football that it was possible to break the old Big Four dominance without obscene amounts of oil money. And this was the happier Harry the manager who I shall prefer to remember.

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FOOTBALL.BLUE (1) - The keystone

3 Feb 2015(Tue)

Below is an English-language version of my new exclusive column for Football.Blue, a new website presenting European football news to Japanese fans in association with The Independent newspaper.


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While preparing to commentate on Manchester United versus Leicester City last Saturday evening, I tried to cast my mind back to the last time the Red Devils had truly excited me. Yes, there has been the odd comfortable win over Hull City or Newcastle United; and of course important victories against Arsenal and Liverpool – rivals both spiritually and for fourth place. But in terms of the thrilling, attacking brilliance one craves of United, the high point of the Louis van Gaal era thus far probably came way back in September when they visited Leicester at the King Power Stadium.

 

This may seem a strange thing to say, given the way everything ultimately unravelled on what Van Gaal described in his programme notes this weekend as “the worst day I have had in my job as manager of Manchester United”. Rafael’s impetuous habit of conceding penalties at inopportune moments triggered a defensive implosion in the final half hour from which Tyler Blackett is probably still recovering. The Foxes became only the sixth team in Premier League history – and the first straight out of the Championship – to put five past United. In 853 matches since the top division’s rebranding, the Reds had never once previously lost having held a two-goal advantage.

 

But at least it had been good fun. Still fresh from the late extravagance of the summer transfer window, United began that afternoon in a swashbuckling manner that got everyone off their seats. In the opening quarter-hour, Falcao marked his first start by racing behind Ritchie de Laet and swirling a perfect cross for new strike partner Robin van Persie to open the scoring. Three minutes later, record signing Ángel Di María burst out of his own half, played a 1-2 through a crowd with Wayne Rooney, before improvising a chip over Kasper Schmeichel as delightful as that famous Karel Poborsky effort at Euro ’96. Though Leonardo Ulloa pulled one back, a ravenous restart after half time produced a second goal in two for another recent arrival, Ander Herrera. All the new pieces were clicking into place and, for a moment, it looked a matter of how many.

 

As 1-3 became 5-3, we were all forced to hurriedly rewrite our conclusions. But at this stage, one thing felt eminently clear: Van Gaal’s United were an exciting guarantee of goals aplenty at both ends. As a Gamba Osaka supporter, this was a comfortingly familiar sensation; as a journalist, it was a standard for narrative. A solid truth upon which expectations could be based, just like the way Mario Balotelli would constantly entertain us at Liverpool with headlines good and bad, or how Chelsea would never be so careless as to suffer a 5-3 scoreline like that.

 

That things have not panned out this way is both a credit and discredit to Van Gaal. United have only lost twice since that crazy late summer afternoon. Their goals against record is the third best in the Premier League. After narrow defeat in a derby match played with ten men for the entire second half, they went on a six-game winning streak and remained unbeaten for 11. The Dutchman may only have accrued three more points than David Moyes had at the same stage but the comparison is meaningless when paired with the fact that, in a tighter top half this term, United’s current haul is enough for third place not seventh. Moyes and company began to resemble rabbits in headlights last February but there is much greater confidence surrounding the Van Gaal team, who have developed a resilient efficiency to repeatedly grind out one-goal victories despite not playing well.

 

But this last point, of course, is also the worry. Only Chelsea have scored with a higher percentage of their shots this season, but where might United be without the chance conversion rate of their forwards? How many times have these one-goal wins been protected by the late heroics of David de Gea? To return to my original train of thought, there still have not been many games in which the Old Trafford club have actually bossed proceedings.

 

In this respect, a straightforward 3-1 victory in the return fixture against Leicester was a relief after the horrendously slow build-up play that had characterised their previous two fixtures against Queens Park Rangers and Cambridge United. Van Gaal switched back, once again, from a three- to a four-man defence midway through the second half at Loftus Road – notably removing Jonny Evans, who had been selected as the central man in the back three for the first time all season. From 3-4-1-2 to the diamond, 4-1-4-1 to 3-3-2-2, new tactical variations have clearly added to the disjointed nature of a new manager at a new club with newly-acquired players.

 

One is reminded of Van Gaal’s early press conferences back in July, when he arrived in the afterglow of a run to the World Cup semi-finals built upon the last-minute switch to a Feyenoord-inspired 5-3-2. Then, he stated that a back three was the only way of utilising all his attacking players in a top-heavy United squad, but the narrative has changed somewhat as he now claims to prefer the extra centre-back for reasons of defensive balance. Another first-day quote that springs to mind is when he included the Eredivisie in his list of the world’s four strongest leagues due to the tactical intelligence his Holland players had displayed in Brazil. Perhaps he has discovered since that defenders of British stock do not possess the same acumen and flexibility as Ajax kids crafted for interchangeable 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 from the age of seven.

 

This is, and always was the problem. Teams are built from the back, but United’s defence lacks the central figure around which their new manager can do so. At 27, Evans is the most senior defender but always performed much better alongside the calming presence of Rio Ferdinand than with Nemanja Vidic and is still no real sempai figure. Phil Jones has actually performed reasonably well in a back three but is very much the one to step out of the line and cannot be trusted to hold it. Marcos Rojo was bought for another purpose and remains new to both English league and language. The list of three apparently most trusted to marshal the defence – Michael Carrick (a midfielder), Paddy McNair (a teenager), and Chris Smalling (Chris Smalling) – hardly inspires either awe or peace of mind.

Whether United are lackadaisically passing the ball between defensive three and midfield three, or surrendering late chances to Stoke City and Crystal Palace with a shaky back four, the fundamental issue lies here. Whatever formation Van Gaal deploys, he will not be able to fully exploit his attacking riches until he finds that leader of the rear-guard upon whom he can truly depend.

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