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Football News: Torture And Concrete Footballs, How Not To Motivate The Iraq Team By Uday Hussein

Torture And Concrete Footballs, How Not To Motivate The Iraq Team By Uday Hussein
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Iraqi Football Under Uday Hussein


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When Saddam Hussein's revolution took power in Iraq, the football team was one of the best in Asia and it was something he was very keen to maintain as he believed sports could foster nationalism among the people. In 1984, with the country demoralised by the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam turned to his eldest son, Uday, to take charge of the Olympic Committee and the football federation to rebuild the country's spirit. He also hoped his then 20 year old son would prove himself a leader and worthy successor to himself. It did not work out quite the way Saddam had hoped.

Uday was known for his affinity for violence and greed, he owned night clubs, mainly as a front for his smuggling and black market operation and that was probably the nicest thing that could be said about him. His interest in football had already been kindled by creating his own team, Al Rasheed in 1983, which he saw as a route to popularity and money. Money was something he was never short of, owning palaces, a fleet of expensive cars and a yacht.

It was little wonder he developed into a brutal man, after all this was a child who had been used to smuggle ammunition and weapons as a baby, with his mother hiding them in his pram, as that was safe from being searched. During the coup which took his father to power, Uday and his younger brother Qusay were left to play with deactivated grenades to keep them busy. In high school he would boast about how he had murdered his teacher for 'disrespecting him' in front of a girlfriend. There is little reason to disbelieve this claim, sadly.

In university he decided he wanted to marry a fellow student from a prominent Iraqi family, but Saddam forbid it as he wanted inter-clan and cousin marriages to strengthen ties of loyalty. Uday was furious and went completely off the rails, with many, many stories related about his activities, as he would snatch women he desired and rape them. One was a young bride, the day after her wedding, who he raped before she fell to her death from the balcony of his hotel room. Uday then had her husband executed as a traitor for "cursing the president's son".

In 1983 Uday was ordered to marry Nada, the daughter of Saddam's cousin 'Chemical' Ali Hassan al-Majid and they had two sons before he divorced her. In this period, Saddam would often get annoyed with Uday and give him dressing downs in front of other family members, but Uday took no notice. Saddam's patience finally snapped in 1988 when Uday beat Kamel Hannah to death in a fit of rage with a baseball bat. Hannah had been Saddam's closest bodyguard and food taster and Uday was banished to Geneva to stay with Saddam's half-brother Barzan.

While there Uday was married to Barzan's daughter Suja, but she refused to consummate the marriage, because of his violent temper and his ill treatment of her. That caused a rift in the family but Uday was only to last a year after that in Swizerland, as he was deported for brandishing a gun in a public place. It took a long time before Saddam forgave his wayward son, a total family reunion only happened in 1992, but Uday was able to ingratiate himself back into Saddam's good books after two of his brothers-in-law, Saddam and Hussein Kamel, defected to Jordan in 1995. He lured the pair back to Baghdad and then personally took part in executing them. They had only left Iraq, along with their wives, Uday's sisters, after a furious fight with Uday.

Yet this is the man who was chosen to lead Iraq's football and Olympic teams into a 'new era' and bring glory to Saddam Hussein and the country he ruled. It is little wonder that what actually occurred was a little different from the hopes Saddam had. Saddam should probably have realised that Uday was not the right choice, even if he ignored all his actions away from football, because of the way he acted with the club he created, Al Rasheed.

Al Rasheed had the pick of the country's best players, including the star striker Ahmed Radhi, which meant they quickly established themselves as the best team in the country. However allegations of match fixing and intimidation of opponents and match officials plagued them, as Iraqi journalist Salah Hassan recalled: "A red card to an Al Rasheed player was forbidden, plenty of their goals were from clear offside positions, and every star player from an opposing side would somehow get suspended before playing Al Rasheed. They could get any player whenever and wherever without any discussion or argument."

Players at Al Rasheed were well rewarded for wins, money, houses and cars were handed out for doing well, such as when the team reached the final of the Asian Champions League in 1989, it is just that the stick he used to back up the carrot was a real stick, or worse. Far worse in fact. Uday would lock up players and staff who displeased him, the coach of Al Rasheed was once locked up after a defeat but let out of jail each afternoon to take practice before being taken back to jail. Uday also blocked players from moving abroad, stopping Admed Radhi from making a big money move to Nacional in Uruguay, who won the Copa Libertadores that season. Even a personal appeal from Johan Cruyff had no effect when Barcelona wanted Laith Hussein to join their academy.

Uday's reign had begun well with the national side, with Iraq winning the Gulf Cup in his first year in charge and the Arab Cup followed a year later. That was followed by qualification for Iraq's first and, so far, only World Cup in 1986 after a win in the final qualifier over Syria. It was to provide more evidence of Uday's erratic nature though as he rejected offers of friendlies in the build up against Brazil and England as he feared a loss would reflect badly on his family and instead took the team to play Brazilian club sides, including Flamengo, who beat them 3-1.

Despite the successful qualifying campaign Uday sacked the manager Jorge Vieira and promoted Vieira's assistant Edu Coimbra to replace him. Coimbra is legendary Brazilian Zico's brother. Uday also had another 'brainwave' in the run up, when he suddenly decided that the team had a chance of winning the World Cup and so changed Iraq's iconic and hallowed green and white shirts for ones of mostly gold colour. It did not work though and Iraq lost all three of their group games by a single goal to hosts Mexico, Paraguay and Belgium. They did go on and win a competition in 1988, the Gulf Cup, tellingly while Uday was exiled in Switzerland.

It is little wonder that, when he did return, the team's performances and results dropped off, as they were subjected to the kind of treatment most of us would not inflict on our worst enemies. Uday's motivational lectures, which included threats to cut off players' legs and throw them to ravenous dogs and to blow up the plane they would be flying home on, might have seemed like idle threats from anyone else, but, when they were coming from Uday, they would just feel like a logical progression from the punishments he was already inflicting on the players.

He had three spies in the national team camp, to ensure discipline, Adib Shaban, originally a photographer who was taken on as Uday's secretary, Samir Borhan, who was attached to the team, and Adnan Hamman, a footballing federation official. That trio had the full backing of Uday and could give punishments as if "they spoke in the name of Uday." And there were so many reasons they would hand out a punishment. Just missing a practice session, even if it was because of a sick child or to attend a funeral, meant prison where they would be treated to the kind of inhumane treatment that saw the US use fear of Uday becoming ruler of Iraq as a reason (or excuse depending on your point of view) not to overthrow Saddam after the invasion of Kuwait.

The punishments meted out were many and for various reasons, and included everything from imprisonment to torture of a kind that would not have seem out of place in a medieval dungeon. In 2000 Yasser Abdul Latif was accused of hitting the referee in a club in Baghdad. He was imprisoned in Al-Radwaniya prison camp, confined to a call 2m square with a tiny window high in the wall. His head and eyebrows were shaved, a humiliation in Iraq, and he was then stripped to the waist and ordered to do press ups for 2 hours, while 3 guards took turns to flog his back with an electric cable. The guards would swap over when their arms grew tired from flogging him. He was then given an hour's break before the torture would resume again for 2 more hours. At times he was led outdoors into the winter cold and doused with freezing cold water.

Latif suffered two weeks of the punishment before his release and said it was over a month before he could lie on his back again afterwards. Like many he considered quitting the team but said: "Really Iraq was a big jail but I never had any choice. They threatened me. If I didn't participate in the team, they said they would beat me again and again, and consider me an enemy of the regime, and that would mean death."

Once or twice a season Uday would summon the national team, where he would enter the room with half a dozen armed guards and immediately launch into a harangue. Individual players would be singled out and their performances mercilessly dissected, often leading to further punishments. Uday even had a torture chart that had written instructions on how many times each player should be beaten on the soles of their feet for a particularly poor showing.

Habib Jaffar said: "Once you came to Uday's notice, he never left you alone. The only time I managed to get away from his eyes was when I was outside Iraq." Things became even more difficult in Iraq after the failed invasion of Kuwait, which left Iraq struggling to find opponents to face and banned from playing in international tournaments. Fans began to protest against the regime, which led to reprisals such as in Basra when 3 Al Minaa fans were killed and 25 wounded by soldiers after chants of synchronised slogans against the regime were heard.

The Al Rasheed and Iraqi national team players began to bring pillows with them to matches, so that, when the inevitable spell in prison occurred, they had something to sleep on. Iraqi international Saad Qais said: "Football in the Uday era was a scary and terrifying time not devoid of negative psychological pressure on all the players and athletes. We used to be on the receiving end of humiliating and degrading punishments if we lose, and that massively affected the performance of the players in most tournaments that we participated in."

It was not always possible to understand why they were being punished, sometimes misplaced shots and passes would be counted carefully and if a threshold was reached the player would then be subjected to 12 hour long practice sessions. If a player had done something that Uday deemed more serious, he would be sent to await his fate in the 'Red Rooms' under the Olympic Committee's HQ in Baghdad. Red was deliberately chosen to symbolise the prospect of bloodshed. It could be a loss or even just a draw that would bring on flogging with electric cable followed by a bath in raw sewage. The whole process was arbitrary and Uday was as fickle as he was violent.

Uday's desire to drive the players through fear would also extend to practice sessions. If he saw a player miss several shots in practice (or his spies did), then that player would be forced to stand in front of Uday with his hands bound at his sides while Uday slapped and punched him repeatedly. Woe betide a player that he saw breaking the rules, as that would lead to severe punishments.

One former player, Abbas Allaiwi said: "I was once imprisoned for 33 days in Al Radwaniya, and I was bewildered. It was after a game against Al Talaba, where I was captaining my side Al Jaish. It was the opening game of the season - the mother of all battles - and I was a bit tense. There was a moment where the ref should've given a foul for my team, but, somehow, he decided to play on and Al Talaba converted. That's when I went up and confronted him. I told him to basically follow the rule of the game, etc, but that agitated the ref, who had me sent off. I got so livid that I spat in his face. Unfortunately for me, Uday was in attendance and I was told that I was banned from playing for a whole year. But that wasn't enough for him: He told me that I wasn't being respectful and that I should be disciplined, so I was arrested. And there, I was beaten with an electric cable 50 to 70 times every morning by his personal executioners."

Ahmed Radi, who later went on to be the national coach said: "We would joke that we had three homes - our own houses, the stadium, and jail." Radi was once sentenced to six lashes to his feet after committing six mistakes in a game but got lucky: "The guards at the jail were fans of mine, and when they took me into the room for my beating, they told me to shout out as if in pain while they made a sound like flogging. For the final blow, the sixth, they apologised and said they had to really hit me, in case Uday checked for marks on my feet. They were very afraid he would punish them if he didn't find any."

Mazin Yassen, a cousin of Yaser Kasim, was playing youth football for Iraq's U18s when Uday turned up to a training session and threatened all the players with their lives: "I had recently picked up an ankle injury that had kept me sidelined. My father used this as an opportunity to ask the team doctor to forge the medical reports and claim that the damage to my ankle was too substantial. We used this as an excuse for me to retire - otherwise Uday would never let me walk away from the game."

Sharar Haydar said: "I was tortured for the first time in 1993 after the Iraqi national team lost 2-0 to Jordan in the finals of a tournament. I was brought to the Olympic prison, where I joined 3 other players. Why the 4 of us? What did we do wrong? Nobody knows but Uday. But from there we were taken to another prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, the notorious Al-Radwaniya, where many Iraqis have been tortured. We were beaten for 4 days, sleeping for no more than 30 minutes at a time on a hard floor with no blankets or pillows. The guards terrorised us in many ways. One time, they woke us up and told us, "we want you to catch a fly, and we want it to be male, not female." Well one of my team-mates, Habib Jaffar one of the best Iraqi players, caught the fly and showed it to the torturers, who said, "no that's male. It needs to be female." So they beat him. Then told him to catch the same fly he just released."

Ahmad-Rahim Hamad part of Iraq's 86 World Cup squad said: "You knew that if you didn't play well, Uday would do something bad. I loved Kevin Keegan, he was my best player and I had a perm like him. Uday shaved everybody's hair. That's when I lost my perm." Uday was stopping the team performing to their best, more than that, sometimes he was stopping them even performing at all. Players were too scared to even take part in penalty shootouts as missing would mean a punishment. A game against Jordan which finished 3-3 found just 3 players step forward to take them, even then it was only because they knew if no one stepped up, everyone would be punished. Midfielder Abbas Rahim Zair was one of the three: "Many of the footballers refused to even touch the ball, but then we realised that if no one accepted we would all be punished."

Zair missed and the team lost in the shoot out, two days later, when the team had returned to Baghdad, Zair was summoned to see Uday. At the HQ of Iraq's Olympic Committee he was blindfolded and taken away to prison for 3 weeks. After the fall of Iraq, numerous torture contraptions were discovered, including an 'Iron Maiden' and a metal contraption with footrests at the bottom and rings at the shoulders to suspend victims in place while they were subjected to electric shocks and floggings.

When Iraq went out of the Asian Cup in 2000, it was not just players that were punished, though three were imprisoned and tortured, Uday also sacked the entire national football federation. Well, the entire federation except for himself, of course. Iraq had lost 4-1 to eventual Asian Cup winners Japan, keeper Hashim Hassan, defender Abdul Jaber and striker Qahtan Chither were singled out to take the blame. The trio were whipped and beaten for three days. At times he would punish the entire team, once putting them into one cell and having them beaten with sticks.

It was about humiliation, Uday employed ritual humiliations such as having heads and eyebrows shaved, even taking to urinating on players that were locked up if they particularly annoyed him. He once ordered the entire team to have the soles of their feet whipped after losing a crucial World Cup qualifying game. One player, Sharar Haydar, once asked a guard who was torturing him how he could live with himself. The guard just laughed and said if it was not him it would be Uday torturing them. "They took off our shirts, tied our feet together and pulled our knees over a bar as we lay on our backs. Then they dragged us over pavement and concrete, pulling the skin off our backs....pulled us through a sandpit to get sand in our backs. Finally, they made us climb a ladder and jump into a vat of raw sewage. They wanted to get our wounds infected." Haydar fled Iraq in 1998 and gave a revealing interview to the Sunday Times about his treatment.

One of Uday's secretary's, Addas Janabi, and a former referee, Furat Kadhim, also fled the country and told the world about the suffering being inflicted but little of any real value was done to put a stop to Uday's reign of terror, which was affecting all of Iraqi sport. Habib Jaffar was also eventually able to escape Uday when he was offered a 5 year contract to play in Qatar, but that escape too came with a price. This time the price was monetary with Uday deciding to create a new rule that forced an Iraqi playing abroad to sign over 60% of his salary to Uday.

By 1996 Iraq had dropped to 139th in FIFA's rankings, but Uday's treatment had other consequences, including reducing the Olympics team down to just 4 athletes for the 2000 Olympics, from the 46 who took part in 1980. Which is no surprise considering he would threaten to blow up the planes on a return journey after teams lost! For most people that would seem an idle threat, but Uday was fully capable of carrying through his threats. His punishments were psychotic and a failure to reach the 1994 World Cup saw the national team imprisoned and forced to kick a concrete football. Tariq Abdul Ameer: "Every player in the national believed and felt destined that a time in Al Radwaniya was in the offing. Any player or person who entered Al Radwaniya entered the door to hell."

Many players thought about quitting the game but were not allowed to do so, as Yasser Abdul Latif recalls: "They threatened me. If I didn't participate in the team, they said they would beat me again and again, and consider me an enemy of the regime, and that would mean death." And another who considered it was Basil Goreis: "He was a thug, he called us and threatened us with things like physical abuse and sending us to the frontlines of the war." Before fleeing, Sharar Haydar had attempted to quit the game too, but Uday's bodyguards turned up at his house at 2:30am and took him from his bed in front of his terrified parents, who believed their son was to be executed.

Haydar was taken to Uday's Olympics headquarters lair and handed a walkie-talkie. Uday was on the other end: "So, why don't you like to play for the great Iraq?" Haydar claimed to have a bleeding ulcer which made him unable to play. Uday asked him to return to practice the following day as the 1994 World Cup qualifiers were to start soon, but Haydar asked for Uday's doctor to examine him to see if he could play. Uday said: "I will show you how you can and how you can't." Haydar was taken to prison and his feet were whipped 20 times a day for 3 days, with just one glass of water and slice of bread per day to survive on.

Then he was taken to Al-Radwaniya for 4 days, where he was given what had become known as 'The Reception'. His clothes were removed, he was laid on his back and his legs hung over a metal bar, which was then used to drag him across hot pavement on his back until it was a bloody mess. Then he was made to roll in sand before, to make sure his wounds became infected, he was made to climb a 15-foot ladder and jump into a pit of sewage water repeatedly. Haydar told The Times after his escape that he was 'lucky' to only have been imprisoned four times, the final time coming when Uday found out he was preparing to defect to Hungary. Uday's spies informed him that Haydar had applied for a visa and so Uday took him off the practice field in the afternoon and imprisoned him for 4 days. After 4 days of imprisonment, surprisingly without any torture, Uday released him with a warning not to do it again.

That was probably even more scary for the players, his capacity to go from psychotic to almost genial within seconds. He would sometimes keep them back after a game for hours, leaving them expecting to be punished, only to tell them: "No, go home now. But I won't forget. I will watch you next game." Sometimes Uday would summon the team at 2am to the palace to 'test his skills' against them. But Uday had funny legs and was no good at playing football, however everyone was terrified of him and, if you were on the other team, you were not allowed to tackle him or defend too well against him and make him look bad.

From genial he would go to murderous in the blink of an eye, as one boxer found out. He was knocked out in the first round of a Gulf States competition and was summoned to see Uday. The boxer waited outside the office while Uday paced around inside waving his expensive Cuban cigar to make his point. Uday's body double Latif Yahia says: "He was yelling about how Iraq should not be embarrassed by its athletes. He kept saying, 'this is my Iraq. Embarrassing Iraq embarrasses me.'" The boxer was led in to face Uday: "In sport you can win or you can lose. I told you not to come home if you didn't win." He walked around his desk and screamed at the boxer: "This is how you box," while throwing a left and right to his face. Uday punched him again and again before jolting the boxer in the chest with his electric prod. According to Yahia, the boxer was never seen again.

A former volleyball player called Issam Thamer al-Diwan escaped to the USA with a list of 52 names of people he said were murdered by the Iraqi regime. The former national basketball coach, Sabah Mohamed, claims 9 members of his wife's family were executed. Uday even had a small room made specifically to put the volleyball team into. Volleyball players, like basketball players, tend to be particularly tall, so Uday had the room built with a 5 foot high ceiling and so small that not all of them could sit down at once. The only way they could all fit was to have half the team sit with their knees to their chests and the other half were stood up, bent over them.

Journalists were also in danger, as Ali Riyah found out following his match review criticising the national team's performance. Uday was enraged by the article and ordered Riyah to be tortured with electric shocks. Riyah said later: "Uday's cruelty knew no bounds. No one was safe from him - entertainers, sportsmen, journalists. He hated us all. He enjoyed our suffering. He never inflicted it himself, but liked to watch. He was really evil - far, far worse than his father."

Officials were not safe either, as one referee, Ahmed Kadoim, claims he refused to fix a match between Al-Shorta and the club of the air force. "I was the referee of a match between Al-Shorta and the club of the air force. I was told that Shorta should win, but I refused to fix the match. It ended 2-2. I was taken by Uday's men to Al-Radwaniya prison, where they used hoses and a cane to beat me three times a day. My punishment was ten beatings each time. When I was bleeding, they forced me into a pool of sewage. The guards laughed and said: 'you should have let them win'. I still am in pain nearly a year later."

Iraq's all time leading goalscorer, Ahmed Radhi said: "If the team lost, he put the entire team in jail, or he cut our hair, or sometimes he slapped the players around in the changing room. Because we lost at every championship and tournament, we developed a loser's identity. As the Iraqi team always used to win at internationals, Uday became frustrated and didn't know how to behave. He thought if he jailed or beat a player it would make them stronger and more vicious and would try to do anything in order to win the game."

Despite all this, Uday even had defenders amongst his players, with former Iraqi international keeper, who also played for Al Rasheed, said: "As a goalkeeper for Uday's side, we achieved many memorable achievements after we promoted both on the regional and the continental scale. I was punished, but deservedly so if you ask me. I am not defending anyone here and that I was the one who was probably punished the most, but deservedly so."

There was one man who could get away with more than most and that was national team coach Amu Baba. His stance gained him admiration and devotion from Iraqis, devotion that protected him from the worst excesses of Uday's whims. It kept him alive, despite his frequent clashes with Uday over team selection amongst other things. Baba claimed that Uday favoured less talented players from Iraq's Sunni Muslim group over more talented players from the Shi'ites. Saddam himself protected Baba from execution out of a fear it would cause a mass revolt in the streets if he was put to death.

Amu Baba said: "When we won a game, he would turn to me like a child and say: 'see how the people of Baghdad fire in the air when we win? They love me so much.' But if we drove anywhere together where there was a crowd, I would slump down in my seat, because the people used to cheer me, not him. And then he would threaten to have me killed. He used to call players before games and threaten them. Sometimes he telephoned the dressing room at half-time. He talked nonsense. I told him to go to hell. I said he knew nothing about football. How did I survive? Because the people loved me." That was enough to keep him alive but it did not stop Uday from personally beating him in front of 50,000 spectators at the Al Shaab International Stadium.

The amazing thing is that the world stood by and did nothing, even after the USA claimed that their fear of Uday replacing Saddam was the reason for not deposing Saddam in 1992, following the Iraqi's failed invasion of Kuwait. The International Olympic Committee were given a complaint from a human-rights group called INDICT in December 1992 with numerous sworn statements against Uday. The IOC eventually agreed to investigate, after two months of pressure, but failed to even contact those who had given the statements. Instead IOC member Richard Pound remarked that it was "important to remember these are just allegations, and you have to make sure this is not all tied to the Iraq-US dispute, that we are not being used as propaganda. You just never know." In fact, after the fall of Iraq letters were found in the ruins of Iraq's Olympic HQ from the IOC which showed no acknowledgement of the accusations or making any attempt to distance the organisation and its head Juan Antonio Samaranch from Uday.

Uday's moods deteriorated after he was the subject of an assassination attempt in 1996, believed to have been organised by his younger brother Qusay. Bullets shattered one of Uday's lower joints and pelvis, which were repaired with titanium pins and he was released from hospital in June 1997 suffering from severe depression and violent rages. In July he shot and killed a young bodyguard, then a week later he killed a woman at the Presidential Palace. Uday had been trying to seduce her but she refused to give a blood sample for an Aids test, enraging Uday.

1997 also saw FIFA 'investigate' a claim that members of the Iraq team had been caned on the soles of their feet for losing a World Cup qualifier to Kazakhstan. The pair of investigators that FIFA sent made no attempt to conduct a proper investigation, they just spoke to the people Uday selected and produced a report completely exonerating him. Even after those fleeing the regime revealed what was happening and Anmesty International reported in 2001 that Uday had a security guard's hand chopped off because some sports equipment went missing and Uday blamed him for stealing it. The equipment turned up, but it was too late for the guard.

Former Iraqi volleyball player Issam Thamer al-Diwan said: "Iraqi sports are worse today than ever. Our teams used to win. There was much pride in playing for your country. But Uday never understood pride, only fear. He was never an athlete. He thought he could use his father's sadistic approach to improve performance. He has failed."

Mahmoud Hussain: "Uday's methods of torture and imprisonment led to the escape of Iraqi football stars to places like America and the country's neighbouring Gulf nations. They were escaping from Uday and his clan, who were treating them in a way devoid of morality and any common decency. They were so, so cruel to such a distant point that even I don't like to go to. I retired early because of such treatment, at the top of my game, where I was even shot by Baathist forces on my left foot - the golden foot, as some called it. No one asked for my rights as as an athlete who represented the national team and Iraqi clubs, nor was I given any sporting entitlements."

The world sat on its hands and did nothing while the people suffered in Iraq, while Uday tortured athletes, footballers, sporting officials and journalists, those with the power and the responsibility to take action did nothing. Their 'investigations' were never pursued with vigour, they never actually checked with the people making the accusations or sought out those in danger to see if they were ok. FIFA and the IOC did not care, they allowed the regime in place to tell them what they wanted to hear, that everything was ok and nobody was really being hurt. And now we have the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, with workers dying to build stadia, but FIFA are once again pretending everything is ok and their investigations consist of asking no difficult questions or looking behind the veil being drawn across things by the Qatari government. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Written by Tris Burke March 29 2019 10:03:51


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