The 20th century is remembered for many things - war (both hot and cold), rock and roll and consumerism are just three elements that have led to historians regarding it as, 'extraordinarily important'. The sheer scale of international relations and social change has led to football almost becoming a sidenote in wider histories, but there is little doubt that the beautiful game's role in the 1900s is absolutely integral. The century had seen football grow and evolve almost uncontrollably following its dissemination to the farthest corners of the globe. From the Edwardian working-class game to unthinkable levels of commercialisation, the new millennium would see the future of football open to debate. We've decided to take a closer look at the year 2000 - a vital year in the history of football and the wider world.
An editorial in The Guardian was clear in what the new millennium should bring. Commenting on the turbulent century that had recently finished, it urged its readers to make 'this a blessed century and a blessed new millennium'. Such sentiments were widely echoed across the media with outgoing US President Bill Clinton's White House address making note of the 'global interconnectedness' of world and acknowledging that the future would indeed be defined by it. However, upon the closing notes of 'Auld Lang Syne', few had commented on the role football would play in the 21st century. Indeed, its absence was remiss as by 2000 it was evident that football was truly global with many teams across the world featuring multi-cultural XIs, bringing with them new faces, fresh ideas and ever-changing identities.
The Scotsman published an extended piece on the 1st January writing of their hopes for Scottish football in the century ahead. Of course, Scottish football itself would fail to make any significant inroads on the world game, struggling to qualify for a major tournament until the COVID-ravaged Euro 2020. That said, the article does make wider points, accurate to modern attitudes towards football, interestingly noting the relationship of sport and politics,
"Sport and politics don't mix is an aphorism of the blinkered. Sport and politics, culture and everyday life are inextricably linked."
Continuing with a progressive, positive tone, the paper acknowledges that a new century will hopefully provide people with the opportunity to 'leave their prejudices at the door'. Previous decades were no stranger to racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia and so a new century would hopefully bring with it a fresh start for the game. Indeed, such issues are still unfortunately prevalent in the modern game but the excellent work of many institutions are bringing the number of incidents down. Few at the turn of the century would have been able to imagine footballers 'taking a knee', wearing rainbow laces and the entirety of Wembley Stadium filled for a women's football match.
Women's football had indeed began to benefit greatly from increased media coverage of the sport. The 1999 Women's World Cup in the United States had exemplified for millions just what the game could achieve. The 90,000 spectators inside the Rose Bowl highlighted that supporters wanted to watch the women's game and that football was better off for its inclusion. The iconic image of Brandi Chastain on her knees with her shirt removed was a moment which perfectly captured the euphoria and liberation of female footballers. Of course, the US had promoted women's football like no other nation but the victory for the Americans, and indeed women's football in general provided hope for millions of aspiring young players around the world.
As aforementioned, football was now truly multi-cultural. From a handful of players playing in foreign divisions, now the game saw entire starting XIs comprised of different nationalities. Although greeted with suspicion from some, most believed the influx of new ideas and continental styles of play to be positive. The appointment of 'unknown' Arsene Wenger at Arsenal in 1996 was greeted with confusion and even anger from some but his progressive style and completion of the Gunners' first double since 1971 proved that the influx of foreign talent may in fact be beneficial to clubs. By the start of the millennium, the Premier League had 5 managers born abroad with the current 2023-24 season set to see that number rise to 12.
For all its multi-culturalism, incidents of racism were relatively common at the turn of the century. A week into the new millennium, The Guardian published the results of a university report that aimed to explore the nature of racism in British football. A staggering 38% of Everton supporters responded to say that they had heard verbal abuse being used at black players playing at Goodison Park. Despite the brilliant work of 'Kick it Out' to help lower incidents of racism, it was clear that not all clubs were doing enough to combat abuse and engage with supporters, merely paying lip service to the wider issue. It was clear then that the game needed to do more in 2000, and in 2023 the Premier League's own action plan has acknowledged that 'Taking the knee is about recognising reality and demanding change'. Unfortunately, in our new social media age, it appears that prejudice may be becoming rarer pitch-side but increasingly common and cruel online.
Much of this article has concerned the role of football in Britain, but globally the game was also changing. For all of Sepp Blatter's controversy, one of his main aims as president of FIFA was to promote Africa as a future host of the World Cup, with such an ambition coming to fruition in South Africa, 2010. In Asia too, football's continued growth into new realms of professionalism also saw the game's greatest competition hosted on the world's largest continent. The 2002 World Cup, held in South Korea and Japan revolutionised the game and saw the tournament's marketing hit new heights.
Perhaps the one singular element of the modern game that few can escape is money. The introduction of the Premier League in 1992, with its multi-million pound TV deals was followed by the landmark Bosman Ruling in 1995. Bosman's victory at the European Court of Justice had led to players inside the EU being able to move to clubs for free when their contracts had ended. Although most believed the move to be positive, others were sceptical. Indeed, The Future of Football, published in 2000 aimed to assess the challenges the game faced in the 21st century, highlighting the Bosman Ruling as 'opening Pandora's box'.
Before the start of the 2000 Club World Cup, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was asked about his views on the game as it entered the new millennium. In his response, Ferguson was heavily critical of the Bosman ruling, describing it as the 'biggest blow the sport has ever suffered'. Citing financial concerns, the Scot would remark that 'transfer fees are too high, wages are too high, there are huge sums of money involved in TV rights - it looks as if a lot of things in football could get out of control'. Unfortunately for Sir Alex, the modern game is no different. In the years that followed Ferguson's interview, the success of Chelsea, Man City and Newcastle highlight that now, more than ever, money talks. Even Fergie's beloved Manchester United would succumb to the financial lure of the Glazer family in 2005 with large transfer fees being spent regularly at Old Trafford.
Tony Mason and Richard Holt's outstanding study, Sport in Britain, 1945-2000 was published at the crossroads of the new millennium. Their opening chapter cites a speech made by Walter Winterbottom in 1966 which acknowledges that there are two worlds of sport: professional sport and everyday recreational sport. For Holt and Mason, the professional game was now an 'industry', acknowledging that such a concept would have sounded strange to 'post-war ears'. Its 'winner takes all' philosophy had well and truly captured the game with sport in general occupying almost every nook and cranny of society. There seemed to be no escaping it in the year 2000 and yet even to those celebrating the new millennium, the levels seen in 2023 would have seemed an impossibility.
Perhaps a positive in the resulting 21st century has been the continued investment in grassroots football. In 2021, The Football Collective wrote an article highlighting the positives of the game and commented that this, rather than the elite-level game, was the country's jewel. Providing the 'lifeblood of many a community up and down the country', its importance is stronger now, more than ever. In a time in which cost-of-living and mental health crises are destroying the lives of many, grassroots football can be seen to have both physical and mental benefits.
On 1st January 2000, Most discussions around the game were based on hindsight, seemingly looking back at the previous century as opposed to its unpredictable future. The Guardian would compile their greatest XIs from around the world and write of how the game on the pitch had changed. In 2000, football had 'placed a greater emphasis on defence', it was 'essentially now a counter-attacking exercise'. Looking at the game that followed, Greece's shock Euro 2004 victory, Porto's Champions League win and the emergence of Jose Mourinho into Europe's elite list of managers certainly reflected a more pragmatic approach to the game. It would take the tiki-taka brand of football initiated by Spanish coach Luis Aragones to revitalise a possession based game, with Klopp's gegenpress emphasising a modern pressing game with attack as the best means of defence.
Internationally, at the start of the century it was France and Brazil who remained the globe's finest sides. The French would build on the success of their 'rainbow team' to add a European Championships to their ever-growing trophy cabinet. David Trezeguet's golden goal against Italy would go down in football history as one of its most dramatic winners. Brazil, on the other hand, would retain their place at the top of the FIFA World Rankings, but would see their talismanic centre-forward Ronaldo blighted by persistent injury problems including a complete rupture of his knee-cap tendons - one of the worst injuries the game has seen.
Of course, we could continue this blog and go into far greater depth as to the football itself, but covering each league and continental competition would be too great a task to undertake now. The year 2000 was indeed a crossroads for the game, not in the sense that the sport could go either way, but for way in which it gave pundits, supporters and clubs the opportunity to pause and reflect on the game that had gone and the one it was well on its way to becoming.
Written by Ben Jones - Follow me on Twitter @TFHBs
©The Football History Boys, 2023