Friday, October 28, 2005

Listen to Mickey and End the Madness

So the annual absurdity that is the International Rules series is over again. The GAA and AFL's yearly bastardisation of their games saw Ireland comprehensively beaten by an Australian team who learned well the lessons from their own hammering last year. As big and tough as usual, they added speed and vastly improved kicking ability to leave the Irish looking feeble in comparison.

Right, can that be the end of it now please?

It may sound like sour grapes in the face of Ireland's defeat- like not wanting to play anymore taking the ball home with you- but this series is surely more trouble than it is worth. The only valid role it plays, as far as I can see, is affording elite amateur GAA players the perk of a biennial jaunt to the Antipodes in well-earned reward for their unparalleled commitment throughout the inter-county season. But isn't that what the All-Star tour is for?

As a sporting entity the game's integrity is dubious. This mangled code often appears to be the equivalent of what watching Roger Federer play tennis with a cricket bat might look like: you can see the ability, but it is being refracted through a prism of sporting farce. The obvious panic in the Irish players' eyes as they try to dispense with the ball before being clattered is like that of a small boy being chased by playground bullies.

The definitive comment on the game is that it basically dispenses with many of both sports' finest characteristics. Namely, the GAA players cannot display the sidestep, the dummy, the mazy solo run, because the rules are weighted in favour of the Australian 'anything goes' tackling style. The glory of the tricky corner-forward bamboozling an exasperated corner-back is absent. For the Aussies, the smaller dimensions of the pitch and the less dramatic canvas it thus provides detract from the awe-inspiring nature of their sport's mark-taking, and the breathless athleticism of their running.

Another driver behind the game's existence is the desire to have an 'international' element to Gaelic Games, with the belief that this code will perform some sort of missionary role for the GAA. Look, you can't go on about how the GAA is a cultural cornerstone of Irishness, how it helps define exactly what we are, and how it touches an innate part of our soul like no other game, and then bleat about internationalism! Isn't that what soccer is for?!

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte is an outspoken critic of the game. He bemoans the promotion of this game at the expense of Gaelic Football and is wise to its fundamental pointlessness. He's a wise man, is Mickey, and I'm with him on this one.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Chicago's Sox Finally White Again

"Well ole south side of Chicago, is the baddest part of town...."- Jim Croce, "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown", 1972

On the face of it it should be another baseball fairytale to follow 2004's Boston Red Sox, whose success in winning the World Series broke "the Curse of the Bambino", which romantically referred to their not having won baseball's premier honour since 1918- the year before they traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.

The Chicago White Sox stunning 4-0 sweep of the Houston Astros, which culminated last night, brought them their first World Series since 1917, leaving their city rivals the Cubs, whose last title came in 1908, as the sole standard bearers for chronic ineptitude. The Cubs possess their own quixotic legend, that of the "curse of the billy goat", which derives from an incident where a tavern keeper named Sam Sianis was ejected from a 1945 World Series contest for using his second ticket to gain admission for his mangy, tethered billy goat. Sianis, in broken English reportedly proclaimed "never agin will World Series be played in Wrigley Field [the Cubs famous, ivy-festooned home ground]". The Cubs' and Red Sox's status as notorious losers and the pithy stories attached to them came to be used almost as a marketing tool for their respective clubs' management, as they became baseball's most loved teams.

The White Sox, however, never occupied such a warm and cosy place in America's cultural psyche, due to the fact that their supposed hex was the result of an altogether less savoury incident. The 1919 White Sox were the best team in baseball as they prepared to face the Cincinnati Reds in that year's World Series, but, driven by dreadful pay and treatment by owner Charles Comiskey, several of the players conspired to 'throw' the series. The scandal was uncovered the following year, the players banned and arrested, and the 1919 team would come to be known as the 'Black' Sox, in testament to the dastardliness of their conduct.

The Black Sox scandal is one of the defining crises of modern American history, commonly held to signify the loss of the young nation's innocence. This is popularly illustrated by the famous, and probably apocryphal, incident where a young boy shouted "say it ain't so Joe" to the Sox most famous player, 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson as he left the courthouse following the accused players' hearing.

The Chicago White Sox have lived under a cloud since, and are overshadowed even in their own city. The south side of the city, where the Sox reside, is traditionally the more blue-collar, and indeed deprived district in comparison with the more salubrious Wrigleyville, where the Cubs are based. The Cubs, due to their status as lovable losers, tend to be people's second team. Wrigley Field is almost a national monument and the surrounding neighbourhood is filled with sports bars and restaurants that buzz continously around game time. Tickets for the Cubs are infinitely more prized than for the Sox and a trip to Wrigley is a quintessential part of the Chicago experience.

The Sox often struggle to attract crowds and their stadium, the rather less charmingly named U.S. Cellular Field (formerly Comiskey Park) is not a part of the Windy City tourist trail.

Its unlikely that the White Sox will ever redeem from their name the taint of 1919, but as their fans celebrate their comprehensive success today, they surely would not swap it for all the whimsical charm in the world.

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Looking After Number One....

Fat kids. Asthmatics. Oppressed younger brothers. Gangly boys who can't run. The possession of two left feet. Insistence on spectacle wearing. Many and varied are the reasons why a stripling youth, his head full of fantastical dreams of scoring last minute, bicycle-kicked winners in World Cup finals, finds himself- to use the technical term- "shoved in nets".

The Darwinian law of the playground, following careful Opta Index-style analysis of key indicators such as 'Ability to Dribble While Munching a Cheese Sandwich' and 'Superiority or Otherwise to Scabby-Kneed Ginger Girl', singles out two hapless souls, the chaff, the cream of the crud, to be buffeted incessantly with toe-ended pile-drivers until either a) their spirit breaks or b) the bell rings.

It gets better from there though. If the character is right, if the lad has the right amount of pig-headed disregard for his own safety, he might just take to it. He'll always harbour a deeply hidden sense of sadness that he will never be the glamour boy, the sleek dashing blade that excites supporters. But he'll find a different, deeper fulfilment in standing nobly defiant against an attacking onslaught, as his defence crumbles yet he remains resolute, accepting the grudging respect of his foes when the final whistle blows.

Team mates pat him on the back. He earns a different sort of respect to that afforded a goalscorer. They get Hollywood-style showbiz adulation. The proud last man gets more firefighter/paramedic-type "only for ye" adoration. The message is: Its a dirty job but someone's got to do it.

This is how we imagine the Shay Givens, the Gianluigi Buffons, the Maik Taylors coming to love their craft.

But then there is the other side.

Watching the travails of Antonio Doblas of Real Betis and Volkan Demirel of Fenerbahce in Wednesday night's Champions League fixtures was to be see the particular vision of personal hell that is a part of every goalkeeper's reality.

If, like me, you have donned gloves and garish padded-elbow top in your football career, you will have shuddered to the very core of your being as Doblas fluffed his catch to the feet of Carvalho at Stamford Bridge. You will have turned away mournfully when Demirel came out swinging at thin air. For only if you've experienced the horror of that moment, when you realise that you have just committed the dreaded 'howler', only if you have watched the opposition wheel away mixing their celebration with mocking laughter, only then can you really know how those gentlemen felt.

You will NEVER experience such loneliness.

Your team-mates stare at you with barely disguised contempt, like you are some sort of depraved wretch who has sold everything they have fought for and held dear down the river, due to your clownish stupidity and wrecklessness. People you called your friends cannot look you in the eye, afraid to stare into chasm of fear and loathing that your face represents. You hang your head in shame.

Now, if that's how it feels when it happens playing astro-turf five-a-sides, what on earth is it like when the clanger you've dropped destroys the dreams of tens of thousands of supporters, costs millions of euros in potential income and will see your hapless face on every newspaper as the embodiment of failure?

Well, it must be character building.

There is a well-worn football maxim, which gained much of its currency in the great era of Grobbelaar and Higuita, relating to the fact that all goalkeepers are, reportedly, stone mad. They're not born that way though. No, most of them were probably sane, sentient, even well-adjusted at one time. But years of soul-destroying horror mixed with the odd chapter of heroic defiance conspire to create the haunted, troubled demeanour that marks the profession. Indeed it is said that Pope John Paul II gained much of the inner strength to cope with the challenges facing modern Catholicism from a few dropped crosses while playing for the Wadowice United under 16s.

So next time your team's keeper comes charging out for a through ball and falls on his arse, or comes twelve yards out for a corner that he has no business coming for and , er, falls on his arse, well, just go easy on him will you? Because the poor guy is in a pretty bad place.....

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A Tale of Two Cities- a TSA report

It is Friday evening in a newsagents just off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. A football phone-in show is jabbering familiarly from a radio: the presenter baits a Hearts supporter, suggesting that Glaswegians still don’t take their team seriously, the Hearts supporter responds indignantly. In a few minutes the presenter will bait a Celtic fan with the notion that his team are really, genuinely, worried; the fan will be indignance with a slightly different accent.

On the back page of the Edinburgh Evening News Hearts new owner and the fuel for their current velocity, Lithuanian businessman Vladimir Romanov, has ‘slapped’ a £5 million price tag on their young Scottish international goalkeeper, Craig Gordon, in order to illustrate the fact that his club intends to hold on to its best players, and, by inference, its current eminence.

It’s a bit of chest puffing on the day before the game that will be the barometer of the true prevailing conditions in this most curious of Scottish seasons.

As with any country where two metropoles dominate the civic and cultural landscape, Glasgow and Edinburgh have long squabbled over bragging rights. This is only exacerbated by their proximity: it is forty-five minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley Station to Glasgow Queen Street.

Glasgow championed its industrial might, its earthy humour, more latterly its architectural and artistic importance and an increasing sense of the cutting edge. Edinburgh pointed to its mediaeval and royal splendour, its position as the bastion of Scotland’s political and legal system, and felt it housed a better class of Scot.

Glaswegians derided Edinburgh’s shortbread tin Scottishness, the tartan tattery of the Military Tattoo and the Royal Mile; the fact that it was full of English Tory students, a travesty of real Scotland populated by people with names composed of two surnames, like Campbell Mackintosh and Fulton Mackenzie.

Edinburgh people classed their compatriots to the west as ‘soap-dodgers’, dole spongers, and maleducated detritus from an incomprehensible industrial nightmare, black soot clad and drunk.

But in sport, the contest was a mismatch. The country’s passion, football, also had two focal points, but these were both located in the one city, Parkhead in Glasgow’s East End, and Ibrox south of the River Clyde. The two powerhouses have carved up about 80% of the country’s league titles, a statistic that is kind to the rest because of the more egalitarian Victorian years when the likes of Queens Park and Vale of Leven were big time.

Edinburgh had, of course, Hibernian and Heart of Midlothian, who always bubbled around the upper echelons of the game, particularly in the immediate post war years, but the city’s sporting eminence came in rugby. This reflected the city’s social fabric, drawing from elite private schools and, along with the border region, providing the majority of the internationals who graced Murrayfield, the home of the nation’s rugby in the west of the city.

Since Hearts agonisingly lost the league title in 1986, in the closing minutes of the last day of the season, on goal difference, to Celtic, the lot of the city’s football teams has been identical to that of those elsewhere in the country: hopeless subjugation by the Glasgow giants, spiralling debt and a sense of drifting away from anything approaching success.

Now Romanov’s revolution has not only reeled in the Old Firm, but has them in the unusual position of being in the chasing pack. Add the relative success of Tony Mowbray’s young, free-spirited Hibernian side, and for the first time in a long time it is football that is the subject of the age old struggle for bragging rights between Scotland’s two great cities.

They say its only like this usually for Old Firm games and European matches. But today’s the day that Celtic will reclaim their birthright, put the uppity Jambos in their place and go top of the league.

Parkhead buzzes like only it can.

You walk to Celtic Park up the Gallowgate, through the Barras, teeming like a middle-eastern bazaar, at once foul and splendid, green and white black market merchandise spilling onto the street, rebel songs blasting from pubs that rejoice in their dinginess. It’s the heartland, and you feel part of this particular congregation, but also you think of the hundreds and thousands of people all over Britain doing the same thing, streaming purposefully through back-streets and out of pubs in their own heartlands, and there is little sense of being an individual, and none at all when you take your seat in the upper deck of the Lisbon Lions Stand, juicily close to the hostile pen of Hearts supporters.

The game roars by, like a coal train through a mid-west plain, and is everything a top of table battle should be. Flare-ups that stop short of full-on rammies, lots of chances, two teams manful and mindful, a scrappy goal apiece, ample opportunity to howl at the officials, a final charge by the home team for the three points and the primal roar that accompanies it, and then gone.

The post-match analysis questions Gordon Strachan’s decision to return Alan Thompson to the starting line-up in place of the effervescent and in-form Shaun Maloney, castigates Paul Telfer for his part in Hearts’ equalizer and commends goalscorer Craig Beattie’s increasing maturity. The tone, though, is not irate, or despondent.

It is the acknowledgement, an exceptionally grudging one, that this league campaign would appear to have, at the very least, a significant third main player, and one that could very likely be involved until the final act.

On the train back to Edinburgh, a young Hearts’ fan interrupts the ‘Weedgie’ baiting banter amongst his mates, with a comment: “This is a quiet train for after taking a point from Parkheid”.

They’re obviously getting used to this being top of the pile lark.

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Monday, October 10, 2005

You Just Keep Me Hanging On

I envy the Scots you know. All that despondency and humiliation, then a brief restoration of pride and hope, followed very considerately by the humane act of elimination, a swift and clinical home defeat, no mess, and the nation can go about its business again.

We on the other hand, after several years agonising and searching for the hidden soul of this Irish football team, watching them attempt to negotiate a Group Four which has turned out not so much an elite international qualifying section, more like a bunch of scuttered winos scuffling over a discarded kebab, are strung along another few days at least.

The only thing on Saturday out of keeping with the rest of our qualifying campaign was the perplexing absence of a feebly donated Cypriot equaliser. I lie. We were actually much worse on Saturday evening than on those previous occasions when parity was snatched from the jaws of supremacy.

Reports in today’s papers suggest that Brian Kerr’s toughest post-match questions came not from his old pals in the Irish media but from a Cypriot press apoplectic at the injustice of it all. Viewed out of context, by our old friend the visiting Martian perhaps, the first half had, at times, the appearance of a footballing lesson from the home side. They stretched Ireland at will, pinging diagonal balls behind a discombobulated John O’Shea, and using the wings with élan.

But the sheer ineptitude of Ireland all over the park, in the first half especially, was staggering. In defence of Brian Kerr during the week, his agent Fintan Drury (whose right to comment on football matters, while no less than my own, I feel is diminished by his role in the fate of Liam Miller, who two years ago was excelling in Champions League football for Celtic and progressing nicely in the international set-up, until his dream move to Manchester United Reserves and glory nights against Stockport County, and international irrelevancy) offered up the excuse that the manager was hamstrung by the paucity of his playing resources. A fair point, in terms of the lack of leaders and strong characters in the squad.

The incompetence of Saturday’s display, however, the failure to retain possession, the ham-fisted defending, the absence of pressing and closing down of a Cypriot team whose failure to score might be explained by their surprise at the ease of their own dominance, all these were blemishes from players capable of much better.

God bless Shay Given.

So are we enduring a tortuous stay of execution, until a Swiss team buoyant from doing precisely what we were incapable of doing at home against France puts us out of our misery on Wednesday, adding a last foul memory to the diminishing glory of Lansdowne Road’s annals? Or will we summon up the unlikely resolve to make a play-off, and allow our little hearts to glow hopefully at the thoughts of a magical summer, until some bully like Spain or Turkey puts us back in our place?

I’ll cheer this lot on as usual on Wednesday, and won’t skimp on support until such time as our qualifying fate is decided, but there’s still a little part of me that envies the Scots and the swift decisiveness of a Belorussian blade.

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Friday, October 07, 2005

Strife of Brian, or the Holy Grail?

At what stage in Football Management 101, foundation level, module entitled "Fundamental Tenets of Media Relations" do they teach you that, in the event of getting a rather rough time from the gallant gentlemen of the press, the best policy is...not to talk to them at all! Yes it makes total sense! There's nothing that virtuous and reverent vocation prefer than the occasional reminder through the silence of their quarry just how, well, gosh, hurtful they can be. "I say chaps, you know I think we've rather offended Brian with our analysis and critical study of what, let's be honest, has been a wonderful qualifying campaign so far, full of stirring Irish performances to warm the cockles through the winter months. Do let's go a little easier on the poor blighter!"

Brian Kerr's week long sulk is presumably part of a circle-the-wagons policy to engender a sense of resolve in his embattled camp at what, to continue the western metaphor, could be Greener's Last Stand. But, who'd-a-thunk it, the near total silence from the Ireland manager (and also the pushing forward for press duties of what can really be said to be the chaff of the squad) has instead created the vacuum which has been filled by a week of almost constant debate and speculation on the manager's future, criticism of his policy of omerta and general raking over the smouldering coals of his regime thus far.

The attitude has become the issue, and that can surely only make things harder.

Of course the core text for this managerial strategy is the collected works of Alex Ferguson, entitled Youse are All F@#cking Idiots. The thinking is that by creating the 'them and us' environment, the players respond favourably to the sense of siege mentality and succeed against adversity.

But while Ferguson's players, at least in the halycon days of Ole Purple Face's empire, trusted their manager implicitly, there is nothing to suggest that Kerr has anything like the same paternal aura within his squad, despite his involvement with many of them at youth level- admittedly a vastly more difficult quality to create in the international environment. Indeed a criticism voiced previously in this manor is how Kerr's Ireland have never really enjoyed the "club" feel that previous Irish success has been built around.

As Kerr's international career hangs on a precipice, this would appear to be his last gamble. For all that Cyprus are one of the minnows of the group, and in normal circumstances should represent three easy points for Ireland, the fates would appear to be lining up ominously. The absence of Roy Keane, the gradual sapping of morale which must have begun in the dying minutes in Tel Aviv, and now the Damoclean sword which hangs over the manager; it will take an enormous demonstration of a character which has been hitherto absent from Ireland in recent years to take six points from these two games, and I would be very surprised if a highly publicised media hissy-fit is the catalyst to create it.

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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Absolutely Sweet, Murray

Just another Sunday afternoon for Roger Federer. Where is it this week? Oh yes, Thailand. 31st consecutive ATP tour win, 24th straight win in an ATP tour final. In straight sets, of course. That's twenty-four crushing victories in the matches that matter, twenty-four modest, self-effacing victory speeches, twenty-four words of praise and encouragement for the hapless vanquished. Just another Sunday.

There was a small subtext to Sunday's contest, small at least in the eyes of the tennis world at large- vastly more significant in the eyes of the British tennis world- namely the progression to a first ATP tour final of 18-year-old Andrew Murray, and the highly mature and competitive performance the young Scot proceeded to give.

Now, in this part of the world, much like our ingrained ability to evaluate and discuss the merits of a nice floury spud, we have a genetic predisposition to the deflection and rubbishment of all hype and bombast which issues forth from the British media. Its a complex filter-type arrangement, located just beneath the epidermis. Really.

It explains the healthy skepticism with which we view most of the publicity we receive second hand from the cross-channel sports media, before going to consume it with as much avarice as our cousins in Albion. Nice to be sure first, you know. It could also excuse eyes being thrown to heaven in July as, following the traditional Eliminating of the Henman, the modest Hill in SW17 named in his honour was rechristened Murray Mount. Squirm.

Except, it would appear, that Andrew Murray is the real deal.

Much like with Federer, its worth looking at the numbers.

Sept 2004- wins US Open Boys' title, ranking 415
June 2005- reaches third round at Stella Artois, ranking 317
July 2005- reaches third round at Wimbledon, ranking 213
Sept 2005- reaches second round of US Open, ranking 111
Oct 2005- Runner-up in Thailand Open, ranking 75

Murray has climbed three hundred odd places in a year, and is about on the same career trajectory as Federer in terms of ranking in relation to age.

What is so startling about Murray is a phenomenon that often occurs with the young- that is, the sense of them growing before your very eyes. In Murray's case the progression in his game since most of us first became aware of him at Wimbledon is marked even to the untrained eye. While Federer won the match in straight sets, the score- 6-3, 7-5- demonstrates a little the competitiveness of the match, and a closer inspection of the statistics shows how the great Swiss was broken in the second set, and how the young Scot repeatedly brought his vaunted opponent to deuce while returning his serve. Its not too often that Federer gets a challenge like it, to be honest.

The progression in Murray, while undoubtedly in the scope and execution of his shots, is most marked in the improvements in his mental attitude. Our first impression of him at Wimbledon, reinforced at Flushing Meadows, was of a brattishness and temper which appeared to burn up vital energy in repeated bouts of self-flagellation when things went against him. The contrast with the icy calm of Federer was a salutary lesson.

But let us delve for a moment into Federer's past. While on the juniors circuit, as unlikely as it may sound, Federer was noted for a ferocious, McEnroe-esque flammability on the court. Whether through natural maturity or self-correction, Federer is now, as we know well, the epitome of mental fortitude.

Murray, it would appear from most recent viewing, has himself begun to channel that ferocious energy away from mid-game rants and towards an increasing obvious capacity to raise his game at the right moments and on the crucial points- a vital ingredient for real success in tennis.

Federer, following his receipt of yet another trophy was asked the obligatory question about his opponent. His response was standard: "Absolutely [he has a big future]. That was a very tough final today". But the highly unusual sight of the world number having broken sweat suggests that these words were a little more than the twenty-fourth consecutively delivered platitude.

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Monday, October 03, 2005

Lord Have Mersey

Stick with me on this one. Its another one of those tenuous analogies, you know, stretched and contorted more than the leading lady of the Chinese State circus. Its just that, watching Liverpool being gubbed by a Chelsea side who decided to finally shift up just a gear or so, and watching all those sad Scouse faces, moustaches drooping more forlornly with each cruel goal, and listening to those harsh cockney taunts, I felt like I was watching a sad Ken Loach type film about a 1980s Thatcherite pogrom.

The northern folk, all heart-on-the-sleeve Pete Postlethwaite melancholia, degraded and reduced by the brash, affluent City men, Masters of the Universe and bearing the heartless arrogance of Money. The downtrodden Liverpudlians, their identity tied with their club in a way Londoners don't know, no longer able to use it as a means of self-aggrandisement, European champions or no, in the face of the cold logic of mammon.

Ok, hang on. The single greatest commercial entity in football, and the pioneering exponent of Club as Brand thinking, is domiciled down the motorway from Liverpool in very northern Manchester. And Liverpool themselves, although relative financial lightweights, are still far from the football equivalent of a struggling colliery.

So the analogy was just a way of cloaking an anti-Chelsea rant in socio-economic commentary.

There, you got me.

My soft spot for north of England hard luck tales exposed, I won't challenge the strength of my objectivity too much in analysis of champions-elect Chelsea. Suffice to say, morals bad, football frighteningly good (not in a Brazil sort of way, more in a German kind of ruthless efficiency way), team spirit great.

For Liverpool this was all about harsh realities. You should never win a European Cup with Djimi Traore and Sami Hyppia in your defence. You generally need a goalscorer to win more football matches and a thirty-seven point deficit looks more like a target than a staging post this morning.

However, just as Liverpool's defeat of Chelsea in April did not prove their right to assume a sense of parity with the Londoners, so yesterday's result does not nullify the value of Rafael Benitez' project. What it does, however, is demonstrate the scale of that project, a task obscured in the eyes of many observers by the hullaballoo over One Night in Istanbul.

Chelsea's wealth, and the way in which Jose Mourinho has ordered his expensively appointed surroundings, means the task of becoming champions is now huge for everyone, which Liverpool fans must have known before yesterday. But there was a sense, given the closeness of their prior meetings, that maybe Liverpool were ready to slug it out with Chelsea. Hell, they were European Champions after all!

Winning the European Cup was good for Rafa Benitez, in the sense that it gave him a position of strength and bought him time to properly implement his plans. Yesterday's defeat might turn out to be just as useful, in demonstrating to those within the club, and in the stands, the exact gravity of his task.

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