Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Velociraptor Impulse

Panting, he runs up the wing. On one side await the heavens of glory; on the other, ruin's abyss. The player, penned Eduardo Galeano, is the envy of the neighbourhood; the professional athlete who escaped the factory or the office and gets paid to have fun. He won the lottery. And even if he does have to sweat buckets, with no right to fatigue or failure, he gets into the papers and on TV, his name is on the radio, women swoon over him and children yearn to be like him. Nowhere is this more true than in Tumaco. An impoverished tropical port city on the Pacific coast of Colombia, close to the Ecuador border, it is proudly called the 'Semillero de Futbolistas' for the 1400 such players it has gifted to the world of football. From its streets, beaches and vacant lots have emerged the genius of Willington Ortiz, the deadly shot of Leider Preciado, the explosive stride of Jairo Castillo, the intuitive poaching of Eladio Vasquez and now, more recently, the 'horse lungs' of West Ham United's newest recruit, Pablo Armero. Because everybody plays football in Tumaco. No matter where: the front yard of a house, or the busy road where the main traffic signal stops cars with a flashing black silhouetted figure kicking a ball. On asphalt, sand, or grass, the young Tumaqueños attack and defend improvised goals of clothes baskets, oil drums and stones. There is little else to do in this town of less than two hundred thousand people, so it is said, where all they have is poverty and a passion for the game.

The main meeting place and the most famous pitch in Tumaco is El Bajito, located on a beach of the same name known for its sandy soil and goals of square wooden sticks. It is where, a few metres from the sea, a shirtless and barefoot 'Pablito' took his first faltering steps on the road to stardom. El Bajito, explains Armero, is an invitation to play football. All day, every day the games only stop when the vehement noon sun dehydrates and burns the feet: old timers running two miles per hour, fans who meet informally every Sunday morning or football schools as directed by Nery Estupiñán. A familiar figure in his faded Millonarios shirt, Nery discovered Jairo "El Tigre" Castillo when he was a kid living on the Avenida de los Estudiantes, just a couple of blocks away. The 'eyes of Nery' have witnessed thousands of children over the years and continue to see as many as a hundred on any given afternoon. It is estimated that less than 10% of these young players have or will ever become professional footballers because life in Tumaco is hard, they say, but getting out is even harder. Adapting to the cold, the vicissitudes of the big city and the excessive competitiveness are all recognized obstacles to those hopefuls looking for escape; not to mention coping with the logistics of having to be transported by bus and and/or canoe and a changing diet. It is an endemic problem for Colombians in general, thinks South American football expert Tim Vickery, where careers go astray from the moment when the youngster signs his first big contract. Lacking the maturity to cope with sudden wealth and fame, the journey from zero to hero is too quick for the player to assimilate the changes. Then there is the threat of a premature move to Europe where the youngster fails to get a regular game. Yet still the scouts come, perpetually seduced by the sight of these young hopefuls galloping effortlessly over the thick blanket of sand. "Learning to play with your feet buried in the sand is the secret of the players of Tumaco," confides Nery as if revealing it for the first time. "When these guys eventually get on the playing field they take flight," he smiles before recalling the high-stepping Willington Ortiz dribbling through the River Plate defence one famous night in 1981. It is also the reason, he suggests, for Armero's own rather distinctive gait; squat, explosive and rapaciously aggressive it has earned him the sobriquet of 'The Velociraptor'.

The reminiscing Nery is typical of an Afro-Colombian people who remember their famous sons with a lucid memory that borders on religious fervour. They follow the exploits of the Tumaqueños playing abroad, like Armero in Europe, and congregate in any corner to follow América de Cali. Appropriately nicknamed 'La Pasión de un Pueblo', América are the pride of the most populous city in the region and are the second most successful team in Colombia. Naturally enough it is also the club from whose youthful quarry the raw Pablo Armero was hew and shaped. Having signed his first professional contract in 2004, Armero made his debut in the Categoría Primera A shortly after his eighteenth birthday. It was the natural progression for a player who had already played with distinction for the Colombian Under 17 team in the previous year's World Cup. He would go on to see success at the Bolivarian Games and a year later at the 2006 Central American and Caribbean Games. During the subsequent 108 matches over four years he would spend in the 'Diablos Rojos' shirt, Armero appeared in nearly every outfield position, scoring 6 goals in the process. By 2008, his final season at the Estadio Olímpico, he had developed into the raiding left-back for which he would become synonymous and scouts all across South America were beginning to take notice. "Although not excessively tall, Armero is a player who possesses enormous strength and very good physical condition as demonstrated by bestial power and great speed," wrote José Bonilla in El Triunfo del Futbol Elegante. As a wide player he exhibits a feisty character and is also thoughtful and expedient in defense. His greatest virtue though is his offensive ambition and counter attacking instincts. Without being a marvel of technical ability, he loves to join the attack with conviction, often surging forward with unusual speed, strength and power. Possessed of a dangerous shot from distance if the opportunity arises, Armero consistently gets to the byline and can usually be counted on to deliver good crosses." Now also a full international- he made his senior debut in a 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying defeat in Chile that September- Armero played a pivotal role in helping America Cali win their 13th championship. Languishing in Colombia's second tier, it remains the last piece of silverware the club has won. By seasons end Armero's player registration had been bought by the Turbo Sports investment company, operating through the tiny (and now defunct) Poços de Caldas Futebol Clube, for the price of $2 million. Armero's departure would precipitate a downward spiral for Cali that has yet to be arrested.

Turbo Sports were most known in South American football circles at the time for their handling of former Corinthians, Arsenal and Brazil left-back/left winger André Santos. Now acting as Armero's agent, for three months Turbo scouted prospective clubs for their client's services before finally settling on Sociedade Esportiva Palmeiras, one of Brazil's most popular and successful teams. For their part, Palmeiras had already scouted the Colombian and having also watched a bank of videos agreed an initial six month loan of Armero in January 2009. Pablo was immediately installed as first choice left-back; a position the club had struggled to fill since losing Leandro two years previously. During the course of this season the 22-year-old would quickly learn what was required to perform consistently in a more competitive league. After winning recognition for both his speed and crossing abilities, Armero helped the Verdão reach the São Paulo State Championship semi-finals where they would eventually lose to Santos. In a 4–1 win against Náutico in July, with Palmeiras now sitting top of the Brazilian Série A, Armero scored his one and only goal. It was the moment he would gain notoriety throughout Brazil for his unusual dance celebrations; in this case his adaptation of the State of Bahia carnival hit 'Rebolation', that was named the 'Armeration' by the press. In what has become a pattern throughout his career, Armero's distinctive style of dancing spreads like a contagion through his teammates in every team he has played for. His love of movement, he explains, is a legacy of the legendary Luis Antonio Biohó. A teacher in Tumaco, he would only receive into his football school those boys who could dance the Currulao, an indigenous dance with its roots among the Afro-Colombian community. Biohó considered anyone unable to wiggle their hips to the beat of cununo, guasá and marimba to be incapable of evading his opponents on the football pitch. "If you dance well, you play well," Armero repeats Biohó's maxim, convinced that he is conferring an ancient and elemental truth. It is the reason, he insists, that there is a palpable musical sense to all Tumaqueños footballers; as readily identifiable as the samba beat to Brazil.

The start of the following season saw Armero as once again a first team regular. In a demonstration of his versatility he was now increasingly asked to adapt to a more orthodox attacking left-wing role; the position for which he had been voted the second best in the league months earlier by the Brazilian Football Federation. Despite not always convincing the discerning Palmeiras fans of his technical ability, the Velociraptor's combination of explosive power and searing pace rendered him so unplayable at times that covetous eyes from Europe were beginning to take notice. Perhaps aware of the burgeoning talent on their hands, Palmeiras bought 20% of Armero's economic and 'non-dividable' registration rights in June 2010 in a move to secure an equivalent percentage of any future transfer fee. The following month, after just 36 appearances, Armero signed a pre-contract with Italian Serie A side Parma only for the deal to collapse a few days later. Italy's ignominious exit from the World Cup finals in South Africa (as defending champions they finished bottom of their group) a fortnight earlier prompted the Italian Football Federation to ratify a new rule limiting the number of non-EU acquisitions to one player per season. Effective immediately, Parma suddenly found themselves in breach of the quota rules having also already agreed to sign the Brazilian youth international Zé Eduardo. Forced to choose between the two, the Gialloblù opted for the defensive midfielder and in terminating Armero's contract found themselves obliged to pay reparations. In hindsight Parma's loss would be Udinese's gain. At the end of August the Zebrette announced that the club had secured the player for a fee believed to be in the region of €5 million. As if to add insult to Parma's injury, while Zé Eduardo would go on make just 6 first team appearances before being loaned out to a series of ever more obscure teams, Armero was about to explode onto the European scene. "I left with a happy heart," smiles the Colombian, "because I’d made friends and I’d worked in a great country. I learned a lot in Brazil." For Kristian Bengtson, writing for Anything Palmeiras, the feeling was mutual even if the player did not always live up to the huge expectations. "Few players have shown so much heart, dedication and commitment as Armero did during his stay in the club," he noted. "Who can forget the tears streaming from his face after being substituted already in the first half in a game against Corinthians? Or his ecstatic joy while commemorating a pass that lead to a goal in Palmeiras’ 4-3 win against Santos? Men like these don’t grow on trees in this day and age."

Linking up with compatriots Christian Zapata and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado at the Stadio Friuli, the new arrival slotted seamlessly into the left wing-back position in Francesco Guidolin's 3–5–2/5-3-2 formation. "Early in my time at Udinese I had to gain the trust of the coach," explained Armero. "We made a poor start in the first weeks of the season and that persuaded him to take a gamble on me." Taking over from Giovanni Pasquale, the Colombian would feature in 31 Serie A games in his debut season; his contribution of two goals and three assists playing a pivotal role in helping the side return to Champions League football. Operating in tandem with Chilean Mauricio Isla, it was widely accepted that Udinese now had the best wing-back partnership in Serie A. As if to underscore that fact, Armero found himself voted into the 2010/11 Serie A Team of the Year in the company of the likes of Nesta, Ibrahimovic, Cavani and Hamsik. An unprecedented achievement for a young South American player getting his first taste of Italian football, the agent who helped broker the deal to bring Armero to Udine insists nobody should have been surprised at the player's success. "He was already a Colombian international which therefore meant that he was a valuable player," states Claudio Vagheggi. "Udinese took him from Palmeiras, which is one of the great Brazilian and South American teams. In short, his pedigree was already talking for him. The Friuli were convinced that the player had the ability and Pablo has proven to be able to adapt quickly to the Italian championship." One team certainly taking notice was Barcelona who reportedly tracked Armero's rapid progress for the entire second half of the season. Having been stymied by Tottenham's excessive valuation of Gareth Bale, the Catalan giants were in the market to replace the stricken Éric Abidal.

For their part Udinese have cultivated an enviable reputation in recent years for the assiduous accumulation of relatively unknown players; adroitly nurturing latent talent before selling to bigger clubs. As marriages go Udinese and Armero was a match made in heaven; not least because the player finally got to play in his strongest position. "I like attacking football, but I also like to defend," insists Armero. "It is why I feel most comfortable in the position of wing-back." Unfortunate then that he would find himself playing as a left-sided winger in a 4–4–1–1 formation by the time of the qualifying round for the Champions League the following August. With new signing Neuton playing behind him, Armero failed to shine as Udinese lost home and away to Arsenal. After missing the opening round of the 2011/12 season, Armero returned from international duty to score the winner against Rennes in his first ever UEFA Europa League match. Although the Bianconeri would ultimately get knocked out in the last sixteen against AZ Alkmaar, Armero was now back in his favoured wing-back role and embarking on what would be the defining season in his career to date. With a greater accent on counter-attack, Udinese boasted the best defensive record in Serie A through the first fifteen weeks of the season. Meanwhile, the sale of both Alexis Sánchez and Gökhan Inler had placed an even greater onus on Armero to also provide an attacking thrust. It was a challenge he would accept manfully. In March Gabriele Marcotti reported there was now strong interest from Liverpool, whose officials had already met with the player's Brazilian agent to discuss a possible end of season transfer. "For those who don't know", he wrote, "Armero is a left wing-back/winger. Very fast, very direct. Very good. The weakest part of his game is his end product." As scouting reports go it was nothing if not succinct. For the second consecutive season Udinese qualified for the Champions League- clinching third place on the final day of the season with a 2–0 away win against Catania- while Armero finished with ten assists. An astounding number for a defender, especially one with a supposedly suspect final ball, it was bettered only by Andrea Pirlo, Fabrizio Miccoli and Sebastian Giovinco.

Armero would spend the ensuing summer in the eye of a transfer storm as Juventus and Napoli waged a war for his affections that played out daily across the pages of Corriere della Sport and La Gazzetta. Yet even as Udinese were fighting off a cannonade of offers, there remained a degree of skepticism among the fans in both Turin and Naples concerning a defender described by Vickery as "beguiling, frustrating, surprising". The Italians, after all, have an obsession with the art of defending. Although not quite as prevalent as it once was, the mentality of 'prima, non prenderla' (our first priority is a clean sheet) still endures and manifests itself in a low tolerance for tactical injudiciousness. "You have to be prepared to have a left-back who is much better going forward than he is defending," posited Vickery when considering how to get the best out of Armero, before adding: "He's not going to do a lot of defending in the air at the far post." Implicit in the observation is the suggestion that Armero can ill be trusted in an orthodox back four. "Cafu without brains," quipped one Turin journalist as Armero's transfer appeared to loom near. "He can't play fullback, his 1-on-1 defending is sub-par, and worst of all he gives the ball away time and time again in dangerous positions," came the withering response from Naples, before adding, "he's sometimes a headless chicken albeit a very energetic and enthusiastic one." As so often with Armero, perception has not always matched reality. In the previous summer's Copa America, for example, the Colombian had performed admirably on the left side of a back four; including an assured performance in a high pressure goalless draw with the host nation Argentina. As for question marks over his final delivery, statistics revealed that of the 115 crosses Armero had delivered into the box during his time in Serie A, 35 (30.2%) had led to a goal scoring opportunity. "I have learned a lot from the Italian league, especially in the tactical, both on the defensive and offensive," thinks Armero, before adding: "I can still improve a lot."

It would be Napoli who eventually gave Armero the opportunity to further develop his career but not until the following January transfer window. In the meantime there was yet more Champions League heartache as Udinese failed to reach the group stage for the second consecutive season after losing on penalties to Portuguese club Braga. An ever present in the league and a regular in the Europa League, by the time Armero arrived at the Stadio San Paolo- initially on loan with the option to make a permanent switch in the summer- the defender had clocked up another 16 appearances. "Udine is a very pleasant town," Armero would say about his time with the Zebrette. "I had no problems in finding myself at ease and I adapted pretty well to the environment, managing to do my best. We were a fantastic group and the squad was young, yet very ambitious. That's why we able to achieve great things." In Walter Mazzarri's Napoli, Armero was joining a team seemingly tailor-made for his strengths. Renowned for their rapid incisive counter-attacking style- in a 3-4-3/3-5-2 formation in which Edinson Cavani was supported by Argentinian Ezequiel Lavezzi and Slovakian star Marek Hamšík- Armero was viewed as the perfect foil for his right-sided counterpart Christian Maggio. Nonetheless, with the Partenopei heading for a second place in Serie A, the club's best performance since winning the 1989–90 Scudetto, Armero was forced to bide his time behind compatriot Camilo Zuniga; mostly appearing off the bench for the remainder of the 2012-13 season.

Despite making just four competitive starts during his loan spell, Armero made the permanent move to Napoli for a reported €4 million last summer. By now, though, Rafa Benitez was at the helm and, as Mina Rzouki observed, "a team that had played a three-man back-line since 2004 suddenly altered the formation and was turned into a proactive team capable of adapting to each situation." Deployed in a more suitable 'European' formation of 4-2-3-1, she noted, "the Partenopei took the foundation laid by Edy Reja and Walter Mazzarri and combined it with more intelligent ideas" to create a team capable of winning nine of their opening eleven fixtures of the current campaign. With Napoli sitting third by early November- the one defeat had been a painful loss to Champions League rivals Roma- Armero featured mostly as an orthodox left-back; albeit one whose unwillingness to curb his natural attacking instincts was eliciting ever more vocal criticism. By the time Juventus and Parma inflicted back-to-back defeats, followed by more dropped points against both Udinese and Cagliari before Christmas, the finger-pointing at Benitez's scapegoated wing-backs was becoming impossible to ignore. Not helped by systemic limitations that meant the likes of José Callejón, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne offered too little protection to those playing behind them, things came to a head in the 3-1 Champions League defeat to Borussia Dortmund. Writing in The Offside, Napoli’s fullbacks, Armero and Maggio, were described as "more like wing-backs as they were constantly moving up the pitch, and often getting caught out of position. Zuniga was sorely missed this game, as Armero simply doesn’t have the attributes of a fullback – his strengths, which are numerous, would better fit a midfielder/winger. The result of Napoli’s fullbacks playing like wing-backs, which they used to be in the 3-5-2 system for a few years, left Dortmund all kinds of space on counter attacks. Napoli’s wingers were getting caught high up the pitch, and it left way too much room for Armero and Maggio to cover, and by the end of the game they must have been exhausted running up and down all game like midfielders instead of defenders."

Facing an early Champions League exit and a yawning gap behind Juventus and Roma in the race for the Scudetto, volatile Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis pronounced himself so "broken" that by this January sweeping defensive changes were inevitable. As Miguel Britos returned from injury and versatile Frenchman Anthony Reveillere and Saint-Etenne's promising Faouzi Ghoulam arrived, the writing was on the wall for Armero. Throughout the transfer window there was rife speculation that a loan swap deal involving Milan's versatile Guinean international Kévin Constant was on the cards only for the latter to scupper the deal. It was then that West Ham and Sam Allardyce made their move. "I was very thankful for the opportunity," says Armero. "It felt very good to come over here and see a group that wants to improve and wants to win every game. For me this will be a great experience as English football is very attractive and I will give my best to improve the quality of the team." Armero can already claim experience of playing against top flight English opposition, having faced Arsenal (again) home and away in this season's Champions League group stages. "It was good to play against Arsenal because I like English football," he says before stating his belief that his game is well suited to the demands of British football. "It's attacking and defending, it's quick football - quicker than Italy - and I've always wanted to be here in the Premier League," he told the club website. "I am a left full-back, who likes to work in defence. I am a good defender, strong and quick, but I also like attacking. I like to go to the front and make good crosses. I will give good defending to the team, and good attacking too and hopefully I will help my team mates to win games."

Armero is one of three players to swap Serie A for the Boleyn Ground this winter following the arrival of Italy internationals Antonio Nocerino and Marco Borriello, and he says having those familiar faces around has eased the settling in process. "All the team mates are good for me, they are trying to help me integrate in the team," he says. "I knew Marco and Antonio before and they are helping me, by translating, and helping me to understand what they say. They are helping in my integration at the club and I hope that this is going to be a quick process so I can be in the starting eleven as soon as possible." Crucially, one of Armero's colleagues at Napoli was also well-placed to explain what a move to the Boleyn Ground would entail. Valon Behrami spent two-and-a-half years in E13 and spoke fondly of his time at the Hammers to Armero. "Behrami told me that West Ham is a good club in the Premier League," smiles Armero. "It's a good institution, and a very good opportunity for me. He said that all the staff, all the players and the people who work for the team are good and they will help me. That's happening at the moment and he also told me about the Premier League, which is a league where everybody wants to play some day. He gave me compliments and wished me all the best."

In the meantime, as he waited for his work visa, came a return visit to Tumaco. Armero was accompanied by members of the Colombian Football Federation who were filming part of a documentary on the career of the players that make up the national team. "They want to know the roots of each, where they grew up, where they played, what they did," he explains. "So I showed them all Tumaco, which we know is very cute and sexy. My first steps were on the beach, where we played barefoot. It's cool and nice and gives me great joy to show that part of Armero", the Colombian says excitedly. Life in Tumaco, he says, is sensory and it happens outdoors; "to be enclosed is to refute the sun, dying of sadness in darkness." Armero was able to show everybody his foundation work which provides sports equipment to aid in the development of the local children. "The motivation is that these children have the opportunity for a moment of joy; to follow their dreams of being a professional footballer just as I did," he explains. "Just to provide balls, uniforms, to give them everything they need so that they can practice their profession. Well, the most important thing is to make them happy and cheerful and to keep intact their dreams so that someday they can be great people and professionals."

It is a message that resonates now more than ever before. Almost a year to the day of Armero's visit Tumaco shook with the explosion of a motorcycle bomb that left eight people dead, more than a dozen wounded and destroyed the police station. It was the culmination of three months of incessant bombings and ever since the streets have been heavily militarized; the increased troop presence a reaction to and cause of the perceived fear among the inhabitants. The day the film crew turned up was the thirteenth straight without power; during which time kids have stayed away from schools and fishermen have been unable to take their boats out because of sanctions. The mayor of Tumaco, Victor Gallo, blamed the attack on the Daniel Aldana Mobile Column of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FARC), which has a stranglehold in the area. A Marxist–Leninist 'Peasant Army', it funds its activities by kidnap to ransom, gold mining, and the production and distribution of illegal drugs. In an impoverished city such as Tumaco, where less than half the population receives even basic primary education, where food is scare and job opportunities limited, the lure of the criminal world can be hard to resist. "The boys do not always choose football in Tumaco anymore," sighs Nery. "My doors are always open but the boys want to earn fast money. There are paramilitary and guerrilla organizations that offer comprehensive training." According to recent figures from the National Planning Department, there are 128.4 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, mostly from neighborhoods that have become "no go" areas of drug trafficking and extortion. "Football is still the emblem of Tumaco, but we can not deny that the possibility of producing another Pablo Armero is limited," agrees municipal representative, Alex Castillo. "Players have been engulfed by a decade marked by violence, especially the young people. I've witnessed many talents become victims of these confrontations."

More than ever it is the reason why those who have succeeded in football do not forget their families in Tumaco. "The first thing they do is give them houses that in many other cities would be no more than middle class standard, but in a place as precarious as Tumaco are like castles," notes Castillo. "Colombia, Leider's mother, has a yellow two-storey, tinted glass, grilles and air conditioning, while Gustavo Armero, Pablo's brother, lives in one decidedly better than that any of his neighbours' houses, where cement has replaced wooden boards and dry mud. Among the favours received by his brother are also several appliances and a shirt of Palmeiras, the Brazilian club where he played before leaving for Italy." Such are the spoils of Galeano's lottery winner. They say in these parts that even as a child Pablo Armero would 'run like he had no brakes'; driven on to gallop faster and further as if by some unfathomable incitation or abstruse fear. The flight or fight impulse of a Velociraptor. "If you are lucky enough to become a professional footballer," explains Castillo, "you can make return visits to the homeland and will be received as a hero. For everyone else, we must wrest from life, or rather, the sea, the resources just to get through the day. A soccer field or the vastness of the Pacific, those are the only two ways for the young people in this remote and poor place." The choice, you could say, between the heavens of glory or ruin's abyss.


Anonymous said...

This is a truly astounding article mate. I just hope that Armero gets his chance before he gets disillusioned.

Anonymous said...

As a keen watcher of Serie A, I am desperate to see Armero play for the Hammers. If we can get him back to his Udinese form then we'll have one great player on our hands who the fans will love. His work rate and passion is incredible. Another great post btw!

Leo said...

Thing is I think we have the ideal players now to make the switch to three at the back. Demel/Downing and Armero either side of Collins, Reid and Tomkins. It would let us play an extra midfielder (Nocerino or Diame) alongside Nobes and Taylor whilst still keeping Nolan playing off Carroll or going for two up top when chasing the game. Make it happen Sam.

Anonymous said...

great article as usual. Loved it!

Unemployed Dave said...

Re- Leo: I've been having the same thoughts but it seems to me Sam Allardyce is a bit of a belt and braces pragmatist when it comes to switching up tactics, formations and players. Maybe if we're safe with a few games to go he might become a little less risk averse.

Tree said...

So this is what you're up to when I don't hear from you for days on end! Is there no end to your talents x

Anonymous said...

Hi- just wanted to say thanx for a great read. Twitter sent me here and I'm certainly going to come back regularly now.

Kempton said...

Excellent stuff, Trilby. Brilliantly researched and beautifully written.

Anonymous said...

I for one would love to see the 3-5-2 brought back to the Boleyn. When we played it occasionally under Harry with the likes of Impey, Sinclair and Schemmel as WBs it produced some outstanding performances.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic article!!! Well done.

Anonymous said...

thoroughly enjoyable read, though it made me wonder what on earth he is doing at west ham.


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