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Kelly: Soccer’s shifting regime will return to status quo where riches rule

When an investment arm of the Qatari government bought Paris Saint-Germain FC in 2011, it announced a plan to win a European title within five years.

It is hard to encapsulate how dumb that sounded at the time. Though PSG plays in one of Europe's great capitals, it was best known as a sort of ersatz soccer giant – playing the same game as everyone else, but not of the same ilk. Founded in 1970, PSG has no history relative to the great teams in Europe.

For most of four decades, it operated largely as a running joke, playing in front of half-empty arenas to fans who comported themselves like an especially unfriendly motorcycle gang. When people said they were afraid of PSG and its supporters, they meant it quite literally.

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The Qataris were able to turn the story quickly using a cunning strategy called Spend Unexplainable Amounts of Money. Imagine that instead of buying a new couch, you decided to economize by building one yourself – by piling bricks of hundred-dollar bills one on top of the other. That's sort of the operating theory.

The new Qatari bosses lured players by introducing the highest compensation package in the history of the sport (or any other sport).

Last year, the average PSG starter made $10-million (U.S.). Even the ones who aren't much good. Those guys eventually got sold at a discount (if possible) or benched (more likely) since no one else will pay them anything near what the Qataris sign them for.

PSG hardly seemed to care. The idea was to buy talent in bulk and sort for freshness after the fact. It's not the new way to do things, but an even more ludicrous free-market reimagining of the old way. There's a lot of that going around.

If the people who control soccer got to write their own headlines, the overarching theme of 2016 would be Upending the Old Order.

FIFA has a new president who presents at this very early stage as a would-be visionary and salver of long-festering wounds. But I suppose the emperor who followed Nero also had an initial burst of popularity.

This week, the board that oversees soccer's rules instituted a host of tweaks that will improve many of the annoyances of the modern game. They affect everything from penalty shots (no more stutter-stepping toward the net or goalkeepers leaping off their lines) to injury delays (a player injured in a carded challenge may remain on the field for treatment).

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As part of this effort, soccer will begin a two-year experiment with video replay during games. It's not yet clear exactly how this will work. I'm picturing some poor sap trying to plug in his iPad after a dodgy penalty decision while a crowd of 80,000 threatens to come out of stands and tear him apart like pulled pork.

Realistically, repeatedly stopping a game that was specifically designed not to stop so that officials can have a nice, relaxed rethink of the last call is a non-starter. But at least they can say they tried.

Most compellingly, there is a shudder going through many of the world's biggest clubs as the competitive balance temporarily tips.

The bulk of the high-profile losers reside in England. PSG advanced to the quarter-finals of the Champions League on Wednesday by eliminating Chelsea. The London-based club was very recently the most lavishly funded sports outfit in history. Now the team resembles West Bromwich Albion, just with more exotic haircuts.

Meanwhile, Chelsea's presumptive national rival, Manchester United, has morphed into a plucky and largely useless youth development team under the erratic leadership of Louis van Gaal and his great throbbing brain. Van Gaal increasingly has the look of a man who should speak via great blue arcs of electricity. What messages was the brain emitting this week?

"You live in the past," van Gaal droned at his critics. In fairness, that is what tends to happen when the past includes umpty-bajillion trophies, and the present is being humiliated by Scandinavian semi-pro rosters padded out by jumped-up plumbers.

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In order to make things as plutocratically ludicrous as possible, United, Chelsea and every year's third-place finisher Arsenal took a "secret" (i.e. not very secret at all) meeting to discuss the possibility of a breakaway continental league featuring only the cool kids (i.e. themselves). In historic terms, it's a little like the Big Four carving up the known world after the First World War. Except that in that case, they'd won.

It was only a meeting, but the optics were abysmal. Once word leaked, the lot of them were roasted over the coals of meritocracy. They were accused of crimes against basic fairness. Because the world is always fair.

Nonetheless, people had great fun watching the erstwhile power brokers spinning underneath a public-relations gibbet.

The upshot of all this seems to be a widespread belief that things can change for the better, even in soccer.

They don't. They may change temporarily (i.e. Leicester City winning the Premier League) or incrementally (PSG moving up from the kids' table), but they don't change in any substantive way.

The system is rigged to favour the richest, and for good reason. If you could not reasonably predict who will do well, dozens of top-heavy soccer clubs would flip over and drown in six inches of water every other year. You spend in proportion to how you expect to do. If you can't predict that, the whole thing goes haywire.

A massive influx of money and popularity over the past 25 years requires that only a dozen or so clubs can reliably occupy the public imagination at any one time. In order to create balance, that list must be roughly consistent.

Things can shift a bit. Funded by hundreds of millions in oil money, Paris Saint-Germain can go from a punchline to a powerhouse. Other dogs may have their day. But over the long term, the steady bets underwritten by the deepest pockets with the most global fans need to succeed.

Otherwise, the streets are awash in spreadsheet blood and the whole thing goes 1789. Though the status quo may occasionally bore, it exists for a very good reason. Because, when operating on a large enough scale, order is always preferable to chaos.

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