Simulating a 48-team World Cup (nerd alert!)

With FIFA talking about backing away from the truly dreadful concept of three-team groups at the World Cup, I came up with a couple of alternatives — the four-team group under discussion but with a 24-team knockout round rather than 32, and a double-elimination tournament — for a Soccer America article.

The commenters don’t seem enamored of the double-elimination tournament, but that didn’t stop me from running simulations. Take a look at the Google workbook.

I did two types of brackets:

  1. A straight 48-team double-elimination bracket
  2. Double-elimination groups of 6, with the winners advancing to the quarterfinals

Then I simulated each one using different simulators:

  1. for the straight bracket
  2. A combination of Elo ratings and random numbers for the 6-team groups

If you’d like to play around with the simulations yourself, just make a copy. You could even simulate a different qualifying process — in my suggested systems, most qualifying is done in 6-team groups from which the group winners advance and are eligible for byes, the runners-up advance, and certain third-place teams advance to fill Africa’s ninth spot (based on FIFA’s new quotas) and an intercontinental playoff.

Who can host the World Cup?

Question came up today on Twitter: We know Russia and Qatar were controversial choices. Who would be a good World Cup host?

I’d set out these criteria:

  1. Stable, non-authoritarian government
  2. Ability to build venues without creating a class of slave laborers
  3. Demonstrated interest in the sport

Then a “nice to have” rather than a “must have”: Ability to get from venue to venue without getting in an airplane or spending a full day on trains.

Most of the past World Cup hosts have been up to the task. In 1950, Brazil helped the World Cup, which had only been contested three times before World War II, regain a foothold in international sports. Chile, in the pre-Allende and pre-Pinochet days, overcame a devastating earthquake to host in 1962. Mexico (1970, 1986) and the USA (1994) had heat issues but were otherwise pretty good, with the USA smashing attendance records.

The worst World Cup host of my lifetime was surely Argentina in 1978. The horrors of torture and slaughter, coinciding with a suspicious win for the host country, are chronicled in a recent Wright Thompson story for ESPN’s magazine. (Update: Here’s the link. Also, I fixed the year. My brain is mush.)

Most European hosts have been just fine, though my highlights from the 1990 World Cup in Italy showed a lot of empty seats.

The 2002 World Cup had two good hosts in Japan and South Korea who shouldn’t have had to share. The 2010 World Cup was a lot to ask from South Africa.

It’s only now that we’ve hit a rut. Brazil probably could have pulled off a decent World Cup but insisted on some oddities like building a stadium far up the Amazon in Manaus. Far too ambitious.

Russia is … well, it’s Russia. Not too interested in getting along with the rest of the world these days. They plan to build a bunch of new stadiums. The Sochi Olympics didn’t fill anyone with confidence.

Then there’s Qatar, the most ghastly hosting decision by a major sports organization. Exploited workers are dying. FIFA has suddenly realized it’s hot. The bid process was 50 shades of shady.

So what would be better?

Call it Western bias if you like, but most past hosts would be fine. England is surely overdue. The USA would be even better today than it was in 1994, though I’d prefer some geographic consolidation.

The better question would be where the World Cup can go next.

Australia had a solid bid for 2022. It’s the one place that offered a solo bid in the 2018-22 fiasco that hasn’t already hosted.

After that, back to England. Then maybe perennial bidder Morocco?

Why I prefer the Olympics to the World Cup

“So, you getting ready to go to Rio?” asked my dentist.

He loves soccer. We often have conversations like this:

“What about the defense? They have that guy Besler, or am I thinking of Beasley?”

“Arrrghwa rahhbwa baahna.”

“Right — Besler at center back. How is he?”

But no, I’m not getting ready to go to Brazil. Just I didn’t go to South Africa in 2010. Or Germany in 2006, though I was there five years later for the Women’s World Cup and loved it. I wasn’t in Japan or South Korea for 2002, instead going through an intensive sleep-deprivation experiment at home and in the USA TODAY office, nor France in 1998.

When the Cup was in the USA in 1994, I made it to one game — Belgium-Saudi Arabia, which means I was lucky enough to see the goal of the tournament.

Don’t mistake my lack of attendance as apathy. I’ve always followed the World Cup any way I could.

In 1982, I realized that the nearly four weeks I would spend at summer camp coincided with most of the World Cup. I was just old enough to be horrified.

I asked my dear mother if she would clip each day’s scores and standings, if applicable, from the daily paper and mail them to me. Bless her heart, she did it. And in a cabin in the Northeast Georgia foothills, I duly copied them into a bulky notebook in which I followed each group’s standings and traced through the knockout rounds. If anyone at my camp needed a break from being pummeled in the rowdy sports that apparently built character, they could come over and ask me how Argentina had progressed from the group stage through the quarterfinals. (Not that anyone did. Go to that camp today, and you might see a few Messi shirts. There were no Maradona shirts in those days.)

In my USA TODAY days, I went to several Olympics: 2002, 2006, 2008, 2010. No World Cups. It’s pretty simple: USA TODAY sends scores of people to the Olympics. To a World Cup, usually one or two. (I understand it’s more these days.) It wasn’t me in 2002 or 2006 because the “print” staff hadn’t yet realized that the “online” staff had built a presence and that people outside our offices generally saw me as our soccer writer. It wasn’t me in 2010 because I had left.

I would have loved to have gone in 2006. Then again, I had one young son and was about to have another. So the timing wasn’t ideal.

So maybe I missed my window of opportunity. But I don’t really have any regrets. And frankly, I’ve developed a view that may shock most of you:

I’d rather go to the Olympics than the World Cup.

No, really. I got a credential to the 2014 Winter Olympics and only gave it back when I ran the numbers and realized I didn’t have the time to make the trip to Sochi pay off. Brazil this summer? Never even considered it. Rio 2016? I’m a little nervous about the preparation, but I’ll probably try to go. Pyeongchang 2018? Logistics could be tricky, but all things being equal, I’d be happy to be there. Tokyo 2020? Oh, I’m there.

Part of it is simple logistics. It’s the travel. Reporters in Brazil will cover one game, get on a plane, cover another game, get on another plane, repeat. At the Olympics, I could cover two, three, eight events a day.

The Women’s World Cup in Germany was as close to that experience as you’ll get at a major soccer tournament. Thanks to the train passes organizers offered up for a semi-reasonable price (hey, espnW was paying, not me), I could go to nine games in seven cities in 11 days.

I’m hoping to go to the Women’s World Cup again in 2015, but I won’t be able to duplicate that experience in Canada’s far-flung venues. Won’t happen in Russia 2018, either. Sure, the travel will be easy in Qatar 2022, but I’d sooner cover an ice fishing contest in Antarctica than go to that disaster-in-waiting. (If it’s moved to, say, the USA, I’ll at least get tickets, if not credentials.)

But let’s say you could pool all the World Cup games in a cohesive area. Would I want to go? Honestly, unless it’s in England — probably not.

The World Cup is not the Olympics. The World Cup doesn’t have the diversity, the color, the sense of wonder of the Olympics. It’s not the same.

And with a few exceptions, the World Cup features the same players you’ve been watching all year. You don’t get many chances to see Michael Phelps in meaningful competition. Messi and Rooney are on our TVs every week, sometimes twice, for about nine months.

Here’s the sad part: World Cup hosting rights are considered so valuable that the exchanges of goods, services and cold hard cash that surround them are one big beautiful tragedy. The 2022 Olympics? At this point, the IOC is practically begging cities to bid, lest they face an unappealing choice between Almaty (Kazakhstan) and Beijing.

Part of the problem is the “white elephant” label. Athens, Torino and Beijing had some venues that had sketchy post-Games plans. Then there’s Russia — Sochi was such a money pit that it has scared off the normally rational European public. No Winter Olympics should cost that much — you put up bleachers at your ski resorts, maybe build a ski jump hill or sliding track, and off you go. If you already have the ski jump hill and sliding track, you should be in great shape.

But there’s hope. I’ve been to London’s Olympic Park — a nice tourist attraction, training facility and host for various events. Salt Lake City unquestionably did it right — the Olympic Park and the Olympic Oval are humming with athletes in training and regular folks taking advantage of the many activities on offer.

And now, Brazil is doing it wrong for the World Cup. They’ve built a stadium in the middle of nowhere in the most literal sense.

So I’m not sure the World Cup can claim superiority over the Olympics on the “white elephant” syndrome. Not if the Olympics are planned well by a non-authoritarian government.

Sure, the Olympics could be scaled back, particularly the Summer Games. Maybe it’s time to split the Summer Games into a couple of smaller events (future blog post). But they’re still a wonderful event. Being immersed in the Olympic atmosphere is an experience I’ll always treasure.

The World Cup, on the other hand, is losing some of its allure to me. There’s so much soccer all year. I love the weekly Saturday wakeup with the NBC Premier League crew, my trips to the SoccerPlex to see the NWSL, and the steady summer diet of MLS. I’m finding less in common with the people going to Brazil and more in common with the hard-core Spirit fans, the masses in Seattle, and the English supporters banding together with their neighborhood club.

Then there’s FIFA, the organization so ugly that it’s hard to stomach any summary of their deeds that isn’t mitigated by John Oliver’s wit.


Of course I’m still going to watch the World Cup. I’m looking forward to hearing Ian Darke, whom I had the privilege of meeting in Germany, add life to the action. And after seeing Next Goal Wins, I have a new appreciation for the countries that strive just to get a small piece of the competition.

But when it comes to planning international trips over the next decade, I have a few things that will be higher priority than handing any of my money to FIFA.

Diamonds are the USMNT’s best friend

Can anyone make sense of the new diamond midfield that’s really more of a parallelogram? Today, Zonal Marking and’s Central Winger gave it a try.

With the fullbacks spending so much time on offense, maybe it’s the old W-M formation:

football formations

Or not — Jones may be nominally the left mid but is more of a destroyer. Like so.

football formations

That doesn’t seem right, does it? Maybe move Beasley farther up the field and shift the defense to cover that space. Have Beasley link up with Dempsey on the left, like so:

football formations

You could call that a 3-3-1-2-1, but the midfield roles should be fluid. So for sake of simplicity, we’ll call it … uh … we’ll call it …

… oh no …

A 3-6-1! RUN!

(repeat to yourself: tactics don’t matter … tactics don’t matter … tactics don’t matter …)

World Cup qualifying: Minnows in!

For the USA and England, today’s World Cup qualifiers mean games against two of the smallest countries in the world. The USA faces Antigua and Barbuda (population 81,799), and England faces San Marino (31,735).

Mismatches, certainly, though Antigua’s record in international soccer is already a bit better than San Marino’s. The Caribbean nation has a couple of wins against fellow Caribbean teams that have played in the World Cup without embarrassing themselves. San Marino has won exactly once.

Perhaps San Marino would do a bit better if the European draw were different. Andorra is only a few places ahead in the FIFA rankings, yet San Marino appears to have never played its fellow European minnow. It has played a couple of friendlies against Liechtenstein, with one of them accounting for the country’s only win.

That seems unfair, but in a sense, Europe’s system is true to the spirit of the World Cup. Pedantic folks will tell you the “World Cup” includes qualifiers, and that the 32-team tournament we see every four years is the “World Cup final.” If you like the idea of every country entering the World Cup if it so chooses (and each time, only a couple of countries pass up the chance), then having San Marino participate in full on the off chance that it might occasionally tie Latvia is a very good thing.

And it leads to wonderful scenes like this — a terrific piece of television from the 90s that some kind person uploaded to YouTube. Learn all about the Faroe Islands:

Midweek Myriad: Fretting over Freddy, winter winners, soccer challenge

Time for another Midweek Myriad, also known as “stuff that happened while I was at Disney World.” I’ve saved the most serious item for the end, which is either “building suspense” or “burying the lead.”

SOCCER: Americans move at transfer deadline, with only 1 of 4 going in the “right” direction

U.S. fans longing for more Americans to succeed in Europe are thrilled that Michael Bradley is leaving Bundesliga bottom-dweller Borussia Moenchengladbach on loan to mid-table Premier League club Aston Villa, though playing time is far from assured.

More worrisome are the players making what ambitious folks would consider something less than a “lateral” move. At ESPN, Jeff Carlisle worries that Jozy Altidore and Eddie Johnson are following the same career path of loans without upward progress. Carlisle doesn’t even mention Freddy Adu, who is mentioned in a similarly downcast piece by Soccer America‘s Paul Kennedy.

Altidore’s move isn’t bad, really. He’s not seeing time at Villarreal, and he gets to hop into a title race in Turkey with Bursaspor. The snag is that the club also signed Scottish striker Kenny Miller.

Johnson is a few years older and settling into Championship-level soccer. Nothing really wrong with that, and no one’s looking to him as the future at forward for the U.S. national team these days. He’s on loan from Fulham to Preston North End trying to save the club from relegation.

The stunner is Freddy Adu, who quietly went on loan to Rizespor in Turkey’s second division. Even Adu’s harshest critics would’ve had a hard time predicting that he’d be so low on the European club ladder at age 21. I’d say Freddy has to set the Turkish second division on fire to put his career back on track, but in Turkey, the fans usually set the fires.

What’s strange is that no one can really tell us why Adu’s career has taken such turns in the past couple of years. For a while, his European misadventures were easily explained — he couldn’t break into the lineup at Benfica, and he was in a terrible situation in Monaco with an American-education club chairman who brought him in without seeing if the coaching staff had any interest. But we don’t know why Greece’s Aris lost interest in him or why he couldn’t latch on anywhere else in this transfer window.

And this just in (HT to Grant Wahl): Robbie Findley, newly transferred to Nottingham Forest, may be out three months.

SOCCER: NASL, fans damn the torpedoes

The NASL is undaunted (see Brian Straus story) over an initial rejection of second-division sanctioning and the need to start a Carolina team from scratch after previous owner Selby Wellman, a leading figure in the NASL breakaway, was unable to find a a supplemental or replacement investor. The RailHawks trademark sold on eBay for $14,999.

NASL fans also are undaunted, releasing a letter to U.S. Soccer complaining about the lack of D2 status. Kenn Tomasch calmly shredded the letter, mostly by reminding NASL fans that you have to play a few seasons, or at least a few games, before boldly proclaiming yourself a model of stability.

TRACK AND FIELD: Millrose Games surprises

– Ethiopia’s Deresse Mekonnen ended Bernard Lagat’s domination of the mile.

– Jamaican sprinters were a step ahead of the Americans in the men’s and women’s 60.

– The USA shot put train keeps rolling: Youngster Ryan Whiting upset Christian Cantwell, Reese Hoffa and Adam Nelson.

Recaps from the New York Times and Universal Sports, plus full results. (Big round of applause for the Millrose site for putting its results on one easy-to-read page rather than making us click for every event. Take note, track and swimming organizers.)

In less entertaining indoor track and field, some U.S. athletes went overseas after sleeping on the floor at JFK and lost to other international “teams” at the Aviva International in Glasgow. The biggest upset was a repeat from last year, with Britain’s Jessica Ennis beating Lolo Jones in the 60-meter hurdles.


Winter X Games: Shaun White, Lindsey Jacobellis and Kelly Clark are still really, really good at snowboarding. The only surprise in that trio: Clark landed a 1080. Nick Baumgartner upset Seth Holland in the men’s snowboardcross.

Soccer: Ridge Mahoney points to a major issue that could derail the Cosmos-to-MLS train: the league’s lucrative adidas deal. (Update: Grant Wahl, who has done the most extensive interview on the Cosmos to date, says the club has prepared to go adidas if it gets into MLS. Ridge’s piece is still worth reading as a reminder of how much power adidas wields.

Handball: Olympic champion France keeps rolling, winning another men’s world title with an extra-time win over Denmark. Spain edged host Sweden for third, and Croatia beat my buddies from Iceland for fifth. All close games in the world championship of the sport that have the highest popularity-to-English-language-coverage ratio in the world. (AP)

Figure skating: The highlight of the U.S. Championships in my beloved former hometown of Greensboro was Alissa Czisny’s remarkable comeback from afterthought status to win a battle of three former national champions. Christine Brennan, who has stuck with the sport through thick and thin, has the analysis.

Ski jumping: Not sure what to make of the fact that Sarah Hendrickson has been at the forefront of a strong U.S. showing in international competition this year but managed only 18th in the World Junior Championships.

Luge: No stunning world championship for the USA’s Erin Hamlin this year. She finished 14th. (AP)

Freestyle skiing: Hannah Kearney’s World Cup moguls win streak stands at five heading into the World Championships in Park City.

Cyclo-cross: Katie Compton took second in the World Championships. Holding this event in cold mud just seems especially cruel.

– Wrestling: Olympic champion turned Biggest Loser competitor Rulon Gardner is still hawking a 1 1/2-pound sandwich and challenging people to eat it with fries and a massive drink in 20 minutes. Maybe Rulon’s hoping to match legendary competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi, who is still skinny. (AP)

Last and not least …

At BigSoccer, Bill Archer has annoyed a lot of Canadian fans, and they have the prerogative not to be Bill’s buddies.

But aside from my own “Bill’s a good guy once you get to know him” story, I can say this — if you care about the sport, you should be reading Bill’s blog. I’ve yet to see anyone else in the Americas, from basement bloggers to professional journalists, do as much work in compiling disparate reports on the issues of FIFA, CONCACAF and other international soccer bodies. I would say to my fellow journalists — Bill is doing what we should be doing.

This piece on the utter travesty of Qatar’s Asian Cup final is a prime example.

If someone can offer valid reasons why organizers locked the gates before kickoff, separated families and brought out the riot police, fine. Let’s hear from them. But let’s not act as if this isn’t news.

We the American soccer media/blogosphere shouldn’t be moving on so quickly from FIFA’s extraordinary World Cup decisions to an exclusive focus on the MLS preseason or slobbering all over the latest EPL transfers. My challenge to all of us: Keep watching FIFA and Qatar. If Qatar is an absolutely unsuitable host for the Cup and FIFA is an unsuitable guardian for the game, these things can be and must be changed. Silence won’t get it done. If Al Jazeera can talk, so can we.

Explaining the World Cup vote using ‘NewsRadio’

Having failed in my effort to explain the World Cup vote using When Harry Met Sally, I’ll now explain it using a scene from NewsRadio in which Dave (Dave Foley) is England, the USA and Australia, while Bill (Phil Hartman) is every FIFA voter who claimed to be voting for said countries.

In this episode, all employees secretly told Dave they were voting for him as news director. The results: Lisa (Maura Tierney) won a unanimous vote.

Bill: Lisa and you were both strong candidates. There was really no way to choose between you two.
Dave: Then why did every single person vote against me?
Bill: Joe voted using a random number generator. Beth voted against you because Lisa gets fewer phone calls and doesn’t like coffee. Matthew is a lifelong Republican, so he had no choice.
Dave: And why didn’t you vote for me?
Bill: I still think I did. I guess this is one of those things we’ll never know the full truth.

You can also watch the non-embeddable video or get the Season 4 DVD, which is probably the best of the show’s excellent run.

Time to transition to a post-FIFA world? (Or World Cup, anyway?)

The FIFA World Cup bid process long ago descended into farce long ago. BBC’s long-threatened Panorama investigation, released a couple of days before the Big Bid Vote, is stark but not really surprising. We’ve all known for a while that we’re not dealing with angels here.

The program is still worth watching. Andrew Jennings makes it entertaining — too much so, at times. And you can see two amusing highlights:

  1. Doesn’t the FIFA Executive Committee room look like some sort of bunker that should be populated by James Bond supervillains?
  2. A Dutch lawmaker’s accent turns “situation” into “shituation.”

I found Part 2, embedded below, slightly more interesting because it goes beyond the predictable funneling of money and into more worrying questions for nations that are bidding on the Cup. FIFA’s list of requirements is more demanding than Mariah Carey’s backstage rider and less amusing than the Foo Fighters’ version. (Or, if you’re really into hard-core efforts to turn backstage riders into comedy gold, Iggy Pop’s.)

The Dutch, Jennings tells us, now believe they would lose money on the World Cup. Suffice it to say the conversation I had a couple of months ago on World Cup economics seems less relevant given FIFA’s desire to take a hefty share of the reward and no share of the risk.

As the BBC report drew closer to airing, much public fretting was made of whether the report would hinder England’s 2018 bid. What’s curious isn’t that the oddsmakers such as William Hill have now installed Russia has an overwhelming favorite ahead of England but that they also think so little of the USA’s bid for 2022. That link currently has the USA at 9-2 behind Qatar (1-2) and Australia (5-2). These odds haven’t changed in the wake of the FIFA report showing the English and American bids in far better shape than their competitors.

If the oddsmakers are correct, the backlash will be immense. FIFA will undoubtedly give its reasons, but who would doubt that the scandal-ridden panel of bigwigs simply opted for states that don’t have pesky traditions of journalistic scrutiny? Should future bids be limited to autocratic countries only?

We might even have to think the unthinkable: Would soccer be better off without FIFA?

The best precedent for such a move would be in chess, where Garry Kasparov led a breakaway from international body FIDE that lasted more than a decade. The title is more or less unified now, though world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen has thrown up his hands and walked away from a World Championship qualifying process that makes CONCACAF’s World Cup cycle look simple. (The re-election of president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who brazenly shut up supporters of reform-minded former world champion Anatoly Karpov, couldn’t have given Carlsen or anyone else much reassurance about FIDE’s commitment to fairness.)

Kasparov and Carlsen, though, have had legitimate claims to be the best of their eras without FIDE’s stamp of approval. That seems more difficult in soccer, particularly when any sort of sanctioned soccer ultimately goes up to the chain to the big boys in Zurich.

National federations can’t do much to challenge FIFA. They’re ultimately the local branches of the international organizer.

Perhaps a more imposing challenge could come from the giant European clubs. If Manchester United, Barcelona, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, AC Milan and company decide to take their ball and go elsewhere, players and fans might be willing to go with them. But the issues that Jennings investigates have little to do with the club game, so the incentive is lacking.

And the USA might have a lot to lose if FIFA’s sanction is devalued. U.S. Soccer and its sanctioned first division, MLS, already face the occasional lawsuit accusing them of misusing “monopoly” powers. Courts have been kind so far, but that’s not because they’re cognizant of the soccer wars of the 1930s and 1980s that destroyed pro soccer in this country.

Reform will most likely have to come from within. That hasn’t seemed plausible in recent months. But that might be because everyone is playing nicely to try to gain favor for their World Cup bids. If the oddsmakers are right, the losing bid nations will have little to lose by speaking up. And we the fans may have plenty to gain if they do.

Addendum: I made it through this whole post and forgot to give a hat tip to The Shin Guardian, which raises a couple of questions that show the uncomfortable position the USA bid is in. Like a cyclist blowing away the field in the drug scandal-ridden Tour de France, the winner of this contest will be asked whether the win was legitimate. Not sure I agree with notion of referring to “the Bradley debacle” as if everyone agrees what that might be, but clearly a lot of dreams will be dashed if the 2022 vote goes elsewhere.

World Cup economics and skepticism

Journalists are supposed to be skeptical. Actually, all of us should be skeptical but not cynical. Big difference. A cynic dismisses ideas and arguments as a reflex. A skeptic checks them out.

So when the USA bids to host the World Cup, a bit of skepticism is healthy. It’s just due diligence. People have a right to ask how much the whole thing is going to cost.

University of Maryland-Baltimore County professor Dennis Coates wants to encourage people to ask these questions. He has produced a study claiming that the economic impact of a World Cup is either negligible or negative. Check the full PDF report or his op-eds. He is similarly skeptical of other sports development such as Baltimore ballpark Camden Yards.

Soccer fans may be naturally defensive upon hearing such things. We’re all prepared to spend some money on tickets if the World Cup doesn’t require a passport, long flight and awkward housing searches. So we should admit up front that we’re hardly disinterested parties. (Frankly, though, the BigSoccer discussion has been fairly reasonable.)

That said, from a purely logical perspective, I found myself with a lot of questions after reading the study. I asked Dr. Coates, and he was kind enough to respond.

I have a few comments in response, so what you’ll see here is my question in bold, his response in italic and my comments in plain text. It’s fair to say I find his argument unsatisfactory, but I shouldn’t have the last word — Dr. Coates is invited to leave comments here. And so are you.

On we go …

Continue reading World Cup economics and skepticism

Virtual Viewing Party: Mexico-South Africa

Can’t be at your favorite watering hole for a game? Just so enamored of a couple of soccer bloggers that you want to chat with us? Desperate for updates? Twitter crashing? You’re in luck. Hop in the discussion below for the World Cup opener and come back throughout the Cup for more chatting.

South Africa vs. Mexico, 10 a.m. ET
ESPN/ESPN Deportes/

Today’s hosts are Beau Dure, who runs Sports Myriad, and Kyle McCarthy, who writes for myriad sites and papers (Boston Herald,, among them).

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