United have won more than just a match

Sport is said to be a substitute for war, but could the club's glory be a preparation for war?
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THIS WAS the week when the screws tightened on Slobodan Milosevic. He was indicted as a war criminal. Russia's diplomatic mediation seemed close to failure. Nato announced it was doubling its ground-troop strength in the Balkans. And Manchester United won a football match.

Come again - what on earth does a European sporting event have to do with a European war? Well, on mature reflection, maybe not a great deal. But who knows? Some sports victories really matter - and few more than this one.

As a footballing event, it was catharsis and rehabilitation after the Heysel disaster of 1985, when a European Cup final branded every Englishman with shame, as the hooligans ran amok and dozens of Italian supporters were trampled to death. But this time? Just one fan arrested - no more trouble than after a mid-table, end-of-season game in the Vauxhall Conference. Dear old Man U might just have earned us the right to stage the 2006 World Cup.

The club has also banished a nagging suspicion that has been present ever since English clubs were readmitted to European competitions five years later: that for all the money, the glitzy foreign stars, and the sheer centrality of football in our national life, the Premiership didn't measure up to its boast of being the best league in Europe. Having this year seen off Barcelona, Juventus, Inter Milan and Bayern, the grandest of the grand from the Continental leagues, David Beckham and Co may have proved conclusively that it is. But what intrigue me even more are the possible international political consequences of Wednesday night in the Nou Camp.

Political consequences? International political consequences? Now we all remember Bill Shankly's dictum that football was far more important than a mere matter of life or death. But aren't I getting a little carried away? Well, perhaps. But why not? In Central America not too long ago, a football international even started a war. But even in less volatile climes, national football triumphs and disasters have been grains of sand that may well have tipped the scales of history.

Oddly, and contrary to legend, one triumph that did not was England's most famous one of all, the 1966 World Cup. Though the victory over the Germans is remembered as the making of Harold Wilson, Labour's general- election landslide that year had in fact come three months earlier. If I remember rightly, the next national event of significance after Geoff Hurst's hat trick was another humiliating sterling crisis.

Four years later, however, a World Cup game may well have been Wilson's unmaking. For who is to say that the shattering defeat in the quarter- final, on 14 June 1970 (when we chucked away a 2-0 lead to the Germans and lost 3-2), was not a crucial factor in Labour's narrow election defeat four days later at the hands of Ted Heath? Who knows, if Gordon Banks, not Peter Bonetti, had been in goal that day in Mexico, we might never have joined the European Community.

As for Germany (or West Germany as it then was), that first World Cup win of its own in 1954 was a huge psychological milestone on the road towards post-war normality - as important a milestone as another sporting event, Hitler's Berlin Olympics 18 years before, had been in the reverse direction, projecting Nazi power as Europe slipped towards war.

But it is football, more than any other sport, which can be metaphor and mirror of the state of a nation. For proof that Russia is in shambles, look no further than the abject state of its national and club teams. And if you suspect that German dynamism is a thing of the past, don't bother to study its growth and unemployment rates. One memory of the country's sclerotic showing in the 1998 World Cup suffices. And so to Manchester United and Bayern.

Barcelona a theatre of dreams? No, this was the theatre of life. Let the Germans once more pick over the melodrama of the Nou Camp for portents of national decline. No such introspection for us. No matter that Manchester's winning goal was scored by a Norwegian. That finale, scripted in heaven when the earthly battle seemed lost, has restored our faith in what we like to think of as the essence of Englishness: grit in adversity, a never- say-die spirit, the dogged certainty that however poor the start, we will prevail in the end.

So let Belgrade take note. There is a massive moral element in the policies of that self-proclaimed football fan Tony Blair towards Slobodan Milosevic - a Christian conviction that right must confront and overcome evil. That conviction has pressed Nato closer to the ground-war option in the Balkans.

"God is English," was the verdict of the French sports newspaper L'Equipe on the miracle of Barcelona. They can only add to our Prime Minister's sense of certainty that his cause is righteous. Sport is said to be a substitute for war, but could not Manchester United's moment of glory, in a curious way, be a preparation for war?

There's only one problem with this theory. Sport may be the theatre of life, and both Mr Blair and English football are on a roll. But life can change very fast. What price a Kosovo ground war if England gets beaten in the vital Euro 2000 qualifier next month by those soggy, peace-loving Swedes who aren't even in Nato at all?