Puppet Killer: One Man's Controversial Twitter Quest To Save American Soccer
Ted Westervelt is known in American soccer circles as @soccerreform, a vitriolic one-man army determined to save the sport from itself.
Photo by Carl Bower
Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the new, Winter 2015 issue of Howler, an independent American magazine about soccer. See what else is in the new issue here.
"Here in a funny hat"
—Ted Westervelt 202-XXX-XXXX June 2014
I've ordered a pint of Great Divide and texted the subject of the profile I've traveled to Denver, Colorado to write about, letting him know I've made it to the British Bulldog. Ted Westervelt responds with the message above. I look around and pick him out of the small crowd in the bar. After Sepp Blatter and Piers Morgan, Westervelt is possibly the most reviled soccer personality in the United States. For six years, he has waged a campaign to cajole, harass, and annoy American soccer administrators, media, and fans with a single message: the United States needs the same promotion and relegation system common to soccer leagues all over the world.
Major League Soccer (MLS) and U.S. Federation officials have blocked his Twitter account. Journalists have told me privately that they've considered legal action against him for libel, usually after grumbling that writing a story about him will only encourage such behavior. But Ted (just say the first name to a group of soccer writers at a bar and you'll get a groan) is too good, too weird, a character. I want to find out what makes him do what he does. Asking on Twitter is useless, even though @soccerreform, Ted's Twitter persona, never seems to go offline. So here I am, in Denver, and there is @soccerreform—there is Ted— walking toward me in a funny hat.
It's a woven straw cowboy hat with the sides curled up and a pair of Ray-Bans resting on top. Beneath the brim is a face I vaguely recognize from the Internet. For years, I did my best to avoid Ted. He tweets incessantly, in rapid-fire barrages, cutting into conversations that have little, often nothing, to do with the topic of promotion and relegation. On the occasions he directed a tweet to me, I didn't engage—the digital equivalent of averting my eyes as I scurried past the crazy person on the sidewalk. I noticed other soccer journalists ignoring him or abandoning their discussions after one of his bombardments. He is always there, lurking, waiting for the slightest provocation to push his agenda, and the provocation was frequently just someone on Twitter talking about soccer.
"When you are introduced to Twitter and you are in this soccer community, you learn the way Twitter runs," Alexi Lalas, the former U.S. international and current ESPN analyst, told me when I asked him to comment for this story. "You learn how to put up your avatar and you learn that Ted will constantly be in your Twitter-face on everything."
Westervelt sits next to me at the bar and orders a beer. It's 4:30 p.m. mountain daylight time on the last Saturday in June, and the Bulldog is so committed to showing soccer that, even though the second of today's World Cup round of 16 matches ended just half an hour ago, the barman has already found a channel showing beach soccer and is beaming it to all the TVs in the place.
In person, Ted looks like a Jimmy Buffett fan: relaxed, easygoing, younger than I'd anticipated. His face appears to have never seen a razor. I ask him about the hat.
"It was a present from a friend," says Ted. "I used to wear it when gardening to protect my neck from the sun."
It's now in his regular rotation—he tells me he even wore it in the photo shoot for this story.
Westervelt rarely takes a break from Twitter. He loves it. He calls it "the datastream right in front of you." He has lists and follows discussions across the platform. There doesn't seem to be a day he doesn't get involved in a skirmish on Twitter, and when he gives himself a mission, such as tweeting out political quotes to MLS owners, journalists, or fans, or when he's involved in a heated discussion, he can easily tweet 100 times in an hour. He has sent roughly 140,000 tweets since joining in March 2009. By way of comparison, I joined the month before, use the site regularly, and have sent about 120,000 fewer tweets than Ted.
As we talk, the bar starts to fill up with Rapids supporters. A New England fan stands next to me in a Revolution jersey. He's here to watch the Revs game. The Bulldog shows every MLS game live, and this is the only spot he can see his team play.
We pay our bills and then stand near the door so we can keep track of the game but won't miss the bus. As we wait, Ted tells me about his plan to make a book chronicling the U.S. Open Cup. For years he's been scouring the internet, collecting old photographs and newspaper clippings. When the bus arrives, I pay for our ride and the driver hands us some cans of cheap beer as we file past to sit down. The Bulldog is the first stop on a supporters' bus that will deliver us to Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, 30 minutes away, where we'll watch the Colorado Rapids play the Vancouver Whitecaps. It will be Ted's first Major League Soccer game since 2011, and I'm hoping that by venturing with him to Dick's Sporting Goods Park—Ted's personal Mordor—I will attain some special insight into what makes him fight so vehemently for the soul of American soccer.
Ted Westervelt, now 47 years old, grew up in the suburbs of Chicago watching the Chicago Sting of the NASL and Soccer Made in Germany on TV. He played soccer at Scattergood Friends School (2014-15 tuition: $28,980) in West Branch, Iowa, and on the junior varsity team at Earlham College—a Quaker university with a left-leaning reputation in Indiana. Earlham's JV coach tried to make him a goalkeeper because he was so bad with the ball at his feet, so Ted dribbled the ball around the disc golf course for extra practice.
Soccer was fun, his coach's criticism notwithstanding, but in 1994 it became an obsession. He had moved to Washington, D.C. three years earlier, interning for the Middle East Institute and then, in the spring of 1993, in the media office of the White House—a picture of young Ted with President Bill Clinton adorns his LinkedIn profile. In 1994, Ted saw Belgium play Saudi Arabia in the World Cup at RFK Stadium, and he was hooked.
Ted became a fundraiser for the Democrats, eventually working his way up to become vice president of Erickson and Company, a professional fundraising firm. In his spare time, he kept watching soccer. He held D.C. United season tickets for two seasons in the early 2000s.
Westervelt loved MLS and American soccer. He championed it at home and hated the "Eurosnobs" who turned their noses up at the domestic game. But over time, the feeling faded, and he couldn't figure out why. "I thought I started to hate soccer," he says. It took something miraculous to make him realize it wasn't soccer that he had fallen out of love with but something else.
In 2008, Westervelt became a fan of Fulham, which had gone on a fast climb from the fourth tier of English soccer and finally broke into the Premier League in 2001, clinging to England's top league ever since with the help of Americans Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra, and beginning in 2007, Clint Dempsey. Fulham began the 2007-08 season with only two wins in the first half of the season, but took 12 points in its final five matches. The club was mathematically relegated with only 15 minutes left in its final game, but a late goal saved the Cottagers from being dropped to the Championship—the second tier of English club soccer—by the thinnest of margins. Fulham's escape was a transformative experience for Westervelt.
"I was a Bears fan, a Cubs fan," says Ted. "I saw Michael Jordan's rise with the Bulls, and in comparison to the championships, and the 1985 Bears and Ditka and the Cubs, the only thing I can compare the Fulham thing to is maybe some of the Cubs' struggles, but it was even more epic than that."
Fulham's exploits, he says, were "more exciting than anything I'd ever seen in sports. These guys were fighting—some guys in the lower divisions of England might disagree with this—but they were fighting for literally their survival in the major leagues, and I found that really compelling."
The year after the great escape, Fulham was rejuvenated. The team finished seventh, 19 points out of the relegation battle, and qualified for the Europa League. The next year, the Cottagers made it all the way to the final of the Europa League—Dempsey scoring a beautiful winning goal against Italian powerhouse Juventus in the quarterfinal—where they lost to Atlético Madrid, 2-1, in Hamburg.
The excitement of Fulham's relegation battles and brush with European success inspired Ted to look back in U.S. Soccer history for something similar. He found the opposite.
"Not only is promotion/relegation exciting, but if you want to have a global competition in your sport, you can't go around limiting your clubs in that format because then international competitions become superfluous at best and pointless at worst."
It was a big problem. To solve it, Westervelt decided to take up the fight for promotion and relegation in American soccer full-time. In 2007, he was burned out from working on Capitol Hill and he and his wife decided to leave Washington, D.C., ending his career in politics. They had flipped their house, providing a cushion for a move, and pulled straws to decide whether they would live closer to her family or his. They picked Colorado, closer to his family. After watching Fulham make the great escape, he would focus full-time on waging the promotion/relegation battle in the United States.
The only ventilation on the repurposed bus full of Rapids fans comes from two large holes in the ceiling where the emergency exit coverings used to be. The heat is profound as we make our way to the stadium, but Ted doesn't seem to mind. He sits across the aisle from me, and as the bus fills up, he pulls out his phone and snaps a photo of the supporters sipping their beers.
Westervelt wonders aloud if he'll get into a Twitter fight with a Rapids fan tonight. He has already sent a tweet announcing that he will be at the game. He wonders if someone, anyone, will recognize him. He sends another tweet clarifying that he will be the MLS-bashing fan in the cowboy hat. He tells me on the bus that he hopes someone will argue with him tonight. I don't see that happening on this bus, but if anyone can pull it off, it's Ted. He has a knack for pissing people off.
"He clearly knows how to push buttons," says Jason Davis, host of the Soccer Morning podcast and a contributor to ESPN FC. "At the same time, I've slowly evolved to the point where I believe his Twitter campaigning is mostly an act. Or more accurately, a strategic approach rather than something he comes by naturally."
"The reason I was in politics was to get into situations like this," Ted tells me. "I didn't know I was going to do this when I left D.C., but this is just a classic example of a policy, a system, that needs to be changed.
"I came to decide that the only way it could be changed was to continue to fight, and the only method was political change."
Davis says he blocked @soccerreform years ago, but in January, he invited Ted onto his show to discuss promotion and relegation.
"Like so many other trolls, he's not a monster if you catch him in a one-on-one situation," says Davis. "He simply has an agenda, and Twitter provides him a platform to badger people without actual repercussions."
The fans on the bus are drinking their beers and singing along to late-90s and early-aughts hip-hop. If anyone has recognized Ted, they haven't said anything. He points out the window, telling me we're about to pass one of the largest cannabis-growing operations in the Denver area, and that we might smell the newly legal marijuana from the highway. No sooner have I told Ted that he's right, the smell is pretty potent, than the man in front of him exhales a lungful of smoke and raises a tightly wrapped blunt in the air, calling out to see who else would like a hit. Ted and I pass, and I hand the blunt to the man sitting behind us, who eagerly takes a drag. This is Colorado. The relaxed attitude is partly why Westervelt moved here. It's a comfortable place where people can be themselves.
Only Ted is usually not the one being harassed. He's the one doing the harassing. He says the way he approaches the argument goes back to when he discovered BigSoccer.com and found a community on the message boards with whom he could discuss promotion and relegation in American soccer. Since 2000, the site, originally called Soccerboards.com, has provided a place for American soccer fans to discuss the sport on blogs and in forums. Ted says other commenters picked on him for his views on American soccer. Instead of absorbing the insults, he decided to become as loud and constant as his detractors. No longer would Ted meekly offer his suggestions for the improvement of American soccer. He would become aggressive, obnoxious, unrelenting. Members of the establishment might not like him, but he would force them to pay attention. Like Rush Limbaugh—with whom, Ted tells me, he has been compared—he would have the conversation he wanted to have, the way he wanted to have it.
There's no trace of the blunt by the time we pull up to the stadium in Commerce City. The area surrounding Dick's Sporting Goods Park is under development. Denver's urban sprawl stretches into this northern suburb, which is known for the Suncor oil refinery that operates here. The land across the street from the parking lot has been flattened and is ready for construction to begin. Soon the stadium will be part of greater Denver, not part of its fringe.
I sit down at our seats and wait for Ted, who has split off to make a bathroom run. The stadium isn't flashy. Behind me is a group of girls, members of a youth team. I'm the only person in the row.
At the far end of the stadium, in front of a high wall behind the small section of bleachers where the supporters group sits, is a large cannon beneath an Arsenal crest. Rapids' owner Stan Kroenke also owns Arsenal, and the cannon goes off periodically to punctuate team announcements. Fireworks blast into the sky above the wall after the National Anthem. The sun is beginning to set and the mountains off in the distance shine in the sunlight. It gives me a minute to try to reconcile @soccerreform, the crazed tweet ranter, with Ted, the pretty nice guy in the funny hat.
His message is simple: the American soccer pyramid is broken, and promotion/relegation will fix all the problems facing professional soccer in America.
"I certainly like to poke fun at Don Garber and MLS a lot," he told me in one of our earlier conversations. No surprise there. It was what he said next that caught me off guard: "But Garber has done a wonderful job with the cards he's been dealt, and they've been pretty good cards. He's been able to shape American soccer in a way that makes the most sense for his owners, and I think you can't disparage him from doing that.
"My problem is really with the federation, with U.S. Soccer," he continued. "Without U.S. Soccer and the way they do the pyramid, without the entitlements they give to MLS, MLS probably can't do what they do."
What MLS does, according to Ted, is sell a bastardized version of the game that is set up to shield the owners from the financial risk of competing in a global or even national market, thereby depriving supporters here of some of the core pleasures of being a soccer fan.
The U.S. Soccer Federation is the game's FIFA sanctioned authority in the United States and licenses Major League Soccer and its single-entity business model as the top division of professional soccer in this country.
"Our federation provides owners massive domestic protections—the biggest being protection from pro/rel. They then use those protections to import cheap players and concede market share to imported clubs"—by which he means the European teams many Americans follow.
"MLS regulation isn't designed to protect consumers, workers, or communities," he said. "It's designed to protect owners. I think MLS exemplifies the kind of anti-competitive entitlements people don't like."
Ted's view ignores the huge risk that Major League Soccer's owners took in launching the league in the first place. Without that initial step, professional club soccer in the U.S. would likely still be trying to find a foothold, a rinkier, dinkier version of what we have today. Owners needed to put money up front to launch an initial league, again, and those owners don't want to see their investments disappear after one bad season.
"We believe the promotion/relegation system is certainly unique to the world of global football, and it's intriguing to all of us," says Dan Courtemanche, executive vice president of communications for MLS. "Right now, our focus is on building Major League Soccer and supporting the overall growth of soccer in the U.S. and in Canada. And we have a formal partnership with the USL Pro, we certainly believe that a vibrant second division with the NASL is beneficial to the overall popularity of the sport. But, at the present time, promotion/ relegation is not something we are planning for Major League Soccer."
Instituting promotion and relegation, Ted believes, would lead to more fans, better players. Teams would be forced to find competitive advantages such as building better academies for youth players to grow and develop. It's a sound free-market criticism of MLS labor policy. The biggest problem is in the way he delivers it.
The game has kicked off, in fact, 10 minutes have passed—and Ted has still not joined me. Is he still in the bathroom? Did he skip out on the game? I check Twitter. Sure enough, he has just tweeted a photo of the section of empty seats across the stadium from where I'm sitting. I text him and find out he's one section over, at our seats. I'm in the wrong section.
I head over to find Ted. Our seats are in the middle of the family section. It is not the ideal place for him to spread his gospel or get in a fight with someone about MLS, but lacking the ideal venue has not proven a hindrance in the past. He has to keep checking his choice of words because he peppers his speech with words like "fuck" and "shit" as we discuss the play on the field.
I point out the cannon with the Arsenal crest.
"It's stupid," says Ted. "It's so Stan Kroenke and fucking made-up MLS bullshit. It's typical MLS, trying to ride the coattails of leagues like the Premier League."
"But Kroenke is just trying to make the connection to the other club he owns," I say.
"Yeah, yeah, but it's fucking amatuer hour. MLS shouldn't have to rely on other leagues or teams for promotion."
A little later, I remark that Rapids right back Marvell Wynne is playing in the center of the field.
"Wow, didn't think we'd see the day," Ted says. "He's my secret weapon in older versions of FIFA. I always buy him for cheap and use his speed in Europe."
I observe that both coaches—Carl Robinson of Vancouver and Pablo Mastroeni of Colorado—are former players in the league.
"I would like to see what Bruce Arena could do with a real budget," he says. It's something he'll repeat more than once throughout the night. The American soccer public, he believes, has been slighted because Arena will never have the opportunity to show the world if he could compete on the global stage with a team truly of his own making.
It's the type of statement that sounds reasonable— arguable, at any rate, though I would counter that all coaches everywhere face financial limitations, and very few are able to build their dream team—when Ted delivers it in person. When he gets on Twitter, however, he becomes "an articulate version of the Rent Is Too Damn High guy," says soccer writer Richard Whittall.
"He has made this crusade for promotion/relegation into a good versus evil thing," Whittall tells me in an e-mail. "By combatting every single single-entity sympathizer with a million tweets at every turn, he's made himself, and the position he represents, a caricature."
Colorado dominates possession and creates plenty of scoring opportunities. Rapids midfielder Dillon Powers is controlling the game. It's a good example of what a quality MLS game can look like: fast-paced, both teams trying to push forward and create chances; there is plenty of hard tackling, good goalkeeping, and the occasional moment of brilliance.
The Rapids take a 2-0 lead into halftime thanks to goals from Powers and Vicente Sánchez, a Uruguayan playmaker who tried an audacious bicycle kick late in the first half but saw his chance saved by Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted, a sequence that drew gasps from the crowd around us.
Whittall said Ted picked fights with "single-entity sympathizers," but more often it seems that Westervelt just picks fights with people who enjoy MLS, or happen to be talking about it on Twitter without duly mentioning the league's single-entity financial structure. In Ted talk, these are "MLS Bots": people, often journalists—sometimes journalists employed by MLSsoccer.com—who are part of a coordinated campaign to smother Ted's truth. He sometimes accuses journalists of being on the MLS payroll even when they are employed by other outlets.
"Promotion/relegation deserves better than a smear campaign run by a few bloggers, podcasters, and their sock puppets—regardless of who's running their show," Ted tells me.
"Sock puppet" is one of Ted's favorite insults. Sock puppet number one is Dan Loney, a BigSoccer contributor who, in a 2009 post called "The Eurosnob Scale," wrote about those like Ted who believe the league's single entity structure was harming American soccer: "What the hell do you care? You're watching athletes play soccer, not balance their ****ing checkbooks. What kind of dumbass cheers for a corporate structure?"
Loney is one of the few people on the Internet who goes after Ted just as hard as Ted goes after everybody else. Another line in his 2009 post read, "I mean, I guess you can try to convince the schizophrenic that the CIA isn't really beaming toothpaste commercials into his brain—but isn't it just easier to find another seat on the bus?"
Loney doesn't want to talk to me about Ted. He doesn't want me to write about him, either: "Don't write a story about Ted Westervelt," he warns. "No good will come of it. If you believe nothing else anyone has ever told you in your entire life, believe that."
When I ask Ted about Loney, he tells me he's not even sure he's a real person. "I'm saying I can't find Dan Loney in the real world."
As strange as Ted's conspiracy theories about the MLS Bots and secret MLS payments sound, the journalists I speak with are largely united in their feeling that I shouldn't be writing about Ted.
"I'd really like to help you with the article," writes the Shin Guardian's Matthew Tomaszewicz. "But he gets an undue amount of press due specifically to his insulting tactics under a self-championed veil of false crusading. I don't want to contribute to that."
A national soccer journalist declined to comment, saying Ted will interpret any attention he receives, whether it's positive or negative, as confirmation that his obnoxious Twitter tactics are working.
A part-time soccer journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, told me he was afraid Ted would lash out at him on Twitter and put his job in jeopardy.
Three separate soccer journalists told me they had considered filing libel suits for false statements about them on Twitter by @soccerreform.
Ted claims that he badgered Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated so persistently that Wahl confronted Westervelt on the phone. After all the insults, the time he had spent trying to get Wahl to pay attention, Ted says he didn't actually want to talk to him. "It would have made me like him," he says. "He's a likable guy." Wahl declined to comment for this story.
After months of reporting and months of speaking to people who hate @soccerreform, I was ready to dislike Ted when I finally met him in person. And for all that I think @soccerreform gets wrong, I have to credit Ted with being right about one thing: it can be harder to dislike someone after you've met him in person.
The game ends 2-0, a Rapids win. There are two buses waiting to bring us back to a circuit of bars in Denver. Beer is chilling in a pile of ice on the lawn in front of one of the two buses. It's been dumped out of a cooler and is there for anyone to take. Ted and I grab a few beers each and get on the first bus. It's packed. The music starts, and before we roll out of the parking lot, the singing and dancing begins. Ted whips out his phone.
Westervelt believes he is fighting for a good cause. He believes promotion and relegation and opening of the U.S. Soccer system will be good for the game. He's spent years assembling a record of American soccer's past. He has written about the importance of the U.S. Open Cup for the New York Times. He is still working on his book, and he tells me that his only personal income—his wife works as a social worker—comes from a small T-shirt company called Pothunting. He makes T-shirts with the logos of historic American soccer teams like the Fall River Rovers and Bethlehem Steel, and he says it doesn't really make him much money. It's his passion for American soccer, combined with the same love for campaigning that drew Ted to politics, that fuels @soccerreform.
"I think there is a benefit to showcasing what I perceive as a hollow, tiny, and an equally persistent vocal opposition," he writes in an e-mail. "I want to expose the weird little cabal claiming to speak for American soccer through a sock puppet."
There is a subsection of soccer fans who agree with Ted. More than 2,500 follow @soccerreform on Twitter, and during the week of July 11, @soccerreform had 487 mentions and 218 retweets.
Jonathan Townsend, a writer for the online soccer fanzine Twelve, follows Westervelt on Twitter and supports what he's doing to push pro/rel.
"Ted can be forthcoming with his ideas and opinions on Twitter. Personally, I believe he's able to back up his claims with a plethora of information and irrefutable facts," Townsend writes in an e-mail. "Is he the face of the promotion/relegation crowd? Perhaps, but I'd like to think Ted is one of many bold and educated people on American soccer history who just want to see clubs here have opportunities as clubs abroad regarding an open system."
"Ted fulfills an absolutely critical role," says Gary Kleiban, a youth soccer coach in Southern California who often tweets about promotion/relegation from his handle @3four3. "I do not have the time, energy, patience, or desire to be as prolific and relentless as Ted in combating the status quo within the Twitter medium. We need someone who beats the drum day in and day out. I'm extremely grateful we have such a person like Ted."
Derek Neighbors started following @soccerreform while watching a U.S. men's national team game. He saw the dialogue Westervelt was having about promotion/ relegation and joined the discussion. Neighbors, who lives in Arizona and ran a youth soccer league there for a few years, agrees that the American soccer system needs promotion and relegation to further the game and help develop players.
"I think he is probably too aggressive or derogatory toward the establishment," writes Neighbors in an e-mail. "However, oftentimes to get change you need a catalyst that pushes much harder to one side than where the establishment is willing to land."
In my reporting, I was able to find one member of that establishment who sees Ted as a valuable member of the community.
"The mainstream coverage of soccer, while it has improved, is not at the level of other sports," Alexi Lalas tells me. "Blogs and podcasts and Twitter—I think that is where the best discussion about American soccer happens. I enjoy people who are passionate about what they do and who have a point of view, and I think Ted fits that description. We can disagree sometimes on how he goes about talking about it, but I still think soccer is better having a Ted Westervelt than without."
The bus is packed on the drive back. People are squished, drunk, hot, and sweaty. The music drowns out the driver's announcements. Half of the riders get off at the first stop, another pub called the Three Lions. I finally find a spot next to Ted, and we're talking about the game when Jess Malone, a co-founder of the American Outlaws chapter in Denver, asks why I'm writing in my notebook. I introduce Ted, and she invites us to talk about American soccer at the Bulldog.
Westervelt preaches his views, and he and Malone reminisce about watching the early D.C. United teams at RFK. We both have long drives ahead of us, so Ted and I haven't been drinking since we got off the bus. Westervelt delivers his stump speech to one of Malone's friends and has elegant rebuttals for every counterpoint he is offered. At one point, Malone looks at him and says, "You're the man who goes to the soup kitchen and complains about the soup," but Ted stays on message. It's fascinating to watch. Ted is so much more engaging, and so much more friendly, than @soccerreform. He talks like someone fighting for something in which he truly believes.
In the weeks that follow my meeting with Ted, he will send multiple emails asking who I've been speaking with. He knows I've been speaking with MLS Bots, and he fears they're succeeding in swaying my story.
"It smells like a playbook, and it's been around from the beginning," Ted writes in an e-mail. "Use of it tends to rise in intensity whenever I have moments of traction—like multiple retweets, celeb mentions, interview requests, etc."
He believes he's made headway in forcing his agenda into the conversation. "The debate on promotion and relegation in American soccer is real," he writes in another e-mail. "It is bigger than ever."
By 12:30 a.m., we're some of the last people in the dimly lit bar. We say goodbye to Jess and walk out the door. The streets are empty save for a few soccer fans standing outside, smoking cigarettes. It turns out my rental is parked in front of his Volkswagen hatchback on the street. He tells me to email him or call if I have any more questions. I know I can always get him on Twitter. We get into our cars and go our separate ways.
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