The year 1995 is one that the inhabitants of the small Caribbean island of Montserrat will struggle to forget. On 18 July the Soufriere Hills Volcano erupted, destroying the capital Plymouth and forcing two thirds of the population to flee the island.

Although the volcano remains active, the flow of lava has slowed, giving Montserrat the chance to return to something like normality. Brave and determined, the islanders decided to face the catastrophe head on and regain control of their lives. And the sport of football has played a fundamental part in them doing so.

The game made a gradual return to the island's few football pitches, and slowly but surely the national side made its way back into the international fold. The crowning moment of its rise from the ashes came with a match against Bhutan on 30 July 2002, the day of the Final of the FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan 2002, its first outing against non-Caribbean opposition.

The plucky islanders went down to a comprehensive 4-0 defeat, but given the suffering they had gone through, the mere fact they played at all was a triumph in itself and pointed to a brighter future for the country.

The magic of Pele and Maradona
"Don't worry. They'll stop the war." Brazilian legend Pele needed all the reassurance he could get from his agent when the idea of travelling to Nigeria for a friendly with his club side Santos was first put to him. The African nation was locked in a civil war at the time, and the No10 was none too keen on making the journey.

Nevertheless, the game went ahead as planned with hostilities ceasing for 48 hours, and as the star recalled in his autobiography it proved a unique occasion. "Apparently there really was a temporary ceasefire, just for us. My team-mates remember seeing white flags on the streets and banners pleading for peace, just so people could go and see Pele."

Curiously, Diego Maradona had a similar African experience. In 1981 the then Boca Juniors man caused a real commotion when he made the trip to the Côte d'Ivoire capital of Abidjan for another friendly, thousands of people greeting his arrival with chants of "Die-go, Die-go!" as they clamoured to get near him. The Argentinian maestro later said it was a situation the like of which he has never experienced again.

And we stay in Côte d'Ivoire for yet another shining example of football's ability to bring people together. In 2002 war broke out between the country's Christian population in the south and the Muslims in the north, the conflict dragging on for four long years, while bringing misery to millions of people.

It was against this violent backdrop that the Elephants qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals for the first time in their history in 2006, a fitting stage for the country's players to promote peace in their war-torn homeland. "Let's unite and together we can bury war" was the slogan adopted by all Ivorians during the tournament, and when their heroes defeated Serbia and Montenegro 3-2, the whole nation joined as one and erupted in celebration, proof that miracles do indeed happen. The Ouagadougou Agreement signed earlier this year finally brought the hostilities to an end, allowing the country to rebuild, a process in which football has played no small part.

Europe and the message of the ball
The first example of the game's capacity to spread peace and understanding in troubled times came during the First World War when, on Christmas Eve 1914, German and British soldiers put the horrors of the trenches behind them for a few hours to share an impromptu kickabout in no-man's land.

Some 40 years later Germany would receive a much sharper reminder of the importance of football in smoothing troubled waters. In the aftermath of the Second World War the Federal Republic of Germany was a country in despair, still reliving the trauma of the conflict while searching for its place in the new world order.

It was then that the heroes of Berne rallied their compatriots and gave them fresh hope. Against all expectations coach Sepp Herberger and his men claimed the Jules Rimet Trophy at Switzerland 1954, a triumph considered by German sociologists as vital to the forging of the country's new identity, one founded on its ability to win again, both in football and in life.

The same thing could be said about France in 1998, a triumph that symbolised the multi-cultural nature of the country, which, like its footballing heroes, celebrated FIFA World Cup glory in joyous unison. Proof, if it were needed, that the greatest football show on earth can bring the world together in the simple pursuit of fun and enjoyment, helping it to forget war and strife.