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Victorious Japanese give Germans a taste of their own Bundesliga medicine

Japan ensured the second major upset of the 2022 Fifa World Cup with a come-from-behind win over four-time world champions Germany.
Japan’s Bundesliga players took matters into their own hands in their 2-1 comeback win over Germany in Group E of the World Cup on Wednesday, giving their opponents a taste of their own medicine.
In the days before the match, the Japanese waxed lyrical over the contribution of Germany and its coaches for helping to develop the game in the country in the decades after World War 2.
But when they left the pitch at Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium as sensational winners, they had clearly outsmarted their teachers.
Strikes from Freiburg’s Ritsu Doan and VfL Bochum’s Takuma Asano, who struck from fellow Bundesliga player Ko Itakura’s deep free kick, gave the Asians their first-ever win over Germany.
It was the two scorers, both substitutes, who woke their team up from their first-half slumber.
In true German tournament fashion, Japan refused to surrender even after a one-sided first half in which Germany had 16 efforts on goal and possession of more than 70%. Japan won the game with just 26% possession.
The introduction of Doan, nicknamed “the Japanese Messi”, and Asano in the second half lit up Japan’s game as they hustled and turned the tables on their opponents with high pressing and relentless work while charging forward.
Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations
A total of eight Japanese players in the squad compete in Germany’s top two divisions and they brought back the right lessons learnt there.
Their win, a result of pure determination and grit, had them punish their opponents for their lackadaisical approach to the game.
Even though he was a 57th-minute substitute, scorer Asano had the ball in the opponents’ box more times than all but two German players.
Germany will be asking themselves how they lost a game which should have been killed off in the first half, but they ultimately paid a dear price for their careless play and below-par finishing.
They used to punish opponents with their never-say-die attitude, but on Wednesday they were on the receiving end of late goals.
Japan continued to hope and after goalkeeper Shūichi Gonda made a quadruple save to keep them alive, they delivered the double punch for yet another upset in this tournament.
The Germans huffed and puffed but could not find a second goal, with highly rated players like Jamal Musiala and Kai Havertz showing ...

Travelling with Saudi fans – 100 buses, sympathy for Messi and a World Cup shock for the ages

Despite Argentina’s shock loss to Saudi Arabia, a bus journey underlines that soccer, and Lionel Messi, truly unites the world.
Omar is a 20-year-old engineering student from Dammam, a city about 320km north of the border with Qatar.
He was meant to leave the house at 5am but overslept, and that meant his group of three Saudi fans did not set off until 6.15am, which probably explains why Salman, the oldest of this trio, is at the front of the bus we are all on, telling the driver to speed up or let him drive.
The problem, if there is one, is it is now nearly 11am, Saudi Arabia’s opener against Argentina kicks off in two hours, six other buses have overtaken us on the four-lane highway from the Abu Samra border crossing to Doha, our driver seems to think he is doing his test, and have we mentioned that Saudi Arabia play Lionel Messi’s Argentina in two hours?!
It is a scene every travelling fan has seen or heard about.
And it is at this moment that I realise Fifa president Gianni Infantino was right (even a stopped clock and all that) on Saturday when he said we are all united in our love for the magic of football: an irrational, journey-through-the-desert, travel-in-hope and sing-a-few-songs kind of love and it is absolutely universal.
And while we are on the topic of being fair to those who have been criticised of late, this bus, while cautious, is free of charge, clean and comfortable. It is one of at least 100 the Qataris have provided to take Saudi fans to Monday’s match. All their neighbours had to do was download the World Cup’s ticketing app/temporary visa, get to the border, park and then move through a giant tent that can process 4,000 football tourists an hour.
“It’s been really easy, really smooth,” says Mohammed, a Chelsea fan from Dammam, who has just started supporting Newcastle United, too. Cannot imagine why.
Life is smooth when you go with the flow. The Athletic would have taken a picture of the Qatari border guards’ faces when it explained to them that its reporter had arrived at the border by taxi from Doha, had sent this taxi away and now wanted to get on a bus back to Doha with the Saudi fans behind that huge fence, but they had guns, real ones, and they thought the reporter was a danger. To himself.
However, ...

Fee-fi-fo-fum, can France finally break the World Cup winners’ curse?

After winning the Fifa World Cup in 1998, then being eliminated in the group stage four years later, France set in motion a trend of World Cup winners being eliminated in the group phase of the next tournament. Will they be the ones to break the jinx? To do so, they have to vanquish their own demons at the tournament.
France heads into the 2022 Qatar World Cup as defending champions. It’s the second time this has happened in the event’s history.
Famously, when the European nation last arrived in the global soccer spectacle with this tag, they crash-landed ever so emphatically. That was back in 2002, after they had thumped the imposing Brazil 3-0 on French soil four years later.
Zinedine Zidane, who was the breakout star during that 1998 triumph, was ruled out with injury only days before the tournament. The same was true for Arsenal’s classy Robert Pires.
Nevertheless, the team boasted a plethora of quality. Les Bleus could still call on the likes of midfield anchor Patrick Vieira, goalkeeper Fabien Barthez and the exciting Thierry Henry, among others.
These players could not prevent an embarrassing early exit for the defending champions, though. The French lost to both Denmark and Senegal — results that were sandwiched between a nil-nil stalemate against Uruguay.
They ended the campaign rock bottom of their group, having failed to score a single goal from their three group games. By all accounts, a shameful outcome for the defending champions.
The French can take solace from the fact that since they kickstarted that trend, three of the four subsequent defending champions have not succeeded in making it out of the group stage of the World Cup.
In this hall of shame are 2006 winners Italy, 2010 champions Spain, and Germany, who clinched it in 2014. Only 2002 winners Brazil have managed to avoid the winners’ trend since France set the ball rolling.
Ten years after 2002-gate, grouped with Australia, former colony Tunisia, as well as Denmark, the French will hope to break this cycle that began with them. However, history is not on their side, from a personal perspective.
SA World Cup debacle
Following that mishap in 2002, the French came into the 2006 World Cup in Germany keen to make amends. They did, too, led by midfield maestro Zidane, playing with a strapped knee throughout the tournament.
As Les Bleus played their way to the final, the Real Madrid icon — clad in personalised golden ...

Saudi Arabia’s win over Argentina the statistically biggest World Cup shock – Nielsen Gracenote

The Fifa World Cup is synonymous with upsets, but none was bigger than Tuesday’s victory by Saudi Arabia over Argentina, according to the stats.
Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 victory over Argentina on Tuesday is rated the biggest shock in Fifa World Cup history by data company Nielsen Gracenote, moving ahead of the previous biggest upset, the United States’ win over England in 1950.
Using its proprietary ranking system and a complex formula that factors in team strength, location and history, Gracenote said that 51st-ranked Saudi’s chance of beating an Argentinian side unbeaten in 36 internationals was 8.7%.
Some of the more famous upsets, such as North Korea beating Italy in 1966 and Cameroon beating then holders Argentina in the opening match of 1990, did not make Gracenote’s top 10 – with both outsiders being better sides than widely considered.
Both of those went on to reach the quarterfinals as an indicator that they were better teams than thought at the time.
Gracenote’s top 10 World Cup upsets
Saudi Arabia 2-1 Argentina (8.7% chance) 2022
Ranked 51st in the world, Saudi Arabia were facing a team hoping to match the international record for unbeaten games – 37. Things appeared to be going to form when Lionel Messi put Argentina ahead with a 10th-minute penalty, but goals by Saleh al-Shehri and Salem al-Dawsari early in the second half secured the stunning upset.
United States 1-0 England (9.5% chance) 1950
Appearing for the first time, England were favourites to win the 1950 World Cup in Brazil while the Americans were a semi-professional squad. England, featuring future World Cup winning manager Alf Ramsey in defence, dominated but lost to Joey Gaetjens’ first-half header. It would be another 44 years before the US would win another match at the World Cup.
Switzerland 1-0 Spain (10.3%) 2010
Spain arrived in South Africa as European champions and World Cup favourites, and though they had 22 shots to Switzerland’s six, they lost to a second-half Gelson Fernandes goal. Spain recovered from the setback well enough to go on and win the final three weeks later.
Algeria 2-1 West Germany (13.2%) 1982
Algeria’s first-ever World Cup match delivered their finest hour, as Lakhdar Belloumi made the first goal and scored the winner against European powerhouse West Germany.
The result led to one of the more unsavoury episodes in World Cup history, when Austria and West Germany conspired to play out a 1-0 win for the Germans that sent them both through to the second ...

Teenager Bellingham ignites England with dynamic display to rout Iran

England underlined their credentials as World Cup contenders with a resounding 6-2 win over Iran, with 19-year-old Jude Bellingham producing a stunning performance.
Teenager Jude Bellingham has become one of the most sought-after signatures in football, and a display oozing class in England’s 6-2 rout of Iran in their World Cup opener may have considerably upped Borussia Dortmund’s asking price.
The 19-year-old central midfielder made his World Cup finals bow look like a walk in the park inside the Khalifa International Stadium, serving up a thoroughbred performance that set the tone for England’s dominant Group B victory.
England manager Gareth Southgate had come under fire during a six-game winless run in the Nations League ahead of the World Cup — his sides lacking fluidity and forward thrust.
But a few shuffles to his formation on Monday, notably a four-man defence with Declan Rice in front as a holding midfielder, and advanced full backs, provided the stage for Bellingham to run amok through Iranian ranks.
Covering the lush turf between the penalty areas like a high-powered sports car, Bellingham provided both a link out from defence and a late-arriving threat at the other end.
He was at the heart of a first half of total England domination and it was fitting that he opened the scoring in the 35th minute with his first international goal on his 18th appearance — a textbook header from Luke Shaw’s cross after ghosting into space inside the area.
It made Bellingham the youngest England scorer at a World Cup since Michael Owen in 1998, and the first player born in 2000 or later to ever score in the finals.
Telling statistic
Perhaps the most telling statistic, however, was that the former Birmingham City player completed 40 out of 40 passes in the opening half, 10 of them in the final third of the pitch as he connected the lines of Southgate’s formation.
Bellingham, on who Liverpool are reportedly willing to spend £100-million to bring to the Premier League, served up a display that was at times like watching former England midfield dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard rolled into one.
“When you are watching him, it is really easy to forget just how young he is,” BBC analyst Danny Murphy said.
Another former England midfielder, Jermaine Jenas, added: “Bellingham has been outrageous today. 19-years-old! Honestly, it’s scary. He is a throwback. England’s best quality today was their counter press and he was at the forefront of that.”
Bellingham ...

Why Messi is now better positioned to claim victory at the Qatar football spectacle

Lionel Messi, one of the greatest players of all time, needs a World Cup win to cement his status as perhaps the greatest of all time.
“I saw Messi nervous only once,” revealed former Argentina teammate and Manchester United midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron. “And it wasn’t on a football pitch.”
Ahead of their 2010 World Cup opener against Nigeria, manager Diego Maradona gave Messi the captain’s armband for the first time in his life.
“The leadership duties in-game were not making Messi uncomfortable,” explained Veron, one of Messi’s closest confidantes back then. “It was the fact he had to figure out and execute a speech in front of everyone before the game.”
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since that moment. Twelve years on from that day in Johannesburg, Messi is a different character.
This month, Netflix launched – in Latin America exclusively – the documentary Sean Eternos: Campeones De America (Be eternal: Champions of America). Footballers and coaching staff narrate the in-and-outs of the journey which saw Argentina win the Copa America in Brazil last summer.
A particular scene stood out from the trailer.
Messi gathered all his teammates in a circle inside their dressing room ahead of the final against the hosts at the iconic Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. What followed was a speech for the ages.
“Coincidence does not exist, lads. This trophy had to be played in Argentina [they were meant to co-host with Colombia only for the tournament to be delayed by a year and then moved to Brazil because of the pandemic], but you know what? God brought it here just because we can win it here and lift the trophy in Maracana, to make it more beautiful. So let’s get out full of confidence and don’t worry, because we will take this one back home. Vamos!”
The whole squad melted into a victorious shout. Those two speeches, the first back in 2010 and the second in 2021, pretty much sum up Messi’s evolution in the national team.
Boy to man
From the player who stuttered and wondered how to put some words together in South Africa to the absolute boss of a hungry generation.
From the young kid who made his international debut after becoming a star in Barcelona to the man who arrives at his last chance at the right moment.
Lionel Messi is now 35 years old. This is going to be his fifth World Cup — also his ...

Looking for the Qatar football tournament’s ‘group of death’? It simply doesn’t exist any more

Qatar 2022 doesn’t have any tightly contentious groups, indicating that the concept of a ‘group of death’ is on the way out.
Whenever the draw for the World Cup is completed, the immediate task is figuring out which is the “group of death”.
But the boring answer is that there generally isn’t one these days.
Changes to the structure of the tournament mean four genuine contenders are less likely to be grouped together.
This World Cup, however, is a slight exception. To explain why, here is a brief history of how the group of death gradually faded away.
Three factors
There are three factors at play. The first factor is expansion of the tournament.
The phrase “group of death” was first coined in 1970, when there were only 16 teams in the tournament. (From 1982 there were 24 teams, from 1998 there were 32, and from 2026 there will be 48.)
Consequently, the quality has been diluted. For this tournament, 50% of the sides wouldn’t have even qualified for the tournament if it was held when the “group of death” concept was first defined.
There is probably the same number of contenders for each World Cup; about eight to 10 sides with a genuine chance of winning the competition.
Once upon a time, they were split into four groups, then they were split into six, and now into eight. The probability of getting two — or even three — in the same group has steadily reduced.
The second factor is increased spread across different confederations. This isn’t the same as the mere expansion of the competition.
Historically, the World Cup’s genuine contenders are almost exclusively drawn from Europe and South America.
No African nation has ever reached the semifinals. No team from Oceania has ever reached the quarterfinals. Only one Asian side has ever reached the semifinals — South Korea on home soil in 2002. And only one North American side has ever reached the semifinals, the USA back in 1930.
And while the South American contingent for each tournament has roughly expanded in line with the number of nations overall, the European quota has not.
Fifa has prioritised regional representation over outright quality. This is, after all, a World Cup. But this also means the overall quality is weaker; it means Italy don’t qualify when Saudi Arabia and Tunisia do.
That’s entirely fair enough, but it’s also reasonable to say that the reigning European champions would be a more obvious candidate for any potential group ...

Striving for redemption — African countries’ underwhelming history at the Fifa World Cup

African sides have had a number of heartbreaks in World Cups. Cameroon, Ghana and Senegal are the best-performing African countries in the showpiece’s history and have an opportunity to go one better in Qatar.
Five African teams are currently in Qatar for the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar: Cameroon, Ghana, Morocco, Tunisia, and continental champions Senegal.
Each of the five teams will be looking to go where no African team has gone before at the global showpiece: to the semi-finals and beyond.
Three African teams have made it to the quarterfinals of the tournament in Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and more recently Ghana (2010).
In order to reach the final-16 and then final-eight, you need to beat at least one ‘big’ side during the group stages and that’s exactly what Senegal did in 2002 when they beat World Champions France 1-0 in their first-ever match at a World Cup event.
Former Fulham man Papa Bouba Diop scraped home a tap-in from within the six-yard area at the 30th minute to create history for the Senegalese.
France somehow found themselves at the bottom of Group A after the group stages while Senegal progressed to the next round thanks to draws with Denmark and Uruguay in their two remaining fixtures.
The tournament continued to get better for the west-African nation as they went on to beat Sweden — which contained a young Zlatan Ibrahimović — 2-1 in extra-time.
After reaching the furthest point an African team has ever reached, Senegal were finally eliminated in the quarterfinal stage after being defeated 1-0 by Turkey thanks to a İlhan Mansız extra-time goal.
While Senegal failed to make the final four, their 2002 tournament run was one for the World Cup history books and their opening game defeat of France remains one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.
Having qualified for this year’s World Cup, Senegal have the opportunity to go just as far as they did two decades ago. Although they will have to do it without star forward Sadio Mane who was recently ruled out due to a knee injury.
However, Senegal will be confident of their chances of getting out of Group A. They open their account against the Netherlands then hosts Qatar before squaring up against Ecuador.
Cameroon 1990
Cameroon were the first African nation to top their group in the World Cup in 1990 after they opened their account by defeating group favourites Argentina 1-0, despite suffering two red cards ...

‘I speak when I want’ — Ronaldo remains defiant on infamous interview but says Portugal ‘focused’ on Qatar performance

Cristiano Ronaldo remained defiant after an explosive TV interview has put his future at Manchester United in doubt when he addressed the media in Qatar before Portugal’s World Cup opener.
Cristiano Ronaldo believes his explosive TV interview, in which the Manchester United forward said he had been betrayed by the club and was being forced out, had not been a distraction in the Portugal changing room at the World Cup.
The Portugal captain said that he is not worried about how his actions will impact the squad, adding that he feels great about their chances of winning the World Cup.
“In my life, the best timing is always my timing,” Ronaldo told a news conference on Monday.
“I don’t have to think about what other people think. I speak when I want. The players know me really well for many years and know the type of person I am.
“It’s an ambitious group that is hungry and focused. So I’m sure it (the interview) won’t shake the changing room’s concentration and focus.”
The 37-year-old Ronaldo confirmed that the awkward handshake between him and attacking midfielder Bruno Fernandes that was caught on camera and went viral was the result of a joke between the Portugal and United teammates.
“My relationship with him (Fernandes) is excellent,” Ronaldo said. “I was joking with him. His plane arrived late and I asked if he had come by boat. That’s it.
“The environment in the changing room is excellent. No problems. The group is shielded. And I take this opportunity to say: stop asking about me.”
In the interview, which aired in Britain last week, Ronaldo told host Piers Morgan that the club betrayed him and that he was being actively forced out, while he has no respect for manager Erik ten Hag.
Ronaldo rejoined United from Juventus for a second spell at Old Trafford in August 2021 on a two-year deal, returning to the club where he won eight major trophies from 2003-2009.
Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations
“Yes I feel betrayed, and I feel some people don’t want me here, not just this year, but last year too,” Ronaldo said in an interview with Morgan for TalkTV.
Last month, Ten Hag said Ronaldo refused to come on as a substitute against Tottenham Hotspur when the forward walked down the tunnel with a few minutes of the match remaining after being left on the bench.
He was then not part of the ...

Qatar 2022: football can never be the only focus

The Qatar World Cup has been accused of migrant worker and human rights abuses. But the countries crying foul aren’t blameless either.
“Focus on the football” seems like sage advice for the 32 teams participating in the World Cup, which kicks off this weekend, but when Fifa president Gianni Infantino wrote those words, it’s the opposite he was emphasising.
Don’t focus on anything else is what he was really saying. Ignore what’s topical or socially relevant, because, in Rassie Erasmus’s words, “let the main thing stay the main thing”; and the main thing, as the sporting world knows, is football.
Fifa estimates that five billion people will watch the tournament, almost two out of every three people on earth. Even if that’s exaggerated, the competition will attract more eyeballs than any other televised event in history.
That has put Qatar, a country known for its airline, its oil and its international news network, in the middle of a perfect storm.
This World Cup is where the growing social consciousness of the West meets the ambition of the Middle East, and so a political football is being passed around, too.
A week ago, former Fifa president Sepp Blatter admitted that awarding Qatar hosting rights had been a “mistake”, but only because of the country’s size.
Qatar covers less than 12,000 square kilometres, a hundredth the size of South Africa, and its eight World Cup stadiums are all within 34km of each other.
That means spectators can watch more than one game at more than one venue on the same day, hardly a reason for the country not to be the host.
Blatter, who was banned by Fifa in 2015, blamed European countries for voting for Qatar. The same countries have since expressed the loudest concerns about the Gulf state and its human rights record.
Protest symbols
Ten European captains, including England’s Harry Kane and Wales’s Gareth Bale, as well as the US, have stated their intention to wear the rainbow-coloured One Love armband in a statement against Qatar’s anti-LGBTQI+ laws, while England’s women’s international Beth Mead told BBC Radio 4 she would not support or promote the tournament in protest over Qatar’s stance on homosexuality.
Same-sex relationships are illegal in Qatar, and administrators and ambassadors have made it known that they take a dim view of using the tournament to campaign for gay rights.
Former national player Khalid Salman told the German broadcaster ZDF that he regarded homosexuality as “damage in the mind”, and ...

After criticism of rights record, smooth World Cup seen as crucial to Qatar

The Qatari leaders believe that hosting a successful World Cup will be a chance for redemption after years of criticism.
After a bumpy road to the World Cup marked by criticism of its human rights record, Qatar has much riding on the tournament passing off smoothly if it is to be remembered as a success and help affirm Doha’s place on the global stage.
The controversy that has long surrounded the decision to award Qatar the World Cup has built to a climax, with unrelenting scrutiny of its treatment of migrant workers and the LGBTQ+ community prompting the Qatari emir to accuse detractors of double standards and fabrications.
As Qatar prepares for kick-off on Sunday, the measure of success will be pulling off a tournament enjoyed by fans that concludes without major incident, allowing Doha to switch attention away from the criticism, analysts say.
The stakes are high for a tiny Gulf state with a national population so small (about 350,000) that they could fit into the eight new stadiums built for the occasion.
For Qatar, which has survived as an independent state since 1971 in an often hostile neighbourhood, hosting the World Cup is part of a wider strategy of playing an outsized role in global affairs. A major gas exporter, it hosts US troops, mediates in conflicts and finances the influential Al Jazeera news network.
“There has been so much negative coverage focusing on labour rights and human rights. The running of the World Cup is the only opportunity that Qatar sees for redemption,” said Marc Owen Jones, an associate professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Qatar World Cup — the most polarising football showpiece to date?”
“The markers of a successful World Cup would be as a nation-branding exercise, to position Qatar as an important sports hub in the Middle East and the wider Arab world,” he said.
“In the soft-power level, it will demonstrate that Qatar is a global and multilateral player.”
The first Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup, Qatar hailed it as a regional milestone when it was awarded the tournament in 2010.
But Qatari officials have appeared increasingly vexed by what they see as unfair criticisms, including boycott calls.
The foreign minister has said people calling for such a move are from a handful of countries – 10 at most – that do not represent the rest of the world which is looking forward to the tournament.
Visit Daily Maverick’s ...

Old heads to pass the baton to young bucks at Qatar World Cup

The Qatar World Cup may see many stalwarts bow out as starlets take football’s greatest stage.
‘So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their ending.” These are the words of prolific author JRR Tolkien, who scribed the iconic Lord of the Rings, as well as the Hobbit.
The quote perfectly describes one of the storylines that will dominate headlines during the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar. A handful of iconic footballers are on their last legs and this may very well be their final World Cup.
Topping the list are none other than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – two of the most iconic footballers in the past two decades – who also happen to be in the upper echelons in the debate about the greatest athletes of all time.
As Tolkien suggests, football, much like life, is defined by cycles. When one era ends, another begins. With Ronaldo, Messi and others likely signing out in 2022, another batch of future football greats will be playing in their maiden World Cup – starlets such as Barcelona and Spain’s 19-year-old midfielder, Pedri, Englishman Bukayo Saka and in-demand Borussia Dortmund midfield magician Jude Bellingham.
The old
Messi and Ronaldo have jointly ruled global football with an iron fist since 2008, when the latter, a polarising Portuguese forward, kick-started a game of Ballon d’Or hot potato between them.
The iconic duo has since won the coveted individual football award a combined 12 times, with Argentinian phenomenon Messi clinching it a record seven times, while friendly rival Ronaldo has five.
Their achievement is so fantastical and mind-boggling that it would fit perfectly into one of Tolkien’s countless classics. Yet, their powers have gradually waned and this World Cup will mark a further progression in this downward direction.
Messi is 35 and by the time the 2026 World Cup (co-hosted by Canada, Mexico and the US) comes around, the football anomaly will be 39. He has hinted that Qatar, his fifth World Cup, will be his last.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Meet the 32 nations vying for Fifa World Cup glory in Qatar”
“Surely, this will be my final World Cup,” Messi told ESPN.
“I’m counting down the days until the World Cup. The truth is, there’s a little anxiety, saying: ‘Well, we’re here, what’s going to happen? It’s my last one, how’s it going to go?’. On one hand, I can’t wait for it to begin. But I’m also desperate for it to ...

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