Clattenburg reveals massive problems with refereeing in England

I don’t remember the exact game when I first noticed Mark Clattenburg as a referee. What I remember was more a feeling. That he was different. That he let the game flow more than other referees. That even in hard-fought matches he didn’t call all the fouls and that he didn’t give yellow cards. And I remember writing in to the Tuesday Club podcast, to Tayo, before a big Arsenal match where he was going to be the referee and just saying a single word: Crapenburg.

I didn’t hate him, because Arsenal’s record with Clattenburg was actually really good, but I wasn’t a fan of his refereeing style. I felt like he embodied what a lot of people think that Premier League officials are like; he let too much go, that he let the games get too physical.

So when he spoke to the Men in Blazers podcast and revealed almost immediately how managers and players loved his style because he’s a “typical northerner” and would rather talk than just “dish out cards”. I wasn’t at all surprised. That was the Clattenburg I remembered. The man in the middle, trying not to be the centre of attention but becoming a part of the game, influencing the game through his refereeing style. Or as Roger Bennett puts it in the introductions “Football’s first rock star referee”.

At the start of the interview Clattenburg reveals what it’s like to be a referee in England. He speaks about what it takes to get to the Premier League and how he started out in some rinky little Northern league where everyone is trying to bully him, intimidate him, where people are screaming at him, and everyone hates him.

Clattenburg even admits that when he was younger he let the players push him around a bit. In one match he says “because he (Roy Keane) screamed at us (the refereeing crew) so loudly I gave a corner because I was so petrified of him”. It’s actually a very humanizing moment and not at all something I could criticize him for. Who wouldn’t be petrified of Roy Keane screaming at you? Especially if it was one of your very first games as a top flight referee.

That’s what refs deal with on a daily basis. They are abused and hated. On the rare occasions that they are praised, it’s usually only when they stay out of the game and let the players play. That was what Clattenburg chose to do most of the time.

Clattenburg also reveals how much hard work goes into being a referee. Especially in a big game.

He would do his research before the games, watching tape, and seeing where players were trying to gain an advantage by cheating. He described a game when Pierluigi Collina was his observer. It was a match between Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Collina asked him if he’d prepared for the match and Clattenburg replied “yes, I watched the first leg six times”. Collina then opened his notebook computer and asked Clatts if he had seen this tactic: Alcantara was deliberately standing offside on free kicks in order to impede Pique from being able to head the ball away. He blew for a free kick early in the game and before the ball was struck, Clattenburg told the players he was watching Alcantara or anyone else for that block.

Fans rarely think about what referees have to deal with of how much work they put into a match. Fans are selfish. We don’t even really want an unbiased official. You can say you do but how many of you have laughed when you heard someone say “I really just want a terrible handball decision to go our way so that we can beat Chelsea in the last minute of the game and make Mourinho cry”? Maybe you’re a pure soul but I think most fans don’t want an unbiased referee, they want one that’s biased toward their team.

Refereeing is a thankless task but it’s when Bennet asks Clattenburg if his games had a “personality” and that’s when he drops the quote which is making the rounds right now. It’s about the Battle of Stamford Bridge – the match between Tottenham and Chelsea in which Tottenham lost the title to Leicester. He says,

“It was theatre. I went in with a gameplan. That I didn’t want Tottenham Hotspur blaming Mark Clattenburg that they were going to lose the title. There should have been three red cards to Tottenham. I allowed them to self destruct. So all the media, all the people in the world went ‘Tottenham lost the title’. If I send three players off from Tottenham, what’s the headlines? ‘Clattenburg costs Tottenham the title.’ And it was pure theatre that Tottenham self-destructed against Chelsea and Leicester win the title.”

This is both a revealing and highly problematic quote.

He’s revealing the amount of pressure that referee’s face. Who would want to be a referee? My daughter asked me that after watching what was her second ever soccer match. A child could see that this is a thankless task. That no one wants to be your friend. No one likes you. And no matter what decisions you make, they will always be wrong. So, I get why he did what he did in that match; he didn’t want the story to be about him.

But what a truly insane thing to do. Think about what he’s saying. He’s saying that he let Tottenham beat the crap out of Chelsea, literally let them try to kick Chelsea off the pitch. He’s saying that he ignored the laws of the game, refused to give out cards that he knows he should have given out, and endangered the safety of all 22 players because he didn’t want to be blamed for the outcome. And he’s saying he did it out of some genius foreknowledge that Tottenham would implode.

Do you remember the match? Tottenham had 9 players booked. The match was boiling over and Clattenburg lost all semblance of control in the match. There was a touchline fracas set off by a terrible tackle by Danny Rose on Willian and in the melee Dembele stuck his finger in Diego Costa’s eye! I think it’s safe to say that while the match was “pure theatre”, as Clattenburg puts it, it was the worst officiated match in Premier League history.

Players could have even been crippled by Clattenburg’s inaction. Us Arsenal supporters know better than most that when officials let the games just go, that the players end up in the hospital with their leg dangling by a string. And worse, Clattenburg says that he lets players get physical in the Premier League because that’s what we like to see: dangerous tackles. This is a man officiating not based on agreed upon laws but based upon his perception of what we want to see.

And not only that but Tottenham imploded when their players started fouling all over the place. Maybe the Spurs fans would have been upset at Clattenburg for rightly sending off three players but the rest of the world would have seen that match, which I watched in horror, and said that the red cards were well deserved. The player’s making reckless and dangerous challenges were what decided the outcome of the game.

And what of the Chelsea players? What of Leicester? What if Tottenham didn’t allow that 83rd minute goal? Didn’t Clattenburg, in reality, give Spurs a massive advantage in that game by allowing them to be ridiculously physical? Of course he did.

As fans we all feel like our team has been cheated by the officials. But to have an official admit that he went into a match with a pre-determined outcome and that he let a match get so far out of control that a man stuck his fingers in another man’s eye is incredible. Literally, this is an incredible story. I can’t believe him as a witness. That he intentionally just stopped refereeing because he knew that Tottenham would implode, which would mean that Leicester would win the League, and he could be a huge part of their fairytale script but not in an overt way, until today when he reveals that he was sort of the mastermind of that match. The outcome of which he scripted by giving a massive advantage to Tottenham by not sending their players off.

He’s since tried to clarify his statements saying that they were taken out of context and that he was only speaking to educate people. I listened to the podcast. The comments are exactly in context. He was bragging about that game and how it epitomized his refereeing style.

I guess we should thank Clatts for educating us. Up until now fans have only wondered if the referees in England were scripting games and have only wondered if the referees knew how to apply the laws of the game. Now we know. Refereeing in England has a massive problem.



P.S. To be crystal clear: this is Clattenburg bragging about throwing a game according to a script he decided before kickoff by deliberately not applying the Laws of the Game. We need to know how many other games he decided beforehand, what the PGMOL knew about Clattenburg’s “maverick” style, if any other officials have done the same, and what PGMOL is going to do to ensure something like this never happens again.


  1. He may well be the unacknowledged love child of Lurch and Grandpa Munster, but surely Pierluigi Collina was “Football’s first rock star referee”, no?

    1. Clattenburg preens. He loves the camera, the attention, wants the love from players, managers, the media. Was Collina like that? I can’t quite remember, but I never thought so?

      I do remember our record under Clattenburg being good, so I never really hated him…which proves Tim’s point that we judge referees according to a perception of their relative bias in our favor before any other criteria about how often they make the right call!

      1. I was thinking more in terms of recognisability. Collina was the first ref I ever saw on the pitch and thought to myself, “Hey, I’ve seen him before.” Before that, refs were all basically mobile boarding… part of the pitch that’s easily forgotten.

        1. And wasn’t there that big, burly English guy? The one that went off to Hollywood to do MMA films or something?

          1. Though now you bring it up and make me google it, perhaps it’s the Elder after all. I came up with that sigil almost a quarter century ago. Wonder why I thought it was the younger script all this time? I’ll have to dig up my old sources again.

          2. Elder Futhark was used by Anglo-Saxons. In fact, your hail and yew-tree runes match the Elder Futhark carved on the Caistor astralagus. Some believe the Caistor rune contains the earliest written English word/runic inscription (translated: “roe deer”), dated as it is to c. 400-25 CE–which suggests there were Germanic people living in Britain prior to Anglo-Saxon invasions.

          3. Well, if trade didn’t bring them in, the Legions sure would’ve, and a bunch more from all over the “known” world, besides. I’ve never understood why people are so amazed when some trinket or whatnought from one part of the world shows up in another. Borders, such as they were, were a lot more fluid before the invention of barbed wire.

          4. Yes, they were. It’s just that the traditional way that our language’s history gets taught / told is that English in Britain begins with Hengist and Horsa! So we have to talk about deer bones to show that’s too simplistic.

            The contents of the Sutton Hoo burial treasure is a great example of the cultural porousness in the period.

          5. Just want to say as a complete outsider but casual reader of history that I enjoyed every word of this discussion.

  2. Untold says hello.

    Hopefully a Snowden will emerge from PGMOL and then everyone will start saying, “Oh I knew it all along.”

  3. I doubt clattenbergs reasons for behaving in this fashion. I do not believe that fans somehow want referees biased in their teams favour and whilst clattenbergs certainly orchestrated the result of the Spurs/Chelsea match I don,t believe there is anyone out there that believes this is the only time it has happened. Clattenbergs is simply the only ref to talk about it All it really proves is results actually mean nothing and the F A is not fit for purpose.

  4. I don’t know of Clattenburg’s supposed penchant for being the superstar in the background, the Illuminati on the football field. But, taking the Spurs game on its own and knowing the vicious and barbaric reactions of many football fans when it comes to matches, if I were in Clattenberg’s shoes, I would do exactly as he did: let Tottenham implode if they chose to do so.

    The problem arises, I feel, from the lack of transparency in officiating decisions. If, for each of the potential 3 red cards, a video referral was used, with the video available to the referee shown to the public as well, then there would be less contention once a decision was made. Then, there would be no need for a referee to hide passively as Clattenburg did.

  5. I would like referees to hold a post match press conference where they go over the calls and non calls and explain their reasons.

    If the most common explanation is I didnt see it, I was screened, or it happened too fast, then that will be evidence for VAR.

    If the big calls are wrong more than two standard deviations from the mean then it’s time for a two week break with retraining. At the end of the season the two worst performing referee teams get relegated to the championship.

    1. That’s a bad idea. Football fans in general are very bad at just accepting decisions and mistakes as just that. I wouldn#t look forward to another week of dissecting these conferences after the match.

  6. Not surprised. Not surprised at all.

    And you know what else won’t surprise me?

    Despite a referee admitting that they went into a huge title defining game with a plan to let one team break the rules and have immunity from red cards because they didn’t want to face criticism or backlash……despite BRAGGING about it……nothing meaningful will be done despite how this reflects on the ethics and professionalism of the whole refereeing organization itself.

    People will say it’s ONE referee, but you don’t get to a stage where even one referee is comfortable going into any game with that kind of mindset, and bragging about it afterwards, if the referees are being properly monitored and the importance of ethical refereeing and fairness is a real core part of the organization.

  7. Death by a thousand cuts is coming, and if one does not see it that I can’t help you.

    1st, being a referee is a thankless job, and that starts from age 5 and up. From parents screaming at them for incorrect decisions, in a meaningless under 12 match, to college games, whereby players remove themselves from being human and disrespect the referees to levels not to be believed. (Here in US)
    All the way to the pros, whereby fans hurl abuse, spit, throw urine and feces at them, to referees receiving death threats to actually being murdered, all the while having “Keane” in your face.
    So, what is everyone’s solution, except dealing with reality and society as an influencer?
    VAR- let me tell you what rabbit hole everyone going down: a game stopped at every foul, and analyzed beyond comprehension, making a mockery of the rules, and trying to figure out the meaning of what the word “is” is.
    It is happening in the NFL, whereby meaningless plays, or depending on your perspective, every play is and end of themselves, will be analyzed, scrutinized, and interpreted all based on where a referee spots the ball, foot or whatever. Everyone wants what they can’t have, perfection in a human endeavor that is impossibly imperfect.
    Will stand back and see where this goes with trepidation.

  8. They are all selling us the product. That it happens to be sport is besides the point. The refs are not there to officiate, but to manage the product. The secrecy of their organisation both protects and binds them. The media is their shield. The ultimate deciders of what must be discussed and what should be obfuscated if not ignored.

    You get the occasional slip up, or bad apple (Halsey refusing hush money) but the media ensures that the product still looks glitzy, and the whole way the business works is never looked at.

    As long as we buy their product, they have no reason to change.

    1. This.

      It’s all about what fits the narrative that sells the product and bad calls deciding a great game do not further the cause.

      The Guardian wrote five articles about the game; the play by play by Rob Smyth, the match report by David Hytner, Barney Ronay on de Gea, Johnathan Wilson on our impotence and Amy Lawrence on Pogba. Read them in order and you can watch the narrative develop: great game, De Gea is amazing, Arsenal are flashy but impotent and Pogba got a red, maybe unfairly, certainly unfortunately. Which are all true*, but they downplay the clear penalties that were not given because focusing on them would undermine the narrative.

      Rob Smyth’s play by play ignores Rojo’s clothesline neck tackle on Lacazette that should have been a pen, calls the foul on Welbeck, “a clear foul and should have been a penalty”, then Smalling’s slide tackle through Lacazette as “another penalty… There was less in that and Andre Marriner wasn’t interested.” He agreed the game was brilliantly officiated and gushed “it has really flowed and that’s in part down to the referee. ”

      In the match summary David Hytner reduces that to “there was still time for the referee, Andre Marriner, to wave away strong penalty appeals from the Arsenal substitute, Danny Welbeck, and Lacazette.” Of course he buries that short mention in the 14th and final paragraph.

      Barney Ronay slipped on his dino outfit and poured out ten paragraphs of purple prose celebrating de Gea’s brilliance. After calling de Gea “God [in a] turqoise shirt” he also found the time to highlight Pogba’s “perfect little back-spun nudge”, Valencia’s “double Ecuadorian nutmeg” and Martial’s “wonderful reverse pass” but makes no mention of the penalty controversies. Presumably Jesus is his editor as well.

      Anthony ‘the one eye’d spud’ Wilson trots out hoary chestnut of Arsenal are flashy but impotent and defensively frail. He brings up the penalty on Welbeck as the single caveat to United’s defensive masterclass once Pogba was ejected, “United stopped offering a threat on the counter, held their shape and, other than the Danny Welbeck penalty appeal, largely stymied Arsenal.”

      Amy et-tu Lawrence slobbers over Pogba for four paragraphs, comparing him to Viera, then mentions eight things that merit “weighty analysis” including “a couple penalty decisions”. Needless to say, she then drops the subject to focus on the coaches and Wenger’s hurt feelings in particular.

      To be clear, I don’t think there’s a conspiracy per se**. There’s just a narrative and it’s much easier to go with the flow.

      *well not the unfair part
      ** OK the one-eye’d spud hates us

      1. I don’t know what you mean by conspiracy, but you yourself hint at there being a fear of reprisal for going off script. I think anyone who doesn’t follow the script finds themselves without a platform. To me that sounds very much like a conspiracy because there is supposed to be no script in the first place.

      2. Wow! Are you Attwood’s secret twin or just an Untold clone.
        You may have missed it but the Football Supporters Federation (FSF) has just voted The Guardian best football newspaper, Jonathan Wilson best writer & Football Weekly best pod cast. Unfortunately no mention of Amy (other than Attwood’s regular smears), but these are actual football supporters voting not Fleet Street peers.

          1. I think the point is that even in the Guardian these narratives emerge. Sports editors hand out the writing assignments, or accept proposals, based on what they think people want to read or hear, which is always in part a reaction to what has already been written or said. Match reports and analysis are not written in a vacuum.

            I don’t believe in reprisals for going off script. It’s just a self-reinforcing system.

    2. This was my first thought as well – they are not refereeing a sport, they are quality-controlling a product.

    3. Your stuff about a media conspiracy is nonsense, Shard. Journslists don’t sit around deciding what is verboten in “selling the product”, and making sure it looks glitzy. There’s a lot wrong with football (sports) reporting, and journalist have big blind spots, like the reaction to the Arsenal tea tweet demonstrated. But, again, referencing that, John Cross, Ian Wright and a some others in the media didn’t buy the prissified outrage.

      I speak as (1) someone who did work on media, some of the time a sports reporter for BBC World Service (2) an Arsenal supporter who has detected an unacknowledged bias against Arsene Wenger first, and Arsenal second.

      Clattenburg, and Tim, touched on a part of reason for Clattenburg’s approach to that game in particular, and refereeing in general… the “letting the game flow” thing. For a long time, sports writers were brought up on a northern/southern divide. That was part of mythology around Fergie, Dalglish, Clough and their great sides of the time.

      The norf was tough was played the game like real men, unlike the effete continentals at Arsenal, who “didn’t like it up them”, and couldn’t do it “on a cold night in Stoke”. Vieira and Petit upended that narrative, so they invented a new standard for Wenger… the Xth red card under his management, with no reference point, and nothing to compare it to.

      For a while, after the Birmingham player tackled (assaulted) Eduardo and broke his leg, it looked like the ref would do nothing. His decision to issue a red seemed to be influenced by the observable state of Eduardo’s dangling lower leg, rather than the tackle itself. For the Ramsey leg break, I was amazed at the amount of sympathy that SHAWCROSS got. Why, he was an honest lad playing for a northern club, in the traditionally robust English way, and meant no harm. Why were Arsenal fans so hard on him? Why wouldn’t the distraught Ramsey accept his heartfelt apology? Ramsey still gets booed by Stoke fans for being “hard” on Shawcross!

      The bias was clear, sometimes conscious, often unconscious. But while as Tim correctly says, there’s a lot to be alarmed about in Clattenburg’s statement, your conspiracy theory I think is overblown.

      1. All that said, I think that the Guardian stable is biased a/f. If I cant be near a TV to watch an Arsenal game, I follow by live updates on Guardian Sport. If it’s Steinberg or Smyth or Jamie Jackson, I don’t bother. Steinberg especially. Clown. DO… read his preal-clutching tweets on Teagate. DONT… read his juvenile MBM on Arsenal games.

        The caveat is that in Hytner and Lawrence, you have two journos who treat Arsenal fairly.

  9. Also, I disagree that fans want a biased referee. That’s the way we are expected to behave. That’s how we are trained to look at each other with suspicion. It ensures that football fans are always divided by their club loyalties, rather than bound by their love for the sport. I know a lot of fans just want to win at all costs, but to me that seems like a more recent fabrication/evolution in the football media and how they sell their wares. A lot of the examples of bias you give comes from the fact that people just don’t believe that there will be a fair system (and who can blame them) so they are happy to prosper under it when they can.

  10. Halsey said something about refs accepting invitations from Abramovich to go on his yacht, and he himself calling Ferguson to help Clattenburg(?)Oliver(?) (I forget who it was, from allegations of racism. No follow up on what this means for refereeing.

    Former Southampton captain Claus Lundekvam said on TV that players used to routinely bet on and influence outcomes of throw ins, corners, offsides, penalties and stuff, but pointed out that they never fixed the result, and that just went away. (Pakistani cricketers were jailed for such ‘spot’ fixing)

    You have Riley in charge, and his standout performance and probably route to the top was game 50. I mean it worked for Busacca with Uefa too after sending off Van Persie. Mike Dean had some links with gambling firms, which were apparently explained away satisfactorily.

    All of these and more, are explained away as isolated incidents, or just completely ignored. I think that the way the organisations are structured and the amount of money floating around, it would be a miracle if there weren’t something underhand going on. Not that anybody cares to look.

  11. Interestingly none of the columnists have commented on Clattenburg and the article that describes his interview was run without a byline. Perhaps they don’t want to invite reprisals.

  12. I’m sorry but this is stuff about the Spurs-Chelsea game is really shocking and I am amazed that two days later it’s not still plastered all over the sports sections.

    On google you find “Mourinho made me quit refereeing”; and “Roy Keane made me give Man U a corner.” Talk about missing the point.

    No football journalist as far as I can see has written a single word of opinion about the interview or the implications for refereeing and for the sport. Just dry reports of what he said, plus reactions from couple of pundits / refs.

    This is what scares me – everybody’s making a lot of money off the PL circus, papers are getting sold and page views are up, this leads to what amounts to a conspiracy of silence about the state of the league.

    Compare to the excellent reporting involved in the stories about racism in the England women’s team, pedophilia / abuse in coaching, and FIFA corruption. You could argue that these stories disprove any conspiracy of silence, I would argue that they show that the PL is not being held to the same levels of scrutiny.

  13. “I am amazed that two days later it’s not still plastered all over the sports sections”.


    Doubly surprising, because it doesn’t take much to set them off on a fit of moralising. Tea, anyone?

  14. I guess my thought is that if you let humans be referees then they will do human things, like have emotions and respond to them. The extent of Clattenburg’s pre-meditation in this game is, to use a favorite word of mine, fungible. I do understand that taken at concrete face value his words arouse suspicion of systematic gamesmanship by the referees, but to me that’s an extreme conclusion that should be reserved for a time if/when we do have a Snowden-esque whistle blower. In the meantime, to me it’s far more logical to chalk the incident up to Clattenburg’s personality and personal biases, an inherent part of how he referees. Yes, that does give the more physical teams and advantage and the extent of that advantage is an interesting debate to have. First, you have to define what “physical play” means, then compare outcomes under Clattenburg between teams who trend in disparate directions on that scale. It’s a complicated issue and at the end of the day, even if we remove Clattenburg, you’d just get another human with his/her own foibles and faults to take his place.

    I, for one, admire his honesty even if the implications are troubling. But it’s not like he just confessed to something we didn’t know has been happening; he’s simply owning up to a long standing truth in the PL, which is that its fans and its players often overlook and implicitly condone its inherent violence. We know that as Arsenal fans better than anyone. In other words, he is giving the people what they want. And aren’t we entertained? We are. Global audiences are only growing and the stature of the league with it.

    As a general rule though, the PL is less violent and probably less corrupt than it was even 10 years ago, or has anyone forgotten this??

    The brutality of some of the fouling aside, the announcers actually say on air that one point that the referee in that game has given Manchester United have been given 8 penalties in 8 games at home.

  15. @masterstroke
    The reason why I focused on the Guardian is *because* they are one of if not the best football outlets in England. Barney is a very good to excellent human interest type columnist, Wilson wrote one of the better tactical books on football, Lawrence wrote a good book about Arsenal.

    And yet they ignored or minimized three huge calls that, had they gone the other way, would have changed the game. Why? Because they hate Arsenal? Maybe, but more likely because they are crafting a narrative in order to sell our attention to advertisers, both in the short and long term. Delving into the non-calls interferes with their narrative and hence has no place, regardless of whether it was important or unjust.

  16. @Claudeivan

    I would not be so quick to rule out a conspiracy. First of all, it only takes two people to conspire. Part of what makes a conspiracy work is that it seems unbelievable. Who would think that the Hollywood machine would cover up rape and sexual assault of famous and near famous actresses? Did you see the NYT article on the Harvey Weinstein Complicity Machine? Everyone knew. The agents who sent him victims, the lawyers who structured payoffs and NDAs, the assistants who delivered the victims then soothed them, the board who looked the other way. He bought off journalists. He hired Kroll to spy on the journalists he couldn’t buy. He hired ex-Mossad agents to intimidate and spy on victims. When Corey Haim says there’s a protected pedophile ring in Hollywood, I’m no longer so skeptical. I bet it’s 100 times easier to rape and intimidate ‘nobodies’ and ‘wannabes’ than established actresses.

    Who would think that leading clubs could conspire with refereeing organizations to appoint favorable referees? And yet Juventus, Milan, Fiorintina, Lazio, Regina and probably Inter all did that in the mid 2000s. Or that a leading football program’s presenter could be implicated as well? And yet Aldo Biscardi resigned under pressure for getting payoffs to boost Juve.

    Are the British that much holier than the Italians? Is bung an Italian word? Or is it just that the Prem clubs haven’t been wiretapped by the police?

    Are sports journalists better than the entertainment journalists? Didn’t sports journalists avert their gaze from the giant bottle of Andro in Mark McGwire’s locker until a non-beat writer Steve Wilstein spilled the beans? Weren’t there precursor articles about steroids in baseball by Thomas Boswell in 1988 and Bob Nightengale in 1995? Why weren’t those followed up?

    The reason why people avert their gaze from a conspiracy is because they are all on the gravy train and no one wants to mess with a good thing or even be the guy seen as threatening everybody’s good thing.

  17. I’m convinced Clattenburg just couldn’t handle that famous Spurs game. He let it slip, in his usual fashion, and it went too far. And, because the guy has an ego like a cathedral and because that game will be remembered, he created a story where he engineered it all, changing his role from the weak referee into the puppet master. I don’t believe a word of it. He might actually start believing in his own fiction, though. This guy must spend hours in front of the mirror.

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