Reform in Football – Strategic Thinking Required

With Tracey Crouch taking fan submissions, time to think strategically. Independent regulation will enable a better future for football

Paul The Esk 06/06/2021 27comments  |  Jump to last

“Independent regulation, the genie is out of the bottle and not going back in. The question is not about an independent regulator, it is about what it regulates” – Tracey Crouch, the Chair of the “fan-led review of football governance” speaking on the Ornstein and Chapman podcast from The Athletic on 27th May.

On 22nd April the terms of reference for the fan led review of football were published. The most important from a strategic position in my opinion is:

  • Assess calls for the creation of a single, independent football regulator to oversee the sport’s regulations and compliance, and its relationship with the regulatory powers of The FA and other football bodies;

The findings from the other terms of reference listed below are critical to the future sustainability of football. However, effective remedies can only be implemented, monitored and when necessary imposed by independent regulators with statutory powers arising from legislation.

The other terms of reference are

  • Consider the multiple Owners’ and Directors’ Tests and whether they are fit for purpose, including the addition of further criteria;
  • Examine the effectiveness of measures to improve club engagement with supporters, such as structured dialogue, that were introduced on the back of the Expert Working Group;
  • Investigate ways league administrators could better scrutinise clubs’ finances on a regular basis;
  • Examine the flow of money through the football pyramid, including solidarity and parachute payments, and broadcasting revenue;
  • Explore governance structures in other countries, including ownership models, and whether any aspects could be beneficially translated to the English league system;
  • Look at interventions to protect club identity, including geographical location and historical features (e.g. club badges);
  • Examine the relationship between club interests, league systems and their place within the overall football pyramid.

Armed with these terms of reference fans, fan groups, owners, directors, administrators of the game, special interest groups and others are currently creating arguments for change and what type of change they desire. Equally on the other side, the few clubs and organisations the current structure favours so heavily, are planning on how to maintain the status quo as much as possible.

It is clear that with the level of self-interest within the game, those with power and influence will present their own (ill-founded) arguments, use existing relationships to lobby government and MPs very hard to minimise the degree of change.

In a sense, those that run football, those that control, influence, derive status and benefit financially from the current rules, regulations and structures will view the fan led review and what arises from it in the same manner a board might view a hostile takeover (hostile in their eyes) of a company. They will see any changes as a reduction in their power and influence and for some, a threat to their financial interests in the game. The prospect of such losses will create a determined response from the incumbents.

Certainly, one of the first defence tactics is to offer something which perhaps looks significant, but in reality changes little. A classic deflection or for the unwary, an appeasement tactic.

Thus, we have clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United offering fan advisory boards, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea offering fan director positions, plus of course, Manchester United offering an, as yet, undefined fan ownership scheme.  This is window dressing and does nothing to bring the changes needed across football. These are classic mitigating tactics to use with government and MPs and also the court of public opinion. They ought be identified and rejected as such, given the prospect for meaningful change driven by the review.

Strategically, the argument is about how to bring in independent regulation. That has to be the first priority of all wanting change, of all wanting a better, more equitable, sustainable game. The question then is what needs to be done to develop the support to create the legislation necessary for an effective independent regulator?

How is that achieved? There are three distinct audiences that need to be addressed and persuaded.

  1. The vast majority of football clubs in the football pyramid including many in the Premier League. The appeal has to be wholly inclusive, starting at grass roots upwards and cover every element and division of the game including both men’s and women’s football.
  2. The general public. Football has huge societal and community influence and value in the UK, particularly England (given this is the focus of the review).  Such is its importance that individually for many, football has the greatest significance outside of family and personal relationships. Individuals and the general public have to be convinced that football at every level is at threat from the unsustainable nature of the current structure, given the inequitable distribution of power and resources.
  3. Politicians – government, members of parliament, regional mayors and local councillors. Those outside of parliament can provide vital support to persuading those in parliament of the need for, and the benefits of an independently regulated football industry. The politicians desire to support the necessary changes will be driven in the main, by the level of demand from (i) and (ii) above.

Those promoting change have to garner the support of fans and everyone with an interest in football at every level. In turn that assists the campaign with politicians (especially in such a populist era). With the support of politicians, parliament can then legislate for change. Legislating for independent regulation of football is the only way of bringing all of the necessary changes to ensure sustainability throughout the game.

Thinking strategically

Firstly as above, gain as much support as possible not only across football but from local communities, their political representatives and ultimately the government for independent regulation powered by legislation.

Why is independent regulation so important?

It’s important because it is the enabler for real change. The change that is necessary but will not be offered voluntarily by clubs and associations. Across football, organisations such as the FSAFair Game, individual supporter trusts, other fan groups, academics and interested parties have been doing incredible work on re-engineering football, to make football fairer, more equitable, more sustainable at every level.

The portfolio of ideas and policies are impressive including but not limited to:

  • At club level, protection of individual club’s intellectual property – i.e. all (tangible and intangible) that makes each club unique and valuable to individual fans and their communities.
  • Clubs will be licenced by the independent regulator. The conditions of the licence will include sustainability measure (cost controls, community engagement, academy performance, equality performance etc).
  • At league level, a more equitable distribution of monies across the game including the removal of inequitable measures such as parachute payments. A reduction in the income levels between each division
  • A meaningful “fit and proper” owners test including clear identification of funders and beneficial owners; a global search for convictions, financial misdemeanours. A restraint on leveraged acquisitions (Manchester United and Burnley for example)
  • Meaningful fan representation at board level, supporter trust creation, model articles and power of veto/golden share arrangements.

However, none of this can be achieved across the game without the enabling independent regulation of football. That can only occur through legislation passed through the houses of parliament.

Legislation can only be achieved by politicians seeing the need for, and most importantly, the support for change.

Strategic thinking is required. The opportunity for change has arisen through the greed of the largest clubs and the lack of proper governance throughout the game. The game can only survive sustainably by bringing about change. Football itself will not support sufficient change to make a difference.

Thus, the strategic play is to enforce change through independent regulation. Independent regulation has to be the first objective and most resources have to be used initially in promoting this message and getting the level of popular support to such an extent that politicians cannot fail to take action.

Work on the form of regulation, the drafting of legislation, the power of the regulator etc must continue but in this early period of the fan-led review the call for independent regulation is the key.

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Reader Comments (27)

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Laurie Hartley
1 Posted 06/06/2021 at 07:09:34
A very thought provoking article Paul. The first two words that came into my head after reading through you comments were - “Money & Power”. The most dangerous of combinations.

My take on the suggestions is that the present “Pyramid” has to be demolished and a new one built:

1. Politicians
2. Football Clubs
3. Fans

Finding a few honest politicians - men and women of principal will be the first hurdle to overcome. Difficult these days but not impossible - there are still a few around.

The clubs would have an almighty squabble as to who gets a seat at the table.

But then comes the really difficult part: who represents the fans? They are the ones that would have to keep the rest of them honest and report back to the fan base. Maybe 3 people from each club - definitely more than 1 per club.

Alan J Thompson
2 Posted 06/06/2021 at 07:41:58
I still get the feeling it is all a bit "Yes, Minister - Well which did you want, Minister, the truth or an Inquiry" and I also wonder, however unlikely, the effect UEFA starting an European or EU League might have, that is, an officially sanctioned version of a "Super League". After all, isn't the main aim of this review or Independent Regulator to stop some clubs owners having the ability to remove themselves (clubs) and therefore revenue from sanctioned/organized ENGLISH football.
Charles Brewer
3 Posted 06/06/2021 at 09:12:20
As is increasingly clear, the existing structures are not working. The Shitty Six are going to receive no penalty whatsoever for their attempted sabotage of competitive football in Europe, and will continue as if nothing happened. They have successfully lobbied and fixed the press so the whole thing is now well and truly under the carpet. Rather similar to Hunter Biden's laptop, the media have closed ranks to hide extreme wrongdoing.

Secondly, experience shows that regulation of a market usually results in significantly worse outcomes than before. Regulatory capture by the most powerful members of a market is just about universal. Think of the quality of telecommunications in the UK, slow, expensive services with terrible coverage; I live 20 miles from the centre of London and have zero mobile coverage as is the case in most of the valley running from Dorking to Guildford (not exactly the most remote of sparsely populated areas);, think of the USA where half a dozen telcos organise local monopolies and charge huge amounts.

Regulators are simply a target for the powerful to get their own agendas backed by quasi-legal force, the classic example being the EU which is nothing more than a mass of protectionist regulation which supports incumbent firms, existing products and bans innovation.

Regulators attract only the crony-capitalist class (look at the dross who circulate between them). We could probably expect the spectacularly useless Tim Parker (of racist National Trust fame, and previously Head of the Post Office with its disgusting destruction of perfectly honest decent people's lives), or the egregious Helen Ghosh - another spectacular racist failure at the NT, moved on to head of Balliol College after a career of what one must conclude was dismal incompetence at DEFRA and the Home Office in the civil service.

Unfortunately, the kinds of people you would want running a football regulator would be the likes of Alex Ferguson (or maybe Gary Neville), Alan Sugar or Jonathan Sumption, respectively interested in football but too bolshy to be influenced, interested in football but too rich to be bribed, or highly intelligent, with a deep interest in analysis and natural justice, but probably not interested in football.

From the point of view of continuous success the best run sports appear to be the pre-woke NFL (before 2018), Formula 1, pre-Shitty 6 Premiership (actually, English football pre Premiership) and the Indian Premier League cricket. None of these are free of scandals, but they are all successful, entertaining, and cater more to audiences than those seeking to extract maximum revenue. And none of them is regulated by an “Independent” body.

Stan Schofield
4 Posted 06/06/2021 at 09:53:14
Independent regulation is vital, as it is in many areas besides football, such as worker safety. But the main question is whether such regulation takes (A) an effective form, with the ‘right people' of competence and integrity exercising their formal regulatory powers for the overall advantage of football, or (B) an ineffective form, with empty suits going through the motions of appearing to exercise regulatory powers whilst actually dancing to the tune of the big money in the game.

If (A) happens, football should improve and be more the beautiful game. If (B), then the review process is simply a whitewash with nothing changing, and elite football will be something not worth watching.

Danny O’Neill
5 Posted 06/06/2021 at 10:21:00
"Strategic Thinking Required".

In the latest of this great series Paul, that part of the title sums up a vital aspect if we are genuinely going to attempt to reform football in this country.

Now, I've banged my "build from the bottom up" drum often enough on here and I maintain that. You don't build the roof first as I like to say. The foundations are where you start. For football, that's the grass roots.

But to build from the bottom up, you need to know what the strategic aim is. What are we trying to achieve? Where do we want our game to be? What do we want our pyramid to look like? If you haven't got that, you don't know where you're going and fall into the trap of making it up as you go along.

Once the strategic aim is established, you can work back and set in place the timeline, the goals and objectives that will get you to the strategic aim. You have a target; you know where you're going and where you want to be.

A good footballing example was France when they hosted and won the 1998 World Cup in 1998.

I read at the time, they targeted that as their strategic aim. In the build up to that strategic target and in the years prior to it, they ignored and discounted the immediate here and now stuff. The strategic aim was to win the World Cup on home soil in 1998. That was the focus and they put in place the tools and objectives to get them there. But they had a strategy. They invested in grass roots. They put the building blocks in place the get theme to the strategic aim.

From a national football level, it continues to benefit them. Champions of the World twice since then and personally, my favourites for the Euros this summer.

As always Paul, you've kicked me off with one of my Sunday morning sermons!! I've loved this series of articles and hope I've made some sense. You struck a cord with the strategy word!

Football needs a strategy.

And god forbid, so do Everton!

Paul [The Esk]
6 Posted 06/06/2021 at 15:50:51
Alan #2, there's no doubt the attempt at creating the Super League has accelerated the demand for independent regulation and created the opportunity to put such a structure in place. The reality is though that it is much more to do with creating sustainability throughout the pyramid from the bottom up (some of which I list in the the article). That will never be achieved without enforcement hence the need for independent regulation.
Stan #4 the objective is very much A!
Danny, absolutely on all counts. Whilst there is much reform to do the key objective first is to get the regulations in place, the independent oversight of football to allow the reforms to take place. Much of the thinking so far has been around what might be done if independent regulation is in place.
I am much more concerned with getting the regulators in place, then we can implement many of the good ideas out there.
Hence my call for strategic thinking in ensuring politians provide the legislation to enable and empower the regulator.
Danny O’Neill
7 Posted 06/06/2021 at 16:04:03
Earlier talk of trying to find an honest politician. Forget political pursusuaion or views, and my military bias. Also, I have no idea how much interest he has in football. But Johnny Mercer is probably one on the most honest politicians out there if you want a champion. Ex Army officer and sticks to principles.
Rick Tarleton
8 Posted 06/06/2021 at 16:21:10
Morally, Paul, one would be hard-pressed to disagree with a single word you write. I agree that most of the changes being mooted are cosmetic and are there in order to allow the clubs to claim that they are working with the fans.
An interesting point is that it could be argued that it was Everton and John Moores who were the first of the clubs to shape their success, based on the financial power of a very rich owner.
Paul [The Esk]
9 Posted 06/06/2021 at 16:34:31
Thanks Rick. I have to say I see this not so much as a moral argument but a fight for survival for the wider football pyramid. Do we want to see good sustainable football at every level with greater participation from youngsters including girls or do we want to see the very wealthiest destroy the game by creating this arms race that few can afford and for most will end up in failure.
The largest clubs do not want to give up power, influence nor lose their perceived competitive advantage. As a result, independent regulation is the only means by which meaningful change can be achieved (IMO). Independent regulation can only be imposed by statute
Paul [The Esk]
10 Posted 06/06/2021 at 16:37:02
On whether Moores was the first re the relationship between money and success, certainly the Huddersfield Town side of the mid /late 1920s which won 3 titles was funded by an extremely wealthy local mill owner. Arsenal at times too.
Rick Tarleton
11 Posted 06/06/2021 at 17:06:13
I am possibly a little more pessimistic than you are, Paul. I feel that persuading the various layers of the elite to work together may be difficult, as we have seen in recent moves by the twelve European "super" clubs. As for the elite beeing regulated to help the grass roots of the game, I feel that may prove to be a chimera.
The big clubs operate on their own level, they care little for clubs below their own level and work amongst themselves on the Machiavellian principle of a "mutual fear of each other".
I think it is primarily a moral issue, but in a way the dice is loaded, because the regulation will have to be accepted, or even approved by Real Madrid et alia. What these clubs will accept will prove, as you point out, to be a negotiating concession, rather than a true limitation of their power, influence and economics.
I think that there is hope that intelligent and principled fans around the world are doing, as you are doing amongst Evertonians, their best to make us aware of what the situation is and what needs to happen.
It's not a uniquely football thing: cricket, rugby, horse racing and all the American sports have seen the organisation of their sport tilted away from the grass roots of the game for the benefit of the super clubs or teams.
I'm afraid that such efforts by grass roots organisations are merely tilting at windmills. The elite do what they have to do to appease critics, but ultimately, there'll be a European Super League.
Being a tad leftist in my ideas, I feel that the model of global capitalism is in charge in sport and much else and we are the victims.
Sorry for sounding so gloomy.
Derek Moore
12 Posted 07/06/2021 at 16:52:27
The pandemic has, in my view, entirely exposed mostprofessional sport for what it is. This is a football centric article, as you'd expect, but if you place it within the context of other top level sport funded mainly by media rights then you'll see the problems are general and fairly common in nature.

I normally live in New Zealand. Right now there is a heated debate in NZ over the decision by the various regional provinces agreeing to sell 12.5% of the All Blacks – the national rugby team and literally part of the New Zealand national identity – to private equity for nearly NZ$400M.

Right now, I'm spending time with my brother and his family in Australia. My brother tells me there was widespread anger over the Australian cricket board seeking the equivalent of furlough relief from the government and shedding staff at the start of the pandemic.

Both cricket in Australia and rugby in New Zealand are far more centrally organized than football. And both face little comparative competition in their markets. Both have seen money first trickle into the game, then flow, and now cascade through like a tsunami. The general public wasn't privy to the balance sheets of either organization obviously, but there was a perception that both would had significant financial reserves prior to the pandemic.

To find that all the hundreds of millions, billions, in some cases has flowed into a game and evaporated witout benefiting really anyone than the top level players, and a layer of administration and various parasites that leech from those parties directly that's the issue.

Both cricket in Oz and rugby in NZ did what football did in the UK and went onto Sky or it's equivalent. For the "good of the game". To "guarantee it's future". So "the grassroots could be invested in and expanded".

All absolute bollocks obviously. All that happened was a pointless layer of chairman, board members, administrators and various other parasites were paid a good whack of all that money, and the balance given to the players at the top level. The grassroots got nothing.

There is a general acceptance here and in NZ that it is all about greed. Accepting it and condoning it are two different matters though, and antecdotally a lot of people are just tuning out for good. From my time in the UK and speaking to friends and family who are still their I have some antecdotal evidence of the same thing there. People are under fewer illusions now than even quite recently.

To me, the lack of interest in sport of all types among the young is startling. And revealing. It's only comparatively recently that football was on television at all - and of course paying fifteen quid on Sky Box Office to watch midtable Premiership rubbish is just an "innovation" on football being on the telly anyway.

My son and all of his friends would rather wash my car than watch Everton, and they are fairly typical. Ny nephew here in Australia and his friends appear to be much the same with some obvious regional differences. They wouldn't give Burnley-Brighton fifteen seconds of their time let alone fifteen notes. Where are the next generation of football "consumers" going to come from?

I think it's a legacy of most or all of people my age – I'm 40 – originally watching sport for nothing or very little, and then when they put it behind a paywall us deciding we would miss watching too much and we'd pony up more and more cash. And we have.

The next generation sees it differently. "I have to spend money to watch football which is a bit boring really and usually not very satisfying. Why wouldn't I spend my limited money on something more exciting and more satisfying than watching football?" seems to be a more prevailing attitude. And not one I have really much of a counter argument against either.

In this context, holding the Olympics a year late and really for TV only – or sending the World Cup to a desert country with a massive oil field – can be more or less seen for what it is. More greed. It just further drives the generational indifference, further and faster.

We're just too far down the road to expect much of what the Esk writes here to actually happen is my view. I don't believe any spot can organically rid itself of the spivs and chancers, and I also don't think there's sufficient political will to bother reforming sport either. The money will spiral up the pyramid until the whole thing topples over more or less.

And then Moshiri's grandkids or their equivalent will want a bailout or similar, most likely. It's like the Daleks, resistance is futile.

Bill Hawker
13 Posted 07/06/2021 at 18:45:32
The answer is "money." Now, what's your question?

Very good article (as always) Paul and I'm hopeful that what you've written above can eventually translated into actionable ideas through independent regulation. I am fearful however that the top clubs are so entrenched in their positions that they'll fight tooth and nail to keep this from happening.

In my lowly opinion, government intervention is in order (and I hate government intervention in just about every other area of life.)

Keep up the good work Paul.

Dale Self
14 Posted 07/06/2021 at 19:26:50
Good work Paul, keep it going and here is something to consider. Any effort to regulate the regulators will require funding to be taken seriously by legislators and other hopeful stakeholders. While it would be a massive risk that could immediately cause the whole effort to fold up like a taco if not well atteded, creating a "buy-in" competition might be a way forward. Get some serious sponsors to back a kind of a People's Cup if you will, raising funds for any lobbying and giving disaffected fans a place to vote temporarily with their feet. If something like this were to get attention and not go broke in the first few months it would change the dynamic of the discussion where we might have a chance.
Stan Schofield
15 Posted 08/06/2021 at 15:57:16
I've already posted something @4, but actually don't believe that any substantial and meaningful independent regulation will be created that is not in the pockets of big money. I believe that elite football in its current form is on its way out, in that younger people are less and less interested in it. Perhaps all the corruption and associated cheating and biases have been a turn-off for them, together with the presence of other distractions apart from sport, especially online distractions. In short, they can't be bothered to watch all the nonsense, and certainly don't want to pay for it.

In this respect, Derek's post @12 is very interesting.

This is an interesting time for Everton, with the supposed ambition to be part of an elite, like we used to be. Except that this time, if the elite is increasingly irrelevant to young people, it begs the question, certainly from the perspective of us supporters, of why we should bother watching anymore.

Michael Boardman
16 Posted 09/06/2021 at 13:09:53
Just been announced a £20m fine by the Premier League, between the six clubs. well that'll burn their fingers (what is that, one two-legged Europa League tie against Lokomotiv Plovdiv they'll forfeit their monies for?)
Barry Hesketh
17 Posted 09/06/2021 at 13:17:15
Michael @16
A couple of live friendly matches on TV for each of the sinful six will pay for that pitiful fine - talk about token gestures.
Barry Rathbone
18 Posted 09/06/2021 at 13:20:58
The ESL cabal getting away scot-free – what a surprise? Not!
Danny O’Neill
19 Posted 09/06/2021 at 13:39:23
Financial retribution was never the answer to tackle the underlying problem here.

A token effort of financial retribution just makes a mockery of it.

Matthew Williams
20 Posted 09/06/2021 at 13:42:51
So the "Sly Six" are going to be fined €20 mill between them!!!... sickening, but I ain't surprised.

The 14 other teams should respond with either;

Threaten to go on strike unless the fines are increased.

Threaten to go on strike unless there is also a points deduction added on top of the current fines.

Threaten a breakaway league themselves.

Unless real action is taken, the greedy six will continue to ride roughshod over all the rules.

A sad day for our national game!

Barry Hesketh
21 Posted 09/06/2021 at 14:02:22
Mathew @20
The 14 clubs have supposedly agreed to this punishment for the six, apparently wishing to put an end to the fiasco as soon as possible. Nothing to see here, move along! It's like it never happened.
Stu Gore
22 Posted 09/06/2021 at 14:12:06
Personal protests are difficult were the organisations hurt are bending over to appease. Best I can come up with is stop paying for football on the tv and don't go and see Everton games where one of these rats are the oppo.
Alan J Thompson
23 Posted 09/06/2021 at 14:21:13
So that'll be 1M for each of the other Premier League clubs and 10 thousand for all other League clubs? That will certainly teach them a lesson, don't get caught next time or at the very least all stand together, two fingers raised. Any monetary fine should at least make them want to breakaway for the money.
Danny O’Neill
24 Posted 09/06/2021 at 14:34:47
What you say Barry Hesketh. In terms of this particular issue, nothing to see here. Let's just restructure the Champion's League instead.

Reform of football as per Paul's article, that's a deeper issue.

Christine Foster
25 Posted 10/06/2021 at 02:00:13
Excellent article Paul, the devil will be in the detail or more precisely, the scope and power of any independent regulator. One thing is certain is that at risk is the very game itself below any top league. The cream are determined to keep skimming as much as they can and to hell with everyone underneath. Or perhaps its only lip service is given to lower leagues and grassroots. At the centre of all of this is who holds the power. The clubs? Sky? Uefa? its a constant game of draughts with no one losing any pieces. The winners are mutually exclusive of others, the winnings are split depending on your position on the chessboard.

When the current ESL debacle came to a head, it was clear that any retaliatory action by other members of the Premier league would merely be window dressing as the power and influence (and thereby success) of the six in question meant more to the success (and money)to the governing bodies than the other EPL members. In short, Power and influence.
This is the same format as any corruption, as such a regulatory body has to control this for the greater good of the game at all levels. Without it, football as a grassroots game will wither, more clubs will go under and the richer clubs will become all-powerful and untouchable. There needs to be a way of controlling the excess of football bodies and at the same time ensuring the protection of the game itself.
One last point, as if to highlight the problem, the disgraceful slap on the wrist, if that, given to the 6 clubs in question for bringing into disrepute the whole game, the EPL and UEFA, liars and cheats to a man, is abhorrent. The EPL could not sanction any other imposition as they did not have enough power or voting rights to impose any ban or points deduction. A token gesture is the result.
As fans, we know who the six are but there is nothing we can do about it. Not even their own supporters alas it is the domain of independent regulators, one hopes.

Barry Hesketh
26 Posted 21/06/2021 at 16:03:44
Speaking about the European Super League Barcelona President Joan Laporta said in the last few days that football needs the Super League to survive, and the Barça president has also suggested that the two English sides played a bigger role than they would like to admit.

"Liverpool and United were the real founders of the Super League," he told La Vanguardia. "UEFA threatened and was demagogic.

"The clubs have still not paid the compensation for leaving. The Super League project is alive. It will be the most attractive competition in the world, and it will be based on meritocracy and solidarity."

Laporta claims UTD and LFC were main drivers

Alan J Thompson
27 Posted 22/06/2021 at 11:04:05
Joan Laporta, wouldn't that. translated into English, be "shown the door"?

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