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50 Greatest Midfielders in the History of World Football

Sam TigheWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterJanuary 14, 2017

50 Greatest Midfielders in the History of World Football

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    Who are the greatest midfielders in the history of world football?

    B/R sifts through the history books to bring you a mega compilation of the most wonderful technicians to ever grace the game. Of course, there are more than 50 true "greats", so go ahead and take a look at the honourable mentions and notable absentees.

Please Read—Criteria for Selection

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    The game of football has changed throughout the ages.

    We've moved into a position in the 21st century where it's difficult to draw the line between winger and forward, but 50 years ago it was far more clear.

    If one of your favourites isn't on here, he may well have been classed as a forward. There's no exact science to it, but I've determined it to the best of my abilities.

    Some obvious absentees are Alfredo Di Stefano, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kazimierz Deyna, who fall victim to this thought process.

    Franz Beckenbauer is also missing, as although he played in midfield for some of his career he is labelled primarily as a defender. The same applies to Obdulio Varela, and they both featured in my 50 Greatest Defenders in History article.

    Please also be aware that this set of 50 players is not ranked. When it comes to the cream of the crop, who am I to tell you who's best? It's a very subjective topic, and everyone has their own favourites—it's what football is all about.

    As such, there are no rankings, no numbers and the players are randomly placed.

Honourable Mentions

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    As stated, there are more than 50 greats.

    Here, we honour those who didn't quite make the list (but could very well make some of yours) and should not be forgotten.

     

    Zito

    Kurt Hamrin

    Robert Prosinecki

    Dragan Stojkovic

    Nobby Stiles

    Ronaldinho

    Carlo Ancelotti

    Paul Gascoigne

    Nandor Hidekguti

    Antonio Rattin

    Daniel Onega

    Jairzinho

    David Beckham

    Pavel Nedved

    Juan Roman Riquelme

    Adolfo Pedernera

    Michael Ballack

    Bastian Schweinsteiger

    Xabi Alonso

Zinedine Zidane

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    Legendary midfielder Zinedine Zidane will be remembered for a number of reasons.

    The Juventini will look back fondly on him for helping them win the Serie A title, los Blancos fans will value the UEFA Champions League title he helped them secure and French nationals will always adore him for his spectacular efforts on the international scene.

    He was the world's best No. 10 when France lifted the 1998 FIFA World Cup on home soil and the world's most infamous when he headbutted Marco Materazzi in 2006.

Sir Tom Finney

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    Did you know: Sir Tom Finney played for Preston North End for his whole career, excelled for the English national side and fought in World War II while working as a plumber the entire time?

    Such was his influence in The Whites' side, they were nicknamed "the Plumber and his 10 drips", and Finney went on to earn 70 caps for England.

    Dave Whelan—the current chairman of Wigan Athletic—recalled the easy ride Finney gave him in a preseason game after returning from a broken leg, saying: "You've had some bad luck son, and I'm not going to take you on, I want you to get through today's game and get back into the first team."

Lothar Matthaus

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    Lothar Matthaus is one of these lucky few who have lifted the FIFA World Cup as captain.

    His incredible set of skills took him from Borussia Mönchengladbach to Bayern Munich very quickly, and from there he joined Inter and brought a Scudetto to the San Siro crowd.

    He's amassed the most international caps in German footballing history (150), and entered nine major tournaments throughout his career.

Garrincha

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    Garrincha was a key player in Brazil's 1958 and 1962 FIFA Word Cup wins.

    The bow-legged winger is regarded by many as the best dribbler in world football history, and was affectionately nicknamed "Anjo de Pernas Tortas" (Angel with Bent Legs).

    Jonathan Wilson recalled a wonderful event in Inverting the Pyramid:

    "Remember," he said to Didi just before he left the dressing room, "the first pass goes to Garrincha."

    It took a little under 20 seconds for the ball to reach the winger. Boris Kuznetsov, the experienced Soviet left-back, moved to close him down.

    Garrincha feinted left and went right; Kuznetsov was left on the ground. Garrincha paused, and beat him again. And again. And then once again put him on the ground.

    Garrincha instilled fear into opposing ranks so effectively that not even a Stakhanovite defensive structure could keep Vicente Feola's side out.

Carlos Valderrama

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    It's easy to remember Carlos Valderrama's amazing hair, but many forget he was actually a wonderful footballer in his own right too.

    He was a true midfield general, organising and instructing whilst leading by example with a perfect range of passing and dazzling ability with the ball at his feet.

    His knowledge and understanding of the game allowed him to play at a high level right up until he retired.

Zoltan Czibor

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    Zoltan Czibor was a left winger for the Hungary team that dealt England a series of embarrassments in the 1950s.

    That side, dubbed "the Magical Magyars" was a free-flowing, interchanging force that contained other greats such as Nandor Hidegkuti and Ferenc Puskas.

    Czibor traveled all over Europe to play domestic football, taking in spells with Barcelona, Basel and Roma among others. 

Xavi Hernandez

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    One of the few players on this list still playing today, it was as recent as Barcelona's 4-0 victory over Milan at the Camp Nou that Xavi reaffirmed his importance to his side.

    The Spaniard, who is now globally known as a pass master, is the metronome in a tiki-taka system used at both domestic and international level, spraying the ball out over 100 times per game as he keeps his teammates ticking over.

    It's rare you'll find a more modest player considering the bags of talent he has.

Claude Makelele

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    Claude Makelele is so good there's a position named after him.

    To be honest that's inaccurate, and a slight at a huge number of anchor midfielders who perfected the role before the Frenchman could even walk—Vasyl Turyanchyk is a prime example.

    But Real Madrid were insane to let this man walk to Chelsea, and even more insane to think Mahamadou Diarra could fill his shoes.

Michel Platini

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    Michel Platini is one of France's finest exports, winning the 1984 European Championships whilst simultaneously being voted the best player as well scoring the most goals.

    He enjoyed considerable success at the domestic level with Nancy, Saint-Etienne and Juventus. 

Socrates

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    Socrates was the master of the unexpected.

    He had everything in his locker—from the simple pass to the sublime back-heel—and became famous for his beard and head band he wore during every game.

    He didn't enjoy the success many of the great Brazilian midfielders did on this list, but his talent is without question.

Zico

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    Zico is one of the most complete midfielders to play the game, though he's often a forgotten man when people list their own greatest ever compilations.

    The Brazilian had the ability to do the unexpected, perfected the art of the free kick and has an awful lot of trophies to keep him company in retirement.

    He won almost everything there was to win in his native Brazil.

Frank Rijkaard

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    Frank Rijkaard was a vital cog in the Arrigo Sacchi inspired AC Milan machine.

    In the Italian's aggressive, compact 4-4-2 formation, Rijkaard formed a formidable pairing with Carlo Ancelotti and gave future midfielders a lot to think about when playing his position.

    He won the UEFA Champions League an unbelievable three times.

Steven Gerrard

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    England fans will always feel like Steven Gerrard failed to fully produce for the national team, but there's no denying his effort, commitment and elite skill level.

    He developed a reputation for scoring clutch goals early in his career and quickly became a club hero; A UEFA Champions League win probably helped that cause.

Sir Stanley Matthews

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    Sir Stanley Matthews was the physical specimen every player should hope to become.

    He ate healthily, trained in lead shoes, abstained from drinking alcohol, and as a result played until he was 50 years old.

    By common consensus, he had every skill in the book. He could cross, dribble, pass, shoot and head it to a level no other could match.

Paul Scholes

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    Paul Scholes has been synonymous with Manchester United for the past two decades.

    He's pulled in 10 English Premier League titles and two UEFA Champions League winners' medals under Sir Alex Ferguson and even came out of retirement last season to help his club out.

    He is widely expected to retire at the end of the season and call time on an illustrious career. Scholes is the man Xavi regards as his idol.

Raymond Kopa

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    Raymond Kopa was a hugely talented creator who played for Stade de Reims in the 1950s.

    He led them to a European Cup final, lost to Real Madrid, and so impressed were the Blancos that they signed him immediately. As a Madrid player he added three European Cups to his already impressive trophy haul from France.

    He ended his career with Reims, adding a few more league titles just to be on the safe side.

Patrick Vieira

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    At £3.5 million, Patrick Vieira was a ridiculous bargain for Arsenal.

    Ever since he left, Gunners fans have been crying out for another version of their beloved Frenchman, who led them to a sincere amount of cup glory during his nine-year stay in London.

    Vieira's game was influenced heavily by Frank Rijkaard while at AC Milan.

Enzo Francescoli

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    Enzo Francescoli is the player Zinedine Zidane admired, modeled himself on and, ultimately, named his son after.

    "El Principe" won a record three Copa America with Uruguay and a boatload of domestic trophies with Argentinian side River Plate.

    He was known as a graceful, fluid dribbler who had an eye for goal—he's the all-time foreign top scorer in los Millonarios history.

Zbigniew Boniek

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    Zbigniew Boniek was a major catalyst in Poland's third-placed finish in the 1982 FIFA World Cup and is recognised as one of the greatest dribblers of all time.

    After homeland success with Widzew Lodz, "Zibi" enjoyed success in Italy with Juventus and Roma.

    He is now the chairman of the Polish Football Association.

Gheorghe Hagi

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    Gheorghe Hagi is one of the greatest Romanian footballers of all time and was a standout attacking midfielder during the 1980s.

    He's played for some of world football's greats including Barcelona, Real Madrid, Galatasaray and Steaua Bucharest, excelling as a playmaker and a goalscorer.

    He made over 100 appearances for Romania on the way to solidifying his status as a national hero.

Jozsef Bozsik

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    Joszef Bozsik was part of the "Magical Magyars" side that destroyed England twice in the 1950s.

    He played a withdrawn role—something approaching a traditional No. 6—but the free-flowing movement in Gusztav Sebes' side meant he was never restricted to a defensive role.

Andres Iniesta

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    Andres Iniesta, like Xavi, is the heartbeat of Barcelona's midfield.

    The 28-year-old is a La Masia product and loyal Catalan, embodying the tiki-taka methods that his beloved Spanish club live and die by.

    Pep Guardiola once advised Xavi, on seeing the skill Iniesta possessed, that he would retire them both one day; his close control and ability with the ball at his feet is truly mesmerising.

Josef Masopust

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    Josef Masopust led a Stakhanovite Czechoslovakia side to the 1962 FIFA World Cup final but lost out to Brazil despite scoring.

    He was subsequently named Footballer of the Year, and remains a Czech legend for his all-round superb game. He worked furiously hard, but combined a great ethic with superb technical talent.

Francisco Gento

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    Francisco Gento played out more than 15 glorious years for Real Madrid and garnered a reputation as one of the most skilled left-siders in world football.

    He was ridiculously quick and had an eye for goal, helping los Blancos to six European Cups during his time as a player (a record).

Didi

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    Didi won two FIFA World Cups for Brazil (1958 and 1962), sharing the pitch with some esteemed colleagues such as Garrincha and Pele.

    He was lauded for his flawless technique and signature free kicks, prompting a move to Real Madrid. It was short stay in Spain, but he still managed to lift two European Cups.

Gianni Rivera

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    After just a single season with Alessandria, Gianni Rivera was recruited by AC Milan as a promising youth.

    He had a long and successful career with the Rossoneri, assuming the role of chief creator in midfield and securing two European Cups, four league titles and a Ballon d'Or for himself.

Andrea Pirlo

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    There aren't many players who've won the UEFA Champions League twice—although several feature this list, so it may not seem so—but during Andrea Pirlo's decade-long stay at AC Milan that's just one of the many accolades he achieved.

    The Italian was instrumental in his nation's winning of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, while he was also the star man in a side that reached the final of Euro 2012.

    Domestically he's as strong as ever, marshaling a midfield that looks set to win it's second straight Scudetto at a canter.

Valentino Mazzola

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    Valentino Mazzola was tragically killed in an air disaster in 1949, and as a result is often forgotten in the discussion of the greatest midfielders to grace the game.

    He won five Scudettos and two Coppa Italias in his time as a footballer, and holds the title of Torino's greatest ever player.

    Before the disaster he passed valuable lessons on to his son Sandro Mazzola, who went on to become a fantastic footballer in his own right.

Luis Suarez Miramontes

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    Luis Suarez Miramontes was nicknamed "The Architecht" due to his ability to open up defences with his incisive passing.

    He was a student of the great Helenio Herrera, playing under him at both Barcelona and Internazionale, won the 1964 European Championships with Spain and secured the Ballon d'Or for himself in 1960.

Ryan Giggs

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    Ryan Giggs is the greatest player in the English Premier League era, boasting a career spanning 23 years in the red of Manchester United.

    He's won the EPL an astonishing 12 times, has two UEFA Champions League winners' medals and a host of individual accolades.

    He's also converted from a traditional No. 11 to a holding midfield role, prolonging his career by around five years and becoming a go-to guy for Sir Alex Ferguson for any specific position that needs filling.

Johan Neeskens

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    Johan Neeskens was an incredibly talented footballer, but suffers from the heartbreak of losing two FIFA World Cup finals.

    He became a key component for the Dutch national team after Johan Cruyff's international retirement, playing anywhere across the midfield of Ernst Happel 1-3-3-3 formation.

Teofilo Cubillas

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    Teofilo Cubillas was the driving force behind a very successful Peruvian national side in the 1970s.

    He led his team to victory in the 1975 Copa America, and on an individual level his resume is littered with impressive achievements. He is widely regarded as Peru's greatest ever player.

Zizinho

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    Pele is adamant that Zizinho is the best player he ever saw, remarking: "he was a complete player. He played in midfield, in attack, he scored goals, he could mark, head and cross."

    He reached a FIFA World Cup final in 1950 but lost out to Uruguay in surprising fashion, but remained a marker for Brazilian footballers and the eventual aspirations of many players—including some on this list.

Wolfgang Overath

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    He may not consider it an achievement, but Wolfgang Overath is one of a select few to own a first-, second- and third-placed medal for the FIFA World Cup.

    He was a world-class playmaker in his day despite not receiving much in the form of praise, sharing a team sheet—and at times a midfield—with the legendary Franz Beckenbauer.

    In 1974, he helped beat the formidable Netherlands side in the WC final to gain the medal we can be sure he'll treasure.

Marco Tardelli

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    Marco Tardelli was an all-action, combative midfield general who many believed went slightly over the top in his challenges.

    Nonetheless effective, he played more than 350 games for Juventus in a glorious spell that spanned five Serie A titles and was a key factor in Italy's 1982 FIFA World Cup win.

Rivellino

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    Rivellino is famous for several distinct features.

    His powerful free kick, scored for Brazil in the 1970 FIFA World Cup, earned him the nickname "Patada Atómica" (Atomic Kick), while he also invented a footballing move called "the elastico."

    But perhaps most famous was his mustache, and in an era where we idolise the facial hair of skilled footballers, Rivellino would have been a God amongst men.

Liam Brady

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    Liam Brady had everything an advanced playmaker needed in abundance—close-control, wonderful passing range and even a killer left foot.

    He won an FA Cup with Arsenal—the club he now works for—and experienced success in Italy with Juventus. He is regarded as one of the Republic of Ireland's best ever players.

Luis Figo

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    Luis Figo's career is literally riddled with medals, and he's also one of the few players to ever play for both Barcelona and Real Madrid—an act which caused one disgruntled fan to throw a pig's head at him while taking a corner.

    The only thing missing from the glut of trophies on his resume is an international honour, coming closest in 2004 as a runner-up at the European Championships with Portugal.

Glenn Hoddle

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    Despite being one of England's better players across the history books, Glenn Hoddle is not well received as a pundit, manager or coach in the United Kingdom.

    He demonstrated supreme skill on and off the ball, and as a player or a leader.

    He's one of Tottenham's best ever and enjoyed reasonable success abroad, too.

Frank Lampard

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    Between 2005 and 2010, Frank Lampard recorded five successive seasons in which he scored 20 or more goals from midfield.

    As recently as March 2013, he became Chelsea's second top-scorer of all time after reaching the 200 landmark.

    The club record is 202, and "Super Frank" will be hoping he can squeeze out three more before his contract expires this summer to sit atop the history books at Stamford Bridge.

Michael Laudrup

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    Michael Laudrup was a majestic footballer, twisting and turning defenders at every opportunity.

    He remains one of the greatest dribblers to have graced the game, while his incredible passing range caused defenders consistent headaches.

    Like Luis Figo, Laudrup is one of few players to play for both of Spain's elite historically elite clubs. He won titles with both.

Clarence Seedorf

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    Clarence Seedorf's list of achievements is the envy of many-a-legendary footballer.

    The Dutchman enjoyed incredible years with Ajax, AC Milan and Real Madrid, winning four UEFA Champions League titles in total along with a host of domestic trophies.

    He continues to be an ambassador for football in Suriname, heading several youth projects and commissioning a stadium for children to use.

Mario Coluna

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    Mario Coluna was a big part of Benfica's golden age.

    "O Monstro Sagrado" won two European Cups with the Eagles and appeared in three more finals, besting both Barcelona and Real Madrid in their prime.

    With him on the roster, Benfica won the Portuguese league a whopping 10 times and the Portuguese Cup an impressive six.

Gerson

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    Gerson played a key role in Brazil's 1970 FIFA World Cup win, sitting in the midfield and spraying passes to his wingers using his impressive range.

    He started his professional career at Flamengo and, after being given the "impossible task" of man-marking Garrincha in a cup final, decided to join the bow-legged genius at Botafogo so he'd never have to try again.

Rob Rensenbrink

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    Rob Rensenbrink is a Dutch footballer who became a legend in Belgium due to his goalscoring exploits from the left wing for Anderlecht.

    He appeared in two FIFA World Cup finals but agonisingly lost both, sharing a team sheet with legends such as Johan Neeskens and Johan Cruyff.

Johan Cruyff

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    Johan Cruyff has done a lot for football.

    He was the face and embodiment—along with a select few others—of Rinus Michels' total football at both Ajax and the Netherlands, and he's famous for scoring what has been dubbed "the impossible goal".

    After hanging up his boots he was an influential club manager, and much of Barcelona's wonderful work can be sourced directly to him.

Clodoaldo

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    Clodoaldo was a key cog in the midfield of Brazil's 1970 FIFA World Cup winning side, playing as a defensive midfielder and holding it all together while the attacking talents let loose.

    He was combative and careful by nature, so his involvement in Carlos Alberto Torres' goal against Italy—in which "Corro" dribbled past four opposing players in his own half—came as something of a surprise.

    He also helped domestic club Santos pull in the Campeonato Paulista five times.

Jimmy Johnstone

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    Jimmy Johnstone has been voted Celtic's greatest ever player, immortalised as a statue outside Celtic Park and is long revered by the fans.

    He helped the Bhoys deliver nine Scottish league titles and a single European Cup, with the latter seeing Johnstone lead Jock Stein's men to victory over Helenio Herrera's Internazionale.

    Celtic's relentless style of play was typified by the winger, and the Italian catenaccio was simply no match for the energy, pace and attacking guile.

Sir Bobby Charlton

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    Sir Bobby Charlton was instrumental in England's 1966 FIFA World Cup winning side, driving his team onward while playing in the No. 10 position.

    He became known for his wonderful passing range, stinging long-range shooting ability and for having an unstoppable motor on the field.

    He has been a fervent and loyal supporter of Manchester United throughout his career, winning four league titles and later returning as an adviser on the board.

Diego Maradona

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    Diego Maradona is an easy target in the media, and it can be easy to forget what a wonderful player he was.

    Slaloming his way around tackles and challenges for fun from the right winger position, English fans are all too accustomed to the man's exploits against their side.

    Maradona lifted the 1986 FIFA World Cup as captain and enjoyed domestic success with Napoli and Barcelona—two clubs who broke the transfer record to sign him.

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