It’s The Beautiful Game, But Is Romance Dead?

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By David Gee. (@DavidGee26)

Football; it’s the beautiful game, a sport emotive in the extreme. But these emotions are neither polar nor absolute; joy does not solely equate to winning in the same way that losing will not always invoke despair. For many the manner of victory is just as important as the triumph itself. Evolution is inevitable, but sport is eternal. Players and coaches will change just as quickly as the styles and ideologies that envelope their careers. The clubs, however, should be the constant; but the landscape is changing and it is youth that will suffer.

Billionaire backed superpowers lurk ominously ready to embark on a period of sustained dominance. A new dawn bereft of romance and loyalty looms, fuelled by unimaginable wealth and characterised by unquenchable desires for quick fixes and instant success. The beautiful game is rearing its ugly financial head; but football is losing its soul, not its excitement.

A three-way battle for the title, a four-way slog for a coveted seat at Europe’s top table and the entire bottom half of the league scrapping for their lives; exciting, no? Few would argue that the coming months will not play out the most tantalising of finishes, a box office blockbuster. United struggling, Arsenal resurgent, but right at the top remain the obvious candidates; squads built on oil and middle-eastern riches brimming with millionaire mercenaries. We have the excitement, but where is the romance?

For many, the millions pumped into football by wealthy owners are in danger of destroying the game. Only time will ultimately tell and criticism is undoubtedly warranted, but most wielding the sword are doing so behind the wrong cause.

The two common concerns attached to the lavish spending of recent years, a monopolised league and the threat of insolvency, are misguided when aimed at Chelsea and Manchester City. Football has invariably been dominated by the wealthy elite. It is manifestly wrong to ignore that heavy spending began much before (and will continue long after), the recent injections of cash at these two clubs. Whilst the figures involved have inflated unimaginably, the resulting success of those investing heavily is nothing new, simply a logical consequence.

Way back in 1907 Manchester United underwent a similar phase of investment directly contributing to the club’s first two league titles in 1907/08 and 1910/11. Other examples have followed, but assertions that the money was generated by the clubs themselves bring only a moral victory. The investment of owners in their own business is not wrong. Surely most lottery winners would not take too kindly to the suggestion that they could not spend their winnings.

The wealth of Chelsea and Manchester City is no different; they have won the football lottery. As ever, with good fortune follows envy and jealousy, but these are no more reason to prohibit their investment than the fear of insolvency when the funds are clearly in place. All too often ambition and enthusiasm can cloud commercial prudency, but that is not the case here.

Nevertheless, to ignore the potential negative consequences is equally unwise. The youth, the future of the game will suffer, and therein lays the deplorable nature of ‘sugar daddy’ syndrome.

Improvement in sport is relentless, investment inescapable; standing still is tantamount to falling behind. Desire for success is natural, and in a game increasingly dictated by commercial opportunism, figures will only continue to soar. But investment wields a snowball effect, the heavy spending of a few necessitates others to follow, and not everyone can win. Promising young prospects will make way for established stars and pressing greed will displace patience.

The CIES Football Observatory reports that Manchester United and Barcelona are the only two European clubs that offer players an average stay in excess of five years. Impatient owners and regrettably high financial stakes have seen seven Premier League managers make way already this season. Who would dare look to their academy under the weight of such imposing pressure for instant results? Football clubs are becoming faceless machines in an impending era more for the purse strings than the purists. The very soul of the beautiful game is eroding.

In the 14th Century, opposing villages and towns would battle over an inflated bladder. Rules and guidelines would follow but the very essence was apparent from the beginning: loyalty and allegiance borne from community spirit. Even in the global environment of today, it’s still ‘our lot’ against ‘your lot’. There is a romance that football clubs represent the ideals of their communities and betoken their way of life. Clubs should be an organic embodiment not a manufactured beast.

Loyalty stems from faith, from guidance and from support, all of which develop over time. Football philosophies take years to manifest themselves, but at the heart of any great football club sits an ideology, an identity of play on the field, and a manner of conduct off it. Community programmes and social projects are commonplace. Football often provides the bastion of hope for the working class lad with implausible dreams. Is there a better, more fulfilling sight in football than the local boy, empowered by naive fearlessness and youthful exuberance, dazzling the community that raised him? It means something to the town and it means something to football.

But these invaluable pleasures are under threat. In a modern age where currency trumps all, it is tomorrow’s stars and today’s managers who may ultimately suffer. The romance is being consumed; the money is taking over.

Premier League clubs spent £138m more on agent’s fees than on grassroots facilities in the year gone by. Global spending saw a rise of 41% year on year on international transfers alone, and English clubs shelled out a net loss in excess of £350m. Manchester City and Chelsea account for a large proportion of outgoing funds over the last few years; both directly in regards to their own spending, and indirectly in the sense that others have been forced to spend to compete. Whilst this has not led to the dominance that many would have predicted thus far, the vultures are circling and the impact is becoming increasingly tangible.

Despite an admirable resurgence this season, Arsene Wenger has tried in vain to maintain Arsenal’s silverware laden years whilst caged in frugal financial confinement. The club’s £42.5m acquisition of Mesut Ozil was a tacit expression that philosophy can only take them so far. A title win for the ‘gooners’ would represent a victory for the purists, but there is a reason that despite sitting at the top in February, the North London side remain third favourites for ultimate glory.

With the knight at the head of Manchester United’s table stepping aside, they too have struggled to keep pace. It is highly lamentable, then, that both cases have led to criticism of management and transfer policies and calls for huge investment that are in such tension with the clubs’ philosophies.

From United’s perspective, purporting to replicate the attributes and long-term stability of their former manager may prove ill advised. Attempting to repeat history is always a dangerous path as opposed to burgeoning for new futures, only time will tell.

Predictably though, and somewhat regrettably, in the face of adversity it has been the British manager and the young local talent that have shouldered a lot of the blame. Moyes aside, much of the fallout has been aimed primarily at the perennial squad members turned (albeit through injuries) regular starters of academy products Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley. But what sort of club do fans want Manchester United to be? Would fans really prefer for local talent to make way for money grabbing mercenaries?

An ultimate lack of ability for the very top of the game does not absolve Welbeck and Cleverley of their value. There has been a product of United’s academy in every squad since 30th October 1937, and these two remain current custodians of that romantic tradition. The local lad rising through the ranks is such a special part of the game, and for United, in the immortal words of Ravel Morrison, “Welbz is dat guy”. Is winning worth sacrificing a philosophy that has invoked so much pride?

Unfortunately, the erosion of opportunity for young prospects will only continue in the face of contemporary demands for instant success. That is not to say, however, that clubs such as United have not spent in the past and should not spend in the future. Even the famed ‘Class of 92’ were heavily supplemented by experienced professionals and expensive additions. But there is a crucial difference between supplementation and replacement.

The fears are that spending is approaching such a level that benches may soon be filled with established stars as opposed to young talent, and in England Chelsea and Manchester City are the primary contributors. But after an arguably necessary initial injection to reach the heights of the game, it is important not to judge too quickly.

It is hoped, having bought sides littered with world-class talent, that the London and Manchester blues will now look to youth. If nothing else, a successful academy setup often proves financially beneficial off the pitch. But it is hoped that these clubs will profit from their product’s talents on the field rather than off it.

To give credit, both sides have invested heavily in their academy structures in recent years. For Manchester City the state of the art Etihad Campus is nearing completion. Their Under-13s and Under-14s sides are national champions, their Under 18s have not lost since late September and their Under-21s are unbeaten in three months. There is perhaps much cause for optimism on the blue side of Manchester.

Chelsea too have devoted large resources to young talent. FA Youth cup victories in 2010 and 2012 point to progress in the right direction. Nevertheless, for both clubs the transition from the youth setup to the first team will be telling.

Of City’s 2008 FA Youth Cup winning side only Dedryck Boyata has proceeded to make more than one competitive appearance in the first team setup. Whilst of Chelsea’s winning FA Youth Cup sides of 2010 and 2012 combined, only three players (Jeffrey Bruma, Josh McEachran and Nathan Ake) have gone on to play competitively more than once for the senior side.

In reality it is perhaps too early to judge City in this regard, but the recent inclusion of young midfielder Marcos Lopes signals a positive step. For Chelsea the position is a darker one. A decade on from Abramovich’s takeover and John Terry remains the only academy product to make a successful transition beyond a very limited spell for Ryan Bertrand.

The promising talents of Josh McEachran and Nathanial Chalobah (a player who has captained and boasts 65 caps for England at youth level) have yet to be given a proper opportunity. More worryingly, the club has been stock-piling young talent, with over 20 players on loan, most of which will never get a fair chance at their parent club.

Jose Mourinho has been bullish to make the right noises that youth is the way forward for Chelsea, but on the evidence these are hollow words. The Portuguese master has already spent over £100m since his return less than a year ago. Promising young striker Romelu Lukaku was shipped off on loan to Everton in favour of the ageing Samuel Eto’o and the club only boasts the minimum 8 homegrown players in their 25-man squad.

But this is where reality bites. With such trigger-happy owners which manager would risk their job on a long-term strategy? The patience of owners such as the Glazers may well derive from a desire for profit over silverware, but patience often breeds success all the same.

Three of the greatest sides of the modern era, Manchester United of 1999, Barcelona of 2011 and Bayern Munich of 2013 were built on youth and in the image of their own club’s philosophy. In each of those sides local lads lifted the biggest prizes in football with the clubs they love and the towns they grew up in; that is something to cherish.

Successes such as these will become increasingly difficult if the current trend continues. There is cause for concern but it is the culture of quick fixes and instant success that may prove more damaging than lavish spending itself.

Just six months after two decades of dominance patience is already crumbling under the weight of greed for some United fans. But time for managers like Moyes should be forthcoming so that football clubs can be built in the right way. Fans of the Red Devils may have little to cheer about come the end of the season, but there is always pride if the club holds true to its traditions.

The millions of Manchester City and Chelsea have bought entertainment and attention, but the growth of sustainable football clubs built on coherent ideologies affording fair chances to their own will bring respect. Without that, their victories will be as hollow as the bank accounts of those below them. All remains to be seen, but hopefully romance is not dead just yet

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4 Responses to “It’s The Beautiful Game, But Is Romance Dead?”

  1. Fantastic read, David. I hope we continue the strategy of developing home grown players mixed with experienced players.

  2. Great read. There is also romance with fans from other countries joining the team they grew up idolizing.

  3. After reading all of your blog I was unfair saying that it was a typical anti-City rant because it was a lot more balanced than that. I’ve copied some quotes from your blog below and I’ve replied to them.

    “the very essence was apparent from the beginning: loyalty and allegiance borne
    from community spirit”
    “There is a romance that football clubs represent the ideals of their communities”
    “Clubs should be an organic embodiment not a manufactured beast.”

    I would argue that Utd, Arsenal and Liverpool are more to blame for the above than the likes of City and Chelsea. Utd, Arsenal & Liverpool are only as rich as they are today due to the number of fans they have from around the world, and Utd will have the lowest percentage of fans out of all English clubs that come from their home city,so I don’t think it’s right to say that you’re more locally-based than City are.

    “The romance is being consumed; the money is taking over.”

    The money took over many years ago though, and the clubs mostly to blame for that IMO were were the “big 5″ (Utd, Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs and Everton) who pushed for the creation of the Premier League. And Utd, Arsenal and Liverpool made up 3 of the “big 4″ who had a vice-like grip on the PL for so long mainly due to the additional income they received from being in the CL every year.

    Wage and transfer fee inflation is the main symptom of money taking over the game, and that’s invariably blamed on City and Chelsea by Utd, Arsenal and Liverpool fans

    - usually in an attempt to justify FFP. But the facts disprove that rich owners are responsible for either form of inflation:

    - Average PL wages went up by 920% from 1992 to 2003 (pre-Abramovich), then they only went up by 12% in the 3 seasons following Abramovich buying Chelsea in summer 2003.

    - Average PL transfer fees went up 5-fold from 1993 to 2001 (pre-Abramovich), then they fell for the next few years which included Abramovich’s first few years of owning Chelsea and they only went above the 2001 level again in 2007/8.

    “Arsene Wenger has tried in vain to maintain Arsenal’s silverware laden years whilst caged in frugal financial confinement.”

    Utd had their most successful period in their entire history since Wenger last won a trophy, and almost all of that period was under the Glazers, so if Utd could win so many trophies since Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour bought Chelsea and City there was nothing stopping Wenger from winning things.

    There’s an interesting chapter in a book (think it was in ‘Soccernomics’) about successful managers, and they attributed Wenger’s success in his early days at Arsenal to him bringing in new ideas to the PL, such as his focus on using stats to identify potential signings and using stats to analyse how well Arsenal players were playing at a time when other clubs weren’t using stats at all. And they say that once other clubs began using stats as well he lost the edge he had over other clubs and managers, and that’s why they think he’s been less successful since. I think that’s a pretty compelling argument. And he hasn’t performed well in the transfer market for a long time, and if you can’t perform well in that then the team is screwed.

    IMO Wenger’s been at Arsenal far too long. I’m not a believer in “stability” bringing success. Fergie was a one-off, and because of his success English fans place far too much value in stability. I read an article in the MEN last summer which showed that the average tenure of a manager at the big continental European clubs was only about 15 – 18 months, and those clubs haven’t been any less successful as a result of chopping and changing their managers so much. Chelsea are a great example, because they’ve won loads of trophies despite Abramovich changing managers at a ridiculous rate.

    “It is highly lamentable, then, that both cases have led to criticism of management and transfer policies and calls for huge investment that are in such tension with the clubs’ philosophies.”

    I think Utd have always been big spenders – even before Fergie you were the biggest spenders, and he carried on that tradition. It’s only since Abramovich & Sheikh Mansour bought Chelsea & City that you ceased being the biggest spenders.

    - The prices you paid for Rooney and Rio Ferdinand after adjusting for transfer fee inflation are £70m each at today’s prices, and Veron would be £53m at today’s prices
    - Utd signings make up 12 of the top 40 transfer fee inflation-adjusted signings in the PL era (City signings make up 5 of the top 40)
    - In 1989 Utd spent unprecedented amounts in one summer on a few huge signings, which in total amounted to you spending 88% of your 1989 revenue. To put that into context, 88% of your current revenue amounts to £317m. It was those signings that laid the foundations for your first title win for 25 years in 1993, and all the success that’s come since then.
    - Utd’s starting XI costs more than City’s starting XI nearly every weekend, and if you accounted for transfer fee inflation the cost of Utd’s starting XI would drawf the cost of ours, especially if Rooney or Rio were playing. A big difference though is that you’ve had players such as Rooney and Rio who’ve been at the club for many years.

    “The fears are that spending is approaching such a level that benches may soon be filled with established stars as opposed to young talent, and in England Chelsea and Manchester City are the primary contributors”

    I think there’s a severe lack of English talent at the moment, so I don’t think City & Chelsea are to blame for this. This is an issue for the FA to sort out. England has only got a tiny fraction of the number of qualified coaches that Spain and Germany have, and kids still play on full-size pitches here too. One look at the current England team is enough to show how poor the situation is. This is the FA’s job to sort out. It’s not the clubs’ fault.

    “But time for managers like Moyes should be forthcoming so that football clubs can be built in the right way.”

    I disagree for the reasons given above about too much value being placed in “stability”. I was in a small minority of blues in favour of Mancini being sacked at the end of last season, because my opinion is that it’s only right to place faith in stability if you’re sure you’ve got the right manager and that giving him time will pay dividends. Mancini had gone backwards rapidly last season with a squad that was no worse than the season we won the league, so I didn’t think he was the right man for the job long term. After he was sacked it transpired that he’d lost the dressing room and I think our marked improvement this season has vindicated the decision to sack him.

    • Hi Steve, apologies for my delay in response, it’s been a hectic and, ultimately, disappointing weekend as I’m sure you’re aware!

      I must start by saying that I think you make a lot of valid arguments, many of which I agree with. Unsurprisingly, we have different views on a few issues but football is all about opinions and I have enjoyed reading yours.

      Regarding your first issue, that United’s global fan base (amongst others) are to blame for what I termed “manufactured beasts” devoid of true local allegiance. Firstly, I agree that United are not more locally-based than City in regards to fan base. But, unfortunately, I think my words have been misinterpreted in this regard, although having read them back understandably so.

      My point is not particularly that United are represented locally off the field (although that there are no United fans is Manchester is of course a myth), more that they are represented on it. I have no problem with fans from all areas and from all walks of life personally. There could be any number of valid reasons for supporting a football club (family allegiance, style of play, philosophy etc.) beyond the much bemoaned “glory hunter”, and with the game increasingly susceptible to globalisation, and the Premier League in particular flaunted worldwide as a commercial asset, fans from around the world are inevitable. Moreover, I fully understand that United thrive and in many ways survive today through revenue from abroad.

      My words were misleading and for that I apologise, but the point I was really making is that United’s academy products, of which Welbeck is a pertinent example, represent the communities they grew up in. So players in that mould will always derive more loyalty from supporters as “one of their own”.

      To further and in some ways contradict my point, however, I feel the same way about foreign academy products. Using the terminology such as “community spirit” was perhaps wrong in hindsight. But the point I was making is that any product from the academy, foreign or otherwise, goes right to the heart of football. A player produced by the club, for the club, and by extension, a player produced by the community, for the community, whether that’s for ten years from the age of 8 or for two years from the age of 16.

      I’m sure when you watched Marcos Lopes against West Ham put in an eye catching display you felt a different kind of excitement in the same way as most United fans when Januzaj graces the turf.

      If not, then we’ll have to agree to disagree. But for me it is opportunites for those young talents, nurtured by their clubs, that I hope will not deteriorate in the modern environment, that is my concern. To have academy products as part of any squad provides identity and loyalty when contrasted to sides built solely from far and wide, that was my point. I am fully aware that United as much as anyone have brought in players from far afield over the years, but they have always supplemented academy talent, not replaced them.

      Regarding your second point, once more I agree with you, the money has been consuming the game for some time now. I have never attached blame to City and Chelsea for inflation of transfer fees or wages or otherwise. As I made quite clear, spending began much before and will continue long after the recent investment at City and Chelsea, and I fully agree that United and others spent a lot of money in the past that is evidently scalable to today’s market.

      Once more, however, that is to misconstrue my argument. I am not attaching blame to City and Chelsea for creating the current problems. In truth a number of factors have contributed, spending of United and others, and of course also the fact that the viability of the game as an asset has rose unimaginably since the inception of the Premier League and particularly in the last decade. The truth is that there is more money in the game now through broadcasting revenue, sponsorship etc. than ever before and whether through money generated by the club or invested by their owners, investment is inescapable.

      Investment, though, is not my issue, it is the manner and result of investment. As I have said I have no problem with owners investing in their own business and I have a personal belief that FFP is the wrong vehicle for regulation (and in reality is likely legally unenforceable).

      But the fact that you would attach blame to the likes of United etc. for initiating the problem (and with great credence too), simply means that you acknowledge that there is a problem in the first place. So whilst you are in many ways justified in attaching the blame elsewhere, you must then in turn accept that Chelsea and City are the current custodians of the problem. Blame for the cause cannot be attributed without an acceptance that the problem continues to exist.

      Once more though, I’m sidetracking, my main concern now is that investment is approaching such a level that youth will no longer be afforded opportunities. I completely accept that the levels of investment wielded by City and Chelsea were necessary for them to compete right at the top of the game, I have no issue with that. My issue is how now, having reached the heights, these clubs proceed.

      Both Chelsea and City’s sides at present, both on the pitch and on the bench are largely if not completely devoid of academy talent. My issue here is more with Chelsea in this regard. As I asserted, I believe it is too early to judge City on this issue and I commend them for making strides with their academy setup. My hope is that more players like Marcos Lopes will be given opportunities in the future.

      But having built clubs now that are both competing at the highest level, and sustainable business models, I hope that both clubs will look to nurture their own talent. My fears spring mainly from Chelsea, who on the evidence have preferred to just buy ready made stars for 5 years at the peak of their careers, and then replace them. Where is the romance and the loyalty in that?

      That is just my purist view, however, and there is nothing to say that it is right or wrong, simply my own opinion that personally I believe that nurturing your own talent is the right way to run a football club.

      In regards to your third point on Arsene Wenger’s failing, you have almost answered it for me. Yes United have remained incredibly successful, but as so pertinently illustrated this season that has been largely down to Ferguson’s brilliance. In promoting the chapter from ‘Soccernomics’ you yourself have acknowledged that Arsene Wenger has stood still, and by extension, not been good enough. He is simply no Sir Alex Ferguson. A philosopher more than a winner, and therein lays my point, philosophy is struggling to compete.

      United have spent money over the last few years but I simply can’t agree that it is possible to compete now without spending more. If you believe that the likes of United and Arsenal can now compete with City and Chelsea without spending then you are entitled to your opinion but I have to respectfully disagree.

      Moreover, even with money building a side takes time and teething problems elsewhere are certainly a factor in Ferguson’s continued success. In regards to Chelsea, their constant changing of the guard has hampered them, and that leads nicely to your next argument regarding stability.

      I agree with your point that there is more than enough evidence that stability is not essential for success. In fact I happen to agree with the notion that Ferguson wasn’t successful because he was at the club for a long time, he was at the club for a long time because he was successful. That is not to say that I don’t believe in stability, because I do, but my point, once more, was more centred around youth.

      Managers invariably bring with them styles and philosophies and for a young player’s development it is hugely beneficial to have a clear vision, and more importantly, a manager who will monitor their development closely. In this environment of trigger-happy owners the worry is that little attention will be paid to academy structures and young talent.

      Chelsea are a great example for both of our points. Yes, they have won trophies without managerial stability, but from my perspective they have completely neglected their youth setup. I have quite a few friends who are Chelsea fans and I know first hand that they are disappointed that Josh McEachran and Nathanial Chalobah have not been given opportunities. Those players matter to them because they have been brought up by the club. In both their view and my own, there is more to football than winning trophies. Once more, though, that is just my opinion.

      With regards to your point that spending is not against United’s philosophy. Once more, I agree to an extent. I do not deny that United have spent huge amounts of money, but the “calls for huge investment” that I speak of are against United’s philosophy. United have never completely overhauled an entire squad, but those are the noises emanating at the moment, that United need 6,7,8 new players. Criticism of academy products have been commonplace and the cries to replace them with world-class talent vivid.

      It has always been United’s philosophy to supplement young talent, not replace it. That is simply the point that I’m making. It’s not that we shouldn’t or we wont spend money, but I hope that it will not be at the cost of the club’s academy.

      In regards to your comments surrounding English talent, unfortunately again I think you have misinterpreted my point. There is of course a problem with English talent but as you rightly point out City and Chelsea are not to blame and it is for the FA to sort out. But my point is simply that Chelsea and City invariably field very little to no academy products in their squads week-in, week-out (English or otherwise), and your benches are usually constituted of players bought for large fees.

      As I say, I think it is too early to judge City in this regard but from Chelsea’s perspective it is lamentable. They have had over a decade to build the club and still turn a blind eye to youth.

      My biggest fear is that other clubs will be necessitated to follow suit if it continues. Look at Arsenal, they preferred to sign an injured Kallstrom on loan as opposed to promote one of their very promising academy products to essentially cover just a 3-match ban for Mathieu Flamini.

      Time will tell and I may be wrong but again, that is just my opinion.

      Regarding your final point on Moyes, I agree that stability is flawed if the wrong manager is in place. But Moyes’ ability to promote young talent was one of the big reasons that he was appointed in the first place and having inherited an ageing side in need of re-building, I hope the club will give him time. The way things are going I’m sure you’ll be happy for him to stay too!

      I can only hope that he will prove the doubters wrong in time. For the reasons above (youth being the primary one) I do believe in stability. But at the same time I cannot deny that there is absolutely no evidence that it brings any more success than frequent changes of the guard.

      It is well known that football moves in cycles and teams need constant adjustment to remain competitive. That is why teams invariably remain a force for periods of 3-4 years. Hunger and desire drops with success. When new managers come in they bring new ideas, fresh outlooks and excitement. They also usually bring in new players.

      That is what maintains success, and that is where Ferguson’s biggest strengths came to the fore. He may have managed United for the best part of three decades but he created and dismantled and created again a number of teams in that time, often moving players on to the bemusement of fans. It is now time for Moyes to stamp his authority and do the same.

      Anyway I’ll stop rambling on. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the discussion and I hope that my comments may bring some clarity to a few of your issues. I have no doubt that we will still disagree on a number of issues but there is no problem with that. I respect your passion for your club and I hope that you can respect mine.

      Football is all about opinions and these are simply my own. There is nothing to say they are right and once more I welcome any response.

      All the best.

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