Jamal Musiala: My game in my words


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It feels like a Jamal Musiala masterclass.

There are half-turns everywhere you look: for Germany, for Bayern Munich, for England and even for Corpus Christi Primary School.

For Musiala, receiving a ball in tight spaces is like receiving a message on your phone — about as routine as it gets.

An exceptional talent and still only 21 years old, the Germany international is one of those rare footballers who makes playing the game at the highest level look effortlessly easy.

“You just want to let it flow and what comes, comes,” Musiala says at one point during our interview. He could have been talking about turning on a tap. Instead, Musiala was answering a question about dealing with the pressure of performing for Germany at Euro 2024.


(Boris Streubel – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Analysing his game, with the help of more than 70 clips put together by The Athletic, is a fascinating experience, not least because of the way in which Musiala explains his decision-making on the pitch.

We learn about how he “plays” with his marker to escape pressure, where and when he wants the No 6 to hold off from giving him the ball too early, and why “La Croqueta” – his signature move – features in so many of those mesmerising dribbles.

Musiala also describes the pleasure he gets from being on the same team as “the genius” that is Toni Kroos, predicts that his on-field relationship with Harry Kane will blossom for Bayern next season, and talks about how much he enjoys the attacking freedom that the national team coach Julian Nagelsmann gives him for Germany.

In fact, an hour in the company of one of the world’s most exciting young footballers passes by in a blur — a bit like Musiala does when he sets off on one of those sinuous runs that leaves defenders looking like the cones that his father encouraged him to dribble around over and again as a young child. Practice made perfect in that respect.

Ironically, given Musiala’s backstory, our interview took place in the same hotel where England are now based for the Euros, close to the town of Blankenhain and about 90 minutes west of Leipzig.

Germany’s national team checked out at the end of last month and, as England know all too well, they took Musiala with them.

He’s the one that got away from England’s point of view.

Born in Stuttgart to a German mother and a British-Nigerian father, Musiala moved to England at the age of seven and played more than 20 times for the country at youth level.

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Musiala playing for the England Under-21 side in 2020 (Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

England hoped that he would choose to represent them at senior level too but, in 2021, two years after he swapped Chelsea for Bayern Munich, Musiala announced that he had chosen to play for Germany. His career has blossomed ever since.

This is Jamal Musiala’s game in his words.


Groupama Stadium, March 2024. France v Germany

“Here they come again with Musiala. Fulfilling a dream by wearing the No 10 on his back for his nation.”

Musiala listens to the television commentary and smiles.

“Definitely a dream of mine,” he says. “My dad was always saying that I need to wear the No 10 when I’m older. And I always loved (Lionel) Messi when he was wearing that. It’s a big number and an honour to play with it for the national team. Of course, there’s some added pressure with it as well but that’s why we play football.”

Positionally, Musiala is far from the only No 10 in a Germany squad blessed with some outstanding creative talent.

“I think we have more like three (No 10s) now,” Musiala says. “We have (Florian) Wirtz and Ilkay (Gundogan), or Leroy (Sane), all of us in these attacking positions — sometimes wider, sometimes in the middle.

“Against France, I was more on the right side, where I probably won’t have as many dribbles but I can help the team in other ways by making runs in behind.”

Musiala did that to great effect in Lyon in March. A natural dribbler when he operates closer to the left, where he loves to come inside on his stronger right foot, Musiala poses a different threat on the opposite flank with his movement.

A terrific out-to-in run led to Germany’s second goal against France, when he combined beautifully with Wirtz (that debate about whether it would be possible to accommodate the two of them in the same team was quickly put to bed) to tee up Kai Havertz.

Presumably, the sight of Wirtz coming inside onto his right foot was the trigger for Musiala to set off on the inside of the France left-back Lucas Hernandez?

“Yeah. I know Wirtz can play those passes any day of the week, so I’m just going to make the run,” Musiala says.

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A similar move unfolded 10 minutes later, only this time it was Toni Kroos providing the killer pass. Musiala is on the move well before Kroos shapes to play the ball.

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“That was a foul — I should have gone down. But I don’t like doing that,” Musiala says. “If it’s a Euros game, I would. But it’s a friendly, so I try to stay on my feet and shoot.”

Kroos and Musiala feel like a match made in heaven when it comes to delivering and receiving.

Is Kroos, who is retiring after Euro 2024, as good as it gets from a technical point of view?

“One hundred per cent. He’s a genius,” Musiala replies.

“Just from a couple of training sessions and the games we’ve played (for Germany), and the games we played (for Bayern) against Madrid, you see the quality he has. The passes he plays… it’s just so much fun to be on the pitch with him because he can give me the ball exactly where I want it — where I can turn, to make runs in behind — so I’m always going to be an option for him.”

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(Markus Gilliar – GES Sportfoto/Getty Images)

Not just any option, either. Musiala is a special player. The word “magic” follows him around in Germany, where his impact since breaking through at Bayern as a 17-year-old has been remarkable. He is already approaching 200 games for club and country, and Euro 2024 will be his third major international tournament.

At the World Cup 18 months ago, Musiala was Germany’s standout player. He completed 12 dribbles against Costa Rica — the most on record for a teenager in World Cup history — and emerged as a beacon of hope amid the gloom of a group-stage exit.

“Don’t worry too much,” wrote The Athletic’s Raphael Honigstein in his World Cup post-mortem on Germany. “Any team starring Jamal Musiala will have a shot at the biggest trophies for years to come.”

Of course, the flip side to that sort of praise is that Musiala is now expected to deliver for Germany. Does he sense that?

“I feel like there is definitely… what’s the word? I have more responsibilities. And I think that’s what every player wants, right? Responsibility and that little bit of pressure. If you want to be a top player, you need to deal with that.

“And that just makes it so much fun when you have that pressure, when you have everyone watching you — that’s when I feel the best.”

Musiala talks how he plays: freely, confidently and intelligently.

There is no hint of arrogance when he analyses his game. In fact, he seems too honest for his own good at times — something that shines through when we watch clips of him breaking from deep (something he’s so good at) against Mexico and the USMNT last October.

In one of those attacks against the U.S, Gio Reyna has two attempts at removing the shirt from Musiala’s back. But Musiala — far too quick for Reyna even with a ball at his feet — never looks remotely annoyed by a cynical attempt to stop him.

“It’s part of the game when someone pulls a shirt,” Musiala says, shrugging his shoulders. “If I lose the ball, it’s a foul anyway, so I may as well try to stay on my feet.”

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In another passage of play in the same game — and this highlights why Thomas Tuchel was so keen for Musiala to become more involved in deeper build-up at Bayern Munich last season — Musiala links cleverly with Robin Gosens and Niclas Fullkrug inside the Germany half, before making an excellent third-man run to lose his marker and escape on the left.

Sane should score from Musiala’s pass, but the winger shoots wide.

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Musiala, however, has a different take and blames himself.

“I played the pass too hard, I think,” he says. “I always try to see what I could do better in a situation. I thought he was going to take two touches, that’s why I played it harder — one touch and then you can shoot — because he had the time. But then, if he wanted to take it first time, I have to play it a bit softer.”

Musiala’s dribbling ability and pace make him such a dangerous player on the counter-attack. But he also has the capacity to unlock defences in spells of controlled German possession. That was the case against the Netherlands, in March, when Musiala drifted infield and took up some lovely positions.

In the example below, he threads a pass through the eye of a needle for Gundogan.

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Is this the area where Nagelsmann, his former Bayern manager, wants him to get on the ball for Germany?

“He wants me to be secure when we’re a bit deeper but he gives me the whole freedom I want in the final third and lets me move around a bit,” Musiala says.

“Even if I’m on the right side (initially), I’m now on the left (in the image above). I like how we can always switch around. And Flo and I have a good connection — it felt natural when we swapped, it wasn’t forced or anything.”


Bernabeu, May 2024. Real Madrid v Bayern Munich

Aleksandar Pavlovic is in possession for Bayern Munich approaching the halfway line. With his back to goal, Musiala has positioned himself in between the lines and behind Aurelien Tchouameni – out of the Real Madrid midfielder’s eye line.

He signals discreetly with his right hand for Pavlovic to stay calm and wait. Eventually, Tchouameni will have to engage with Pavlovic and that, Musiala explains, is his cue to step into space and receive.

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“I tell him (Pavlovic) to stay on the ball,” Musiala says. “You don’t have to force the balls. The No 6s control the game and they have to wait for the right moments to play me the ball. Most of the time I just wait, stay behind the midfielder and give him a bit of a problem.

“If you rewind a bit… look, at one point, he (Tchouameni) has to apply some pressure and step out and then, at that moment, I can go behind the shoulder a little bit and move into space late. So you really don’t want the pass played too early.”

As the footage rolls on, Musiala slides to his left, accepts Pavlovic’s pass, weaves in between Tchouameni, Kroos and Rodrygo, and feeds the unmarked Konrad Laimer. Seconds later, Kane is almost clean through on goal.

Musiala was excellent across both legs of the Champions League semi-final against Madrid. His ability to run with the ball always catches the eye and often provides data that jumps off the page. He completed five dribbles in the first leg; Madrid’s entire team only managed six.

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(Stefan Matzke – sampics/Getty Images)

But anyone who has studied Musiala closely will know that he is exceptionally good at receiving the ball under pressure and turning and that, more often than not, is how one of his dribbles starts.

So what would he say is the key to his receiving skills?

“Just knowing where the other players are, the team-mates and the opposition,” Musiala says, referring to how he scans as we watch footage of him in a game against Cologne last season.

“I always try to be in the middle (of two opposition players) where it is possible.

“But most of the time, I’m seeing if there is a little bit of space because they (the opposition) don’t always expect a turn in the tight spaces, so it’s about the first touch, or the first movement, because if I can get the acceleration going, the defender can’t do too much.”

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It makes you think about how much there is to process in those split seconds prior to receiving and the extent to which players operating at elite level consistently make the right choices.

“There are always times where you have to make the decisions when to turn and when not to turn, and it’s getting the feeling for that, like to ‘play’ with the defender a little bit, to see when it’s better to just play it simple, and then he doesn’t expect it and you can turn when he’s not ready,” Musiala explains.

Having watched Musiala play a lot (literally every ball he kicked for club and country last season), one of the most impressive aspects of his game is how he has mastered the art of receiving on the half-turn.

In the first clip below, taken from the second leg at the Bernabeu, Musiala uses the half-turn to receive on his left foot to escape from Federico Valverde and release Alphonso Davies.

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A few minutes afterwards, Musiala lets the ball run across him again but this time takes it with his right foot to get away from Tchouameni.

Later in the game, Musiala gives Luka Modric the slip in the same way. Musiala darts inside afterwards, feeds Kane in the inside left channel, and the England captain’s shot is beaten away.

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Disguise is a crucial element of what Musiala is doing here. The way he makes his initial movement towards the ball to receive makes Modric think that the Bayern midfielder is going…

“… to pass it back,” Musiala adds. “Obviously, if he’s on my left shoulder, I’ll turn off the right side. If he’s straight behind me, then I can go left or right or try to keep it. But I always try to get into a position where he (the opponent) is on a shoulder, then I can mostly turn. In this one, I turned and went inside, and Harry and I have worked on that, where I just dribble inside and cut it back to him. On another day, he scores.”

That’s exactly what happened against RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga a couple of months earlier, when Musiala received beautifully (a turn that brought to mind the majestic swivel that led to him scoring a dramatic title-winning goal against Cologne on the final day of the 2022-23 season) before sliding a reverse pass to Kane.

How has he found playing with Kane? “I’m learning a lot from him. I think, over the season, I had a couple of injuries and it killed the rhythm a little bit. But I think the connection is there and it will be even better next season,” Musiala says. “I always ask him about his mindset and, as we’ve seen from training, the way he strikes the ball.”

Musiala is not alone in being good at receiving on the half-turn, of course, but what really stands out when you watch him play is just how effective he is at performing that skill when an opponent is breathing down his neck.

Naturally, the pitch tends to open up when he escapes pressure in that scenario, which goes some way to explaining why Tuchel was keen for Musiala to be an important part of deeper phases of build-up. Another explanation is that Musiala’s technique is so clean that coaches can trust him with the ball in areas where turning over possession would be dangerous.

The next clip, from Bayern’s 1-0 victory over Arsenal in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final, is a perfect example.

Deep inside his own half, Eric Dier gestures with his left hand for Musiala to come short. Jorginho sees it as an ideal opportunity to press Musiala and potentially steal the ball.

But Musiala is playing a game with Jorginho. He has deliberately left it late to run towards Dier, with his change of pace enticing the Arsenal midfielder to follow him. Musiala lets the ball run across him, and receives it on his back foot, with his body acting as a shield, and Jorginho is caught on the wrong side.

Musiala is away from him — off on another dribble.

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Does Dier deliberately pass to Musiala’s right side, knowing that it will make it easier for his team-mate to escape?

“Yeah. We told him,” Musiala replies. “We speak about it in training. I always try to tell the players, especially if there is pressure and there are not a lot of options… because most of the time if the ball is played well, I could probably try to turn.

“We already saw that Jorginho likes putting pressure on me directly. So if I keep on my right side, I can probably turn out. Then I just came (towards Dier) at the right time. You don’t want to be there too early because you don’t want the defender to be standing. You want him in the motion with you.”

Watching and listening to Musiala makes you think about the way young players are coached and some of the messages — “Play the way you’re facing” — that they receive. Musiala spends a lot of his time doing the exact opposite of that: being brave, taking calculated risks, and coming up with solutions to play forward.

Who coached him to receive on the half-turn under pressure?

“I trained dribbling more individually, through cones and stuff when I was younger, and then over time you get a feeling for your touch and control, because I used to be a striker back in the day,” Musiala replies, laughing as he makes that last comment, which refers to his days as a centre-forward in Chelsea’s academy.

“Now it’s more playing in the half-spaces. I just like letting the ball roll and starting the dribbling from the half-turn positions.”

Remarkably, there is even footage of Musiala receiving on the half-turn when he was at primary school, before he scored one of his four goals in a cup final at Wembley.

“I think that came mostly naturally,” Musiala says as we watch the YouTube video of that moment. “I was so confident in the dribbling that I always tried to turn so that I was one-versus-one with the defenders as quickly as possible.”

Musiala’s receiving repertoire features much more than half-turns. When he can “already feel the contact”, he likes using the outside of his boot to slip away from an opponent with one touch, almost Thiago-like.

We also watch a clip of a lovely give-and-go against Arsenal last season that feels like a move that could have been rehearsed on the training ground as a way to beat a high and aggressive press. Instead, it’s an example of Musiala’s intelligence and intuition.

“You get a feel for what’s open in the games,” Musiala explains. “It’s the 80th minute and we saw how they (Arsenal) defend, so I told him (Konrad Laimer) just be ready and we can play a one-two.”

Musiala comes deep to receive from Laimer and — this goes back to his point about the need to ‘play’ with his opponent a little bit – drops the ball off first time rather than turning. He then spins in behind to get the return pass the other side of Declan Rice. As Musiala scampers away, six Arsenal players are behind him and Bayern are on the counter. A few seconds earlier, Musiala was receiving with his back to goal deep inside his own half.

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That passage of play looks straightforward but the quality and softness of Musiala’s touch for the lay-off is so good, bearing in mind he’s arriving at such speed.

“It’s risky as well because if I misplace the pass, they have a counter,” Musiala says. “So you always have to really take care about the pass, especially in deep build-up.”


Allianz Arena, June 2020. Bayern Munich v Freiburg

“I was very nervous!” Musiala says, smiling as he looks at the anxiety on the face of the teenager on the touchline waiting to come on.

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Aged 17 years and 115 days, Musiala was about to become the youngest player to feature for Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga. “A couple of months before, I wouldn’t even have imagined I’d be stepping foot in the first-team building,” he says.

Musiala was only on the pitch for a few minutes against Freiburg and, in his words, “didn’t want to try anything too hard”. In stoppage time, some neat footwork ended with him being fouled, prompting a voice of encouragement from the bench that you can hear but not see.

“That’s Hansi,” Musiala says.

Hansi Flick, the former Bayern and Germany coach, believed in Musiala from day one. “He gave me the confidence to do what I like to do and I think that’s important as a young player,” Musiala says.

As we watch footage of Musiala scoring his first Bundesliga and Champions League goals, against Schalke and Lazio respectively (he says that he watched the Schalke goal “for two hours straight” when he got home that evening), there is a reminder that his breakthrough came at a time when football was being played behind closed doors because of the global pandemic.

Is it possible that playing in empty stadiums helped him?

“One hundred per cent,” Musiala replies. “It was probably the perfect situation for me to get confidence. Of course, the atmosphere was much better when the fans were there but, as a young player coming through at that time, it was probably the easiest possible way. There was no added pressure of making a mistake and the fans making a sound. It was good in that way.”

Musiala was not exactly going under the radar, though. A mazy run against FC Duren in the German Cup in 2020 went viral.

“But I have to score that,” Musiala says, shaking his head at the fact that he shot wide at the end of all of his good work.

After the Duren game, Flick talked about Musiala’s “enormous quality on the ball”. But he also flagged up something else. “He needs to improve his physical robustness,” the Bayern coach said.

“I was skinny and weighed about 68kg then,” Musiala says. “So I just tried to be as clean as possible technically to be able to hang at that level, and I knew over time that I would build up my body.”

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(Tullio Puglia – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Musiala put on seven kilograms over the next few years, focusing mainly on leg work.

That said, it was brain more than brawn that was central to Musiala becoming a more effective out-of-possession player, in particular understanding the value of counter-pressing (the clip below shows his commitment to winning the ball back against Galatasaray in the Champions League last season).

“I think it was from the under-17s when I came to Bayern that I took that to another level with (Miroslav) Klose. He put it in my head that I have to work harder off the ball if I want to make it to the top level, which is true,” Musiala says, explaining the influence of the former Germany striker, who coached him at youth and senior level at Bayern.

“I’m not the strongest but I’m clever with knowing how to win the ball back.”

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Speed and those long legs help. But so does determination and desire. Against Madrid in April, Musiala won 10 of his 14 ground duels in the first leg, and it was his challenge on the edge of the Bayern penalty area that led to the counter-attack from which Davies scored in the second leg.

Ultimately, though, it’s about what Musiala can do with the ball for Germany and Bayern, and a lot of the time that involves dribbling, including his signature move: the double touch that is straight out of the Andres Iniesta playbook.

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What does Musiala call it — the Iniesta? La Croqueta?

“La Croqueta, I think, is what it’s called on FIFA if you do that skill,” Musiala says.

In the absence of a PlayStation controller, quick feet and balance help — and Musiala has both. When he uses the trick, he glides past opponents (Casemiro in the case of the footage below), almost as if they’re not there.

“I don’t do a lot of skills, it’s more like dribbling,” Musiala says. “But I think it (La Croqueta) is effective. There’s no risk in it, it’s not flashy or anything, and it’s an easy skill to go by the defender.

“You go with the dribbling and just wait for a defender to step out, and when they do that and stick out a leg, you can just do a one-two (between both feet) and go by them.

“The player I’ve seen do it most is probably Messi.”

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(Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

A fantastic passage of play against Augsburg features Musiala’s trademark move. After playing a one-two with a chest pass, where he fakes to run forward to enable him to receive again, Musiala elegantly zig-zags between three Augsburg players. It’s beautiful to watch.

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“But the pass at the end was horrible,” Musiala says.

That’s not usually the case. Against Manchester United in the Champions League in September, when Musiala gave Casemiro the runaround, he played some wonderful through balls at the end of his dribbles.

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A Musiala-led counter-attack in the same game also brings to mind something that Pep Guardiola said about teaching his Manchester City players rugby, because “you run towards the man, you draw him in and you pass”.

Musiala nods. “Yeah, we practise this and always say that you need to stay on the ball as long as possible. Even so, I think I can do that better.

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“But those are, I think, the most difficult situations because you have to wait for the right time to play the pass. Because you want to play the pass so that the next player can have the best possible shot and not get closed down. So you just have to wait for one of them (the defenders) to step out.”

Making the right decision at the end of dribbles is easier said than done, especially when the picture is changing all the time and everything is happening so fast.

Musiala talks about the importance of “knowing your players” and the runs they like to make, but he also explains that his eye is often drawn to the positioning of an opponent rather than a team-mate.

A clip of him playing an inch-perfect ball for Serge Gnabry to score against Darmstadt last season talks to his point.

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“If you rewind that… I look more at the defender,” Musiala says. “If he stays inside, then I’ll just play it into his (Gnabry’s) feet. So it’s just waiting to see what the defender does. Sometimes that means I mess up because that pass needs to be perfect. If you see, the defender goes here (edges towards Gnabry) a bit and doesn’t have the right body shape.”

Watching that footage of Musiala drifting in from the left flank sparks a conversation about all the positions he has played for Bayern since he first broke into the team.

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Where does he enjoy playing most?

“I spend more time in the left CAM-ish position, I like that area because I can dribble inside on my stronger foot,” Musiala says. “The whole flow is easier and more comfortable on the left.”

There are so many examples of Musiala scoring from that position, going right back to his first Bayern goal, against Schalke, when Thomas Muller ribbed him afterwards for ignoring his run.

The first clip in the video below features a tremendous solo goal that Musiala scored from an acute angle after cutting in from the left against Freiburg last season. Taking the shot slightly early, rather than attempting to shift the ball again or beat another player, seemed to catch out the goalkeeper.

“I think that’s what I’ve been trying to do — sometimes I can overdo the dribble,” Musiala says.

 

The goals have flowed freely for Bayern — averaging better than one every four games — but, curiously, that’s not been the case for Germany. Musiala has scored twice for his country in 29 caps.

“I can definitely get the numbers up,” he says. “I’m not trying to put pressure on; I think the goals will come with the national team. I’ve played a lot of games and my focus wasn’t on scoring most of the time. It was more on playing a good game. But now it’s playing a good game and getting into good positions to score. I want to be more aggressive and hungry to get some goals on the board.”

There’s one final clip to show Musiala and it features one of his international goals — albeit not scored in a Germany shirt.

It’s from April 2019, Musiala is playing for England at youth level and the player providing the assist is Jude Bellingham.

“The Brazil game. Half-turn!” Musiala says, laughing, as he watches how he receives Bellingham’s pass across his body.

“We connected quite a few times.”

They could have been doing the same for the England senior team this summer.

“Could have been,” Musiala says, smiling.

(Photos: Getty Images/Design: Dan Goldfarb)





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