SOCCER SHOWS us the way to world peace. The mad, explosive revelry of the Italians on winning the World Cup Sunday afternoon had it all--or almost all. It was V-J Day, only without all the horror that had gone before. It was Falklands fever, only without the Falklands. It was nationalism gone berserk, only--blessedly--nationalism without F16s. It gave us an idea (how could it not?) about a logical and relatively bloodless substitute for patriotic carnage.

We say a "relatively bloodless" substitute because, as is well known, there is a certain amount of unauthorized bashing and stomping that goes along with soccer. But say this for it: it is harmless compared with what a couple of Sidewinder missiles can do; it takes place among combatants who are not conscripts, but rather volunteers--and pretty gung- ho volunteers at that; and it seems to satisfy all those competitive urgings and combative instincts that have been with humankind since anyone can remember and which surely always will be.

From time to time, when some us-against-them episode complicates the machinery of the international Olympiad, you hear a lot of sanctimonious clucking about how sports, the Olympics, the sheer joy and beauty of it all should have nothing to do with politics, which is of course sheer nonsense. The games engage politics and nationalism in their most robust but innocent form. It was only a few years ago, after all, that everybody was saying that this country had somehow, mystically, gotten its own back--its self respect? its pride?--after a season of international failures and disappointments and that this was the doing of the surprise victory of the American ice hockey team at the Lake Placid winter Olympics. You could name countless other moments when a sporting victory, some national team's triumph, rescued a beat-back people from a spell of the collective glums and (probably) kept them out of some much worse trouble.

Some people will call it "sublimation." Others will point out that there is nothing new about this effort to divert aggressive energies to athletic encounters. The restless and terrifying second- and third- and fourth- born sons of medieval Europe weren't put to the tournaments and all that jousting and so forth for nothing. It was, at least in part, to keep them out of their elder brothers' (or cousins' or uncles' or neighbors') domains. From time to time, their contests, too, got out of hand, but nothing's perfect.

Our own sense is that there is a political future for these wonderful Madrid-style exercises in unembarrassed, unrestrained and unrepentant nationalism. So we congratulate the masterful Italian team and the delirous Italian fans not just on a spectacular and thrilling victory, but also on their inspiration to us all. The message is simple: make soccer, not war.