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Archive for the ‘International’ Category

Another good week. I now feel sufficiently educated on the major events that have defined Bologna’s history, but I’m sure I’ll come across more as my calcio research continues. I could’ve spent more time profiling Schiavio, Bulgarelli & co., but there’s only so much time in the day.

This week’s history-centric format worked well, I think. Ideally I’d spent two weeks with each club: one outlining their history, the other covering other topics (profiles, successes, failures, etc.). Sadly, Serie A has 24 rounds to play and I still have nine teams to cover. Spending a fortnight with every club before the season’s end just isn’t possible.

That said, Bologna are one of the clubs I’ll be revisiting in 2012. I’ve covered a lot of ground with them, but I feel like there’s still plenty to learn. It’ll be interesting to see how Pioli’s mini-revival progresses after a few months have elapsed.

I still haven’t decided which team to write about next week so check back tomorrow for a quick briefing. Here’s what I’ve written this week:-

  • After the Goldrush: The fallout from Bologna’s golden era and a good excuse for a Neil Young reference.
  • (Off-topic) (Serie A Weekly) Fiorentina Defeat Farcical Roma: The latest edition of my Team of the Week column, focusing on Fiorentina’s performance against Roma last weekend.

 

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There are plenty of great Gialloblu midfielders I could’ve dedicated an individual profile. Juan Sebastian Veron only spent a single season with Parma but he was an excellent playmaker and I’d love to analysis and break his playing style down. Massimo Crippa, the tough-tackling achorman, was one of my favourite Italian players growing-up, and what about Dino Baggio? Stefano Fiore? Diego Fuser?

As good as these players were, none captured my imagination quite like Tomas Brolin. The Swede played for Parma from 1990-95 and again in 1997, so I didn’t see him play as much as Baggio or Crippa, but I was often dazzled by what I saw of him. Brolin was a great player in his pomp, and his story is both sad and fascinating.

Spending his career’s formative years in his native Sweden, Brolin shot to international prominence a series of impressive performances at Italia ’90. Brolin’s club, IFK Norrkoping, were soon inundated with phone calls from potential suitors. In the end newly promoted Parma won the bidding war, and Tomas signed for the Gialloblu in a £1.2m deal later that summer.

Brolin started his Parma career as a deep-lying forward and quickly forged a productive striker partnership with Alessandro Melli, a more advanced striker. The two scored 20 goals between them in Parma’s first-ever season of top-flight football, helping propel the Gialloblu to a 5th-place finish and European qualification. 1991-92 was even more fruitful: Parma finished 6th in Serie A and beat Juventus 2-1 on aggregate to win the Coppa Italia (the first major trophy in the club’s history).

As successful as these two seasons were, the next two were the making of Brolin. Faustino Asprilla, the sporadically brilliant Columbian (and cult hero of mine, as a Newcastle supporter), joined Parma in the summer of 1992 and many expected him to take Brolin’s place in the starting XI. Brolin was benched in favour of Asprilla for most of 1992-93, but an injury ruled the Columbian out of the Cup Winners Cup final. Brolin grabbed his opportunity with both hands and performed well, helping Parma to a 3-1 win over Royal Antwerp.

Future legend Gianfranco Zola signed for Parma the following summer and it widely assumed that the Swede’s days were numbered. Nevio Scala, however, had an ace up his sleeve. The coach, having seen the benefits of playing Brolin in midfield in 92-93, pulled Brolin even deeper and positioned him centrally in a 3-man midfield with Crippa and Gabriele Pin.

Brolin thrived in his new role and was handed his former strike partner Melli’s number 7 shirt. Still only 23, Brolin reinvented himself as a playmaker. His technique, quality on the ball and passing ability made him a great candidate for the role, and his performances as a pseudo-regista helped Parma to another Cup Winners Cup final in 1994 (sadly, they lost 1-0 to Arsenal).

Tomas was in the best shape of his life by the time the 1994 World Cup came around. Playing as a striker (as he always did for his country), Brolin was one of the stars of the tournament. His grinta was vital to an unfancied Sweden side as they battled their way to a fantastic 3rd-place finish after victories over Russia, Saudi Arabia, Romania and Bulgaria, and a group stage draw with eventual champions Brazil.

Brolin scored 3 goals at USA ’94 and was the only Swede to be named in the All-Star team. Tomas had the world at his feet, and there were rumours of him moving to Barcelona as Hristo Stoichkov’s replacement. Despite the Catalans’ interest, Brolin opted to stick with Parma with the belief that they could mount a serious title charge in 94-95.

Sadly, this is where things start to fall apart. On November 16th 1994, Tomas Brolin broke his foot during a Euro ’96 qualifier in Stockholm. Parma were 2 points clear at the top of Serie A when Brolin sustained the injury and they suffered badly in his absence. The Swede eventually returned in April 1995 with his team 8 points adrift of league leaders Juventus. He made his return start for Parma on the 7th May in the absence of Gianfranco Zola and struggled for form and fitness for the rest of the season, failing to complete 90 minutes once. To compound his misery, Brolin was sent-off against Napoli on the last day of the season and Juventus took the Scudetto.

The Swede faced a long, arduous summer. Tasked with recovering his fitness and keeping new signing Stoichkov out of the team, Brolin scored two pre-season goals but Scala saw little improvement in his fitness level. Brolin was dropped for Massimo Bambrilla and never reclaimed his place. Struggling for form, fitness and confidence, Tomas Brolin had fallen out of the loop at Parma.

It was time to move on. Leeds United swooped to sign Brolin on a two and a half year deal and the Swede made his debut a day later at Newcastle. After battling his way into the Leeds XI, Brolin turned in a vintage performance against Manchester United on December 24th, 1995. Even Eric Cantona looked second-class as Tomas tormented the Reds’ defence all evening: Leeds won 3-1 with Brolin having a hand in every goal.

Things seemed to be looking up for Brolin and a good start at Leeds had yielded 4 goals from 8 Premier League games. Things turned sour in January 1996: Leeds were thrashed 5-0 by Liverpool and manager Howard Wilkinson chose to point the finger at Brolin, labelling the forward “lazy” and criticising his defensive contribution.

Things never really improved between Wilkinson and Brolin. Tomas was eventually loaned to FC Zurich after failing to report for pre-season training, but returned to Leeds shortly after Wilkinson was replaced with George Graham. Brolin, however, refused to go back to Elland Road, and only accepted his recall when threatened with legal action by his parent club.

Injuries continued to plague Brolin. A metal staple inserted into his ankle during an scar tissue-removal operation earlier in 1996 scuppered a move to Sampdoria. Oblivious to the staple’s existence, Leeds called Brolin back to Yorkshire to have the injury properly examined amidst fears that his playing career might have reached a premature end. Brolin never played to Leeds again, and was eventually loaned back to Parma in December.

His return to the Stadio Tardini was fruitless, with Brolin restricted mostly to brief cameos and substitute appearances. The Gialloblu decided not to renew the Swede’s deal and he returned to Leeds, only to have his contract terminated in October 1997 for skipping a match without prior permission.

Brolin at Palace: a shadow of his former self.

A free agent for the first time in his career, Brolin wasn’t exactly hot property but managed to secure a deal with Crystal Palace. His spell with the Eagles was every bit as shambolic as his time at Leeds. Brolin failed to score in 13 Palace appearances. By this point he was visibly overweight, completely out of form and a sad shadow of his former sense. He retired in August 1998 aged just 29.

It’s a huge shame that Brolin’s career panned out the way it did. He was once a wonderful player with all the potential in the world, but he never truly recovered from that first injury. Excellent in his first Parma spell and brilliant for the Swedish national side, Brolin was, in 2003, voted Leeds United’s “worst ever signing” in a BBC poll. Few players have fallen quite as far as Brolin, but his conduct at Leeds and Palace didn’t exactly do him any favours.

Most British football fans remember Tomas Brolin as an overweight flop, but not me. His time in Britain was an unmitigated disaster, but Brolin’s brief boom at Parma was absolutely thrilling. A midfield maestro for Parma and a deadly marksman for his country, I choose to remember Tomas Brolin, the wonderkid, not Tomas Brolin, podgy waster.

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It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody who read yesterday’s post on Fabio Cannavaro that the former Italy captain is my favourite player of 1990’s-era Parma. But Cannavaro, as good as he was, played as part of one of the tightest defences in the country and the other players who comprised this unit deserve some praise too.

Players such as Lorenzo Minotti deserve a shout here too, but their peak years were before my time (I’m 23) and I didn’t see enough of them to be able to write about their careers. Regardless, here, in short-form, are a few of my favourite Parma defenders.

Antonio Benarrivo

Benarrivo played for Parma from 1991 to 2004 and he is Parma’s all-time appearance leader with over 300 games to his name (all competitions). He holds the honour of being the only player who was at the club for all eight of their major trophy wins, and he collected UEFA Cup (x2), European Super Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup, Coppa Italia (x3) and Supercoppa winners’ medals at the Stadio Tardini.

A marauding full-back capable of playing on either flank, Benarrivo won 23 caps for Itally from 1993-97, and was widely considered one of the best full-backs on the peninsula during his peak years. Quick, athletic and full of energy, Benarrivo shuttled up-and-down the wing as a classic wingback in Parma’s 5-3-2 system, but physicality was far from his own strength. Benarrivo had excellent technique and was so comfortable with the ball at his feet that he was often employed as a winger.

Just as Cannavaro introduced me to the concept of intelligent defending, Benarrivo taught me everything I know about attacking full-backs. He was a vital outlet for Parma over the years and I used to love watching him bombing forward and giving opposition defenders nightmares on Sunday afternoons. It’s just a shame that he had players like Christian Panucci ahead of him in the Azzurri pecking order.

Lilian Thuram

One of the classiest defenders to ever play the game, Thuram made over 600 appearances in a glittering career that included spells with Monaco, Juventus, Barcelona and, of course, Parma. He appeared 163 times in 5 seasons with Parma, scoring just once, and was eventually sold to Juventus for £22m in 2001.

Thuram wasn’t just a good defender: he was a good footballer. His timing and superior positioning meant he rarely had to foul the opposition and he was very rarely booked. Equally adept at right-back or centre back, Thuram’s versatility, class and ability made him a stalwart for club and country, and he is France’s most-capped player of all-time having racked-up an astonishing 142 appearances for Les Bleus.

He’d go on to win an impressive list of honours elsewhere, but Thuram, like Cannavaro, really grew into a world-class player with Parma. He was rarely injured, almost never suspended and always a cut above the opposition. Remember when you were a kid and you and your friends would compile “dream teams” of your favourite players? Other positions would always chop and change, but I’d always have Thuram at RB and Cannavaro at CB. Fabio and Lillian would still be the first names on my team-sheet today.

Roberto Nestor Sensini

“Boquita” was one of Parma’s most important players during the ‘90’s “golden era”. I first took note of Sensini because of his appearance: at the time I thought he resembled the bastard offspring of David Platt and a salmon (I was 8 years old, cut me some slack…). Fishy appearance aside, Sensini was a very good defender. Though never as iconic as Cannavaro or as revered as Thuram, Sensini became a cult figure at the Stadio Tardini and not just because he was awesome in Championship Manager.

Sensini made over 200 Parma appearances in two separate spells with the club (1994-99, 2001-02).He was so fit that he was able to maintain a career in top-flight Italian football until the age of 39, and his composed playing style was a perfect match for Parma’s controlled defensive ethos. Having earned the affectionate nickname nonno (“grandfather”), Sensini retired in 2006 to embark on a managerial career.

More of a legend at Udinese than Parma, Sensini remains an important contributor to Parma’s success. Fingers crossed that he can recover after a poor start to his new career.

Honourable Mentions

Two Italian players often popped-up during this period: Roberto Mussi and Luigi Apolloni. My memory is a bit hazy when it come to these guys and I couldn’t really tell you much about their playing styles, but both were prominent in the ‘90’s and Apolloni made over 300 appearances for Parma. These names, along with Luigi Sartor, always come into my head when I think of Parma defenders.

Fernando Couto was only at Parma for a couple of seasons in the ‘90’s (he rejoined the Gialloblu in 2005) and probably played his best football elsewhere, but I have great memories of the long-haired Portuguese patrolling the penalty area. A solid defender and a huge threat from set pieces, Couto scored 4 goals in his spell at the Stadio Tardini.

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It’s difficult for me to write an article about Fabio Cannavaro without filling the opening paragraph with superlatives. This is one of the all-time greats we’re talking about here: a great captain for club and country, my favourite defender and, more importantly, a Parma legend.

Joining from Napoli in 1995, Cannavaro made 289 appearances in 7 seasons with the Gialloblu, scoring 6 goals in the process. Cannavaro built his reputation as one of the world’s best central defenders during his time with Parma and the steps taken at the Stadio Tardini helped him accrue an enviable list of honours.

Fabio won two Serie A titles, two La Liga titles, the 2006 World Cup, the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year award after leaving Parma in 2002, but I’m more concerned with his achievements at Parma (what with the title of this series being “Gialloblu Giants”). Cannavaro made 40+ appearances in 5 out of his 7 Parma seasons and never made less than thirty. He was an ever-present, an icon of consistency, a colossus

Cannavaro slotted straight into Parma’s XI and was immediately at home in Nevio Scala’s 5-3-2 formation. Leaving his hometown club Napoli was a huge wrench for Fabio, but the move paid-off big-time. The Gialloblu were already renowned for their sturdy defence and Cannavaro’s arrival further solidified their backline. This coupled with Scala’s sound defensive philosophies created the perfect environment for Fabio to grow into one of the all-time great centre-halves.

1995-96 wasn’t a great season for Parma. Cannavaro made 36 appearances in all competitions as the Gialloblu laboured to a 6th-place finish after finishing 3rd the season before. Things improved in 96-97 for both Parma and Cannavaro. Disappointing runs in the UEFA Cup and Coppa Italia saw Parma exit in the 3rd and 2nd rounds of those competitions, but they managed a 2nd-place Serie A position after drawing with Juventus on the closing day.

More significantly, January 1997 marked the start of a long and hugely successful international career. Cannavaro made his Azzurri bow in a friendly with Northern Ireland, and would go on to earn another 11 caps before the year’s end. A particularly notable performance came in a World Cup ’98 qualifier against England at Wembley. Cannavaro dominated Alan Shearer, then considered one of the best strikers in the world, for 90 minutes as Italy eeked-out a 1-0 win.

The next season was mostly fruitless for Parma as new coach Carlo Ancelotti could only guide them to another 6th-place finished. 98-99, however, was huge. The Gialloblu finished 4th in Serie A but won both the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup, beating Marseille 3-0 in the final. Parma’s record was hugely impressive in 98-99, but I’m going to hold the details for now as I plan on taking a look at their UEFA Cup winning sides later this week.

Doping allegations would sadly may Cannavaro’s 98-99 triumphs when Shady footage of the Parma captain receiving injections before the UEFA Cup final surfaced on the internet a few years later. The substance was later found to be Neoton (Phosphocreatine), a chemical commonly used to produce muscular energy. Neoton was not on the banned substance list and no action was taken, but the taint remains. Personally I see nothing wrong with an athlete using perfectly legal substances to enhance their performance before a big game, but c’est la vie.

Parma struggled to mount a serious title challenge after the highs of 98-99 and finished 5th the following season. They captured the Supercoppa in 99-00 and finished 4th in 2000-01 (reaching the Coppa Italia final along the way), before winning the Coppa Italia the following seasons despite a dismal finish of 10th in Serie A.

Sadly 2001-02 would be Cannavaro’s last at the Stadio Tardini as Fabio, now recognised as one of the world’s best defenders, left for Inter in a €23-million deal. Fabio pulled the curtain down on an illustrious career this summer after spells with Juventus (twice), Real Madrid and Al-Ahli Dubai. His international career continued until 2010, with his crowning glory being Italy’s 2006 World Cup win. Cannavaro put in a series of legacy-defining performances for the triumphant Azzurri, earning himself the nickname of “Wall of Berlin” after a particularly impressive showing in the final (held in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, hence the nickname).

Not only did the 2006 World Cup secure Cannavaro’s place in Azzurri history but his world-class performances helped him capture the 2006 FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or (European Footballer of the Year) awards. Impressively, Cannavaro was the first defender to win the latter since Lothar Matthaus in 1990, while he and the German sweeper remain the only to defensive players to ever be named World Player of the Year.

Writing a laundry list of Fabio Cannavaro’s accomplishments is all very well but it only tells half the story. I’ve spent plenty of time going over Fabio Cannavaro’s legacy, but what about Fabio Cannavaro the player? Everybody he was a great defender, but what made him one of the most celebrated centre-backs in history?

Some believe that crunching tackles, determination and desperate lunges are the prerequisite components of a great defender. I disagree completely. Of course defenders need to be determined and strong in the tackle, but there’s more to defending than that. I believe that composure, intelligence and elegance are just as important in defence as in attack, and Cannavaro was the perfect personification of all three.

I’ve never seen another defender who can read the game like Cannavaro. Just as Barcelona’s tiki-taka wizards can see passes that are just invisible to other players, Cannavaro could telegraph attacking moves before they’d even happened. He was a master of nipping attacks in the bud by cutting them off at the supply with blocks, interceptions and straightforward tackles.

Cannavaro’s career isn’t littered with frantic, last-gap challenges because he simply didn’t need to make them. His vision was so good that he was able to kill attacks before they became serious threats by exercising one of the sharpest defensive minds in the game. Cannavaro was strong, but he didn’t use his brawn to carry him through games: he, like most other great defenders of the modern era, used his brain.

Watching Fabio Cannavaro in his prime was always a pleasure, especially at the 2006 World Cup. Rarely eye-catching but always effective, Cannavaro was always in the right place and not by chance. He turned defending, football’s most destructive element, into a genuine thing of beauty, and for that he should be commended.

That is why I’ve always loved Cannavaro. Studying his style completely changed my perception of how a defender should play, and his success shows that you don’t have to be the biggest (Fabio was only 5’9”) or the toughest to be a top centre-back. I salute you, Il Capitano, and hope we soon see your like again.

… and hey, how many other defenders have had such a “charming” song written about them?

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L-R: Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl, Nils Liedholm.

My goal with this blog is to further my knowledge of Italian football by studying a different club every week and digging-up as much info as possible. Last week I took a club that I knew every little about (Cesena) and learned a lot about their football philosophy and attack-heavy squad. This was pretty easy: because I knew almost nothing about Cesena, everything I learned about the club was new to me. I’m sure I would’ve learned a lot more if I had more time to work with (the blog only started last Friday), but researching a smaller club was a piece of cake.

Milan was always going to be more of a challenge. The Rossoneri are huge and researching their history online isn’t exactly difficult, but because they’re such a big club I already know quite a lot about them. You’d think Milan’s size would make them an easier club to document, but they’re not. I could’ve produced article after article on the transition between the Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello eras, the impact Silvio Berlusconi’s ownership has had on the club, and the misunderstood genius of Pippo Inzaghi, but that’d be missing the point.

The point of ATP is not to write about what I already know (which I could’ve done in a pinch), but to write about what I didn’t know before starting my research. For Milan, I knew I was going to have to delve beyond to ‘80’s and ‘90’s, and I did just that.

Bypassing Gil Immortali and Gil Invincibili, past Milan’s 10th Scudetto and forced relegation in the ‘70’s and beyond the ‘60’s and Nereo Rocco’s catenaccio. Eventually I found myself in 1949 with three very special players.

Look through A.C. Milan’s official Hall of Fame and their names immediately jump out at you. Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm (Gre-No-Li) aren’t just the only three Scandinavians in the Rossoneri HOF, but also one of the greatest forward lines in world football history.

Granted, I already knew a snippet or two about Nordahl and Liedholm, but I had no idea they’d played together and I’d never even heard of Gren. Their story is as interesting as it is extraordinary: when was the last time a country of Sweden’s size produced three world class forwards in the same generation? Milan’s current Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic is an excellent player in his own right, but Gre-No-Li have left him one hell of a legacy to live up to.

The trio first rose to prominence during the 1948 Olympic Games. Gre-No-Li played a pivotal role as Sweden won the gold medal with a 3-1 triumph over Yugoslavia in the final. Gunnar Nordahl finished as the competition’s top scorer and was the first of the three to appear on Milan’s radar. He joined the Rossoneri in January 1949 and notched an impressive 16 goals in 15 league games before the end of the season.

Gre-No-Li were reunited in September 1949 when Gunnar Gren and Nils Liedholm signed together, making their debuts in a 3-1 victory over Sampdoria later that month. Milan didn’t win any silverware that season, but they did manage a whopping 118 goals in 38 league games. The seeds for Gre-No-Li’s success were sown, and in the 1950-51 season Milan won their fourth Scudetto.

Winning Serie A was the most notable accomplishment of the trio’s careers thus far, despite their Olympic success. All three had won numerous Allsvenskan Championships back in Sweden, but none had accomplished anything like winning the Scudetto.

For Gren, his first piece of silverware won at the San Siro was also his last. He had a shorter Milan career than Lieholm and Nordahl, and departed in 1953 after a brief spell as manager the year before. Gren’s contribution shouldn’t be devalued though. He scored 38 goals in 133 league appearances for the Rossoneri despite never being seen as the team’s main goalscoring outlet. During his time in Italy he earned the nickname Il Professore (“The Professor”) for his intelligent attacking play. The Teddy Sheringham of his day, Gren spent three more years in Italy with Fiorentina and Genoa, before returning home to Orgryte and retiring in 1957.

Like Gren, Nils Liedholm was also more of a creator than a finisher. Lying deeper than his countrymen, Liedholm was a player of great elegance and one of the finest playmakers of his day. Known for his footballing brain, Liedholm’s pinpoint passing made him a vital component of Milan’s success right up to his retirement in 1961. In total he scored 81 goals in 359 league appearances for the Rossoneri. Unfortunately it’s impossible to find out how many assists he supplied during his 12 years at the club, but I’m willing to bet the total is huge.

Liedholm was not only a pioneering playmaker, but also one of the first footballers to realise the importance of fitness. Liedholm played until he was 38, a rarity during that era. He did it by integrating pure athletics (sprints, javelin, etc.) into his training regime, making him a true athlete during a period when footballers were known more for hard drinking and chain smoking than hitting the gym.

If Liedholm and Gren were creators, Gunnar Nordahl was very much a finisher. The 6’1” powerhouse is, by all accounts, one of the most dominant strikers to ever terrorise Serie A. His strength and power are very well documented, and his goalscoring record is absolutely outstanding. 210 strikes in 257 appearances make him Milan’s all-time leading scorer in Serie A, and a further 15 for Roma make him second only to Silvio Piola in the league’s all-time scoring chart.

Nordahl was a great goalscorer everywhere he played. Moving to Italy effectively ended his international career, but Nordahl still managed 43 goals in just 33 Sweden appearances between 1942 and 1948. He was Serie A’s top scorer in five of his seven full seasons with Milan, and boasts a strike-rate of 0.77 goals-per-game. Ibrahimovic is undoubtedly a better technical player than Nordahl, but he has massive shoes to fill.

Gre-No-Li left a huge, gold-plated legacy behind when, one-by-one, they moved-on from Milan. Gren won just the one Scudetto, but Nordahl picked-up two Serie A winners’ medals between from 1949-56 and Liedholm has four from over a decade at the San Siro. Their exploits on the pitch are forever etched in Milan’s history, but Liedholm would also go on to make a significant contribution behind the scenes.

Moving into the assistant manager’s position after retiring in 1961, Liedholm became the Rossoneri’s head coach in 1963. Liedholm managed the club on three separate occasions (from 1963-66, 1977-79 and 1984-87), and is responsible for winning the club’s first gold star. In Italy it’s customary for teams to add a gold star to their jersey for every ten Scudetti they win, and Milan won their 10th in 1979 under Liedholm’s tutelage.

Barrel-loads of top forwards have called the San Siro “home” over the years, but never have Milan had a strikeforce as potent and effective as Gre-No-Li. Milan’s three Swedes complemented one another beautifully and their collective medal haul truly justifies their legendary status. Calcio and indeed world football may never see their like again.

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