The referee blew the whistle and raised his arms as the television cameras trained themselves on the victorious West German soccer team in an exultant, huddled mass of flailing arms and legs. Sitting on a bar stool in the American Cafe in Georgetown, Otto Garrett, a 26-year-old half-German student, screamed in triumph as he brought down his clenched fist onto the table, almost spilling the beer. About six feet away, Alberto Gimenez stared dejectedly at his half-eaten sandwich and shrugged.

"I don't feel any joy," said Gimenez, an Argentine banker who flew here yesterday from Buenos Aires and joined the crowd of about 45 viewers at the cafe. "It's sad. What do I say now?" He appeared to be at a loss for words as if his dreams had been dashed, his heroes had failed. "Diego Maradona didn't do it." And neither did his 10 teammates in the 1990 World Cup Soccer final, a 1-0 game that was dominated from the kickoff by the West Germans, and was watched by an estimated 1 billion people around the world. But here, a cool Sunday afternoon and a lukewarm interest in soccer kept most people outdoors and away from the TV sets. "It's nothing hot," said Vonette Simpson, who unabashedly proclaimed that she preferred window-shopping to watching the match. "Come on, nothing seems to happen in the game. They run around and score no points. Football and baseball are real sports."

For Robert Asprilla, it is Americans' obsession with touchdowns and home runs that has kept them from enjoying the "incredible fast-paced game of soccer." In fact, while a whopping 89 percent of Italy's TV viewers watched the game between the United States and Italy, reportedly just 4 percent of the cable audience in the United States watched it.

"The Americans want to see games where somebody is defeated or killed; they are never happy with the beauty of soccer, where there may not be enough goals but there is always a lot of exciting action," said Asprilla. A native of Colombia, he sat behind the American Cafe's television set and nursed a glass of cold beer, oblivious to the frenetic last-minute excitement of the game, but waxed eloquent: "There is a certain purity about the game that doesn't seem to fit the North American bandwagon."

Asprilla's "purity" was the last thing on Sara Prue's mind as she complained about the "terrible reception" on the flickering 100-inch television screen at the African Room, a restaurant on Mount Pleasant Street NW in Adams-Morgan, and admitted that "from a feminist viewpoint, you can see how strong and well rounded the soccer players are."

But for people like Roy Hansen, it is the "basic quality of the game that makes it so attractive. It's a great game." Hansen, an engraver, had waited patiently for the game outside the African Room, which had removed copies of the menu from the window and replaced them with an amateurishly scrawled announcement on a gray blackboard: "World Cup Soccer Finals at 2 p.m." Only a half-dozen viewers turned up.

Hansen, who said he hadn't ever seen a soccer game except for the occasional sports clip on television, admitted that he had no favorites and had just come to see a good game of soccer. But he confessed that "I relate more to the Latin American and the African. I would like Argentina to win."

"I had a feeling that the Germans would win," said an excited Otto Garrett at the American Cafe after Andreas Brehme scored the decisive goal in the 85th minute of the game. "The odds were against us, and Argentina's not used to losing," said Garrett, a University of Maryland student who has lived in West Germany for 12 years. "If there is any justice in the game, the Germans would have won."

During the game, however, there were fans who weren't bothered by reports that the West Germans were favorites. "Argentina will win. Argentina has Maradona," gushed George Estrada as he reached for his third beer and his second cigarette since the game had begun. In the Mexican restaurant in Adams-Morgan where he works, as an aging jukebox crooned a Julio Iglesias number that drowned the noise of the television, the 45-year-old Estrada lifted his shirt to proudly display a deep two-inch gash on his stomach. "Someone pushed me," he remembered, "when I was playing soccer in Ecuador." Estrada, who has lived in the United States for 16 years, made a face as if the wound still pained him. "I don't know why people here don't like soccer. I like everything. I watch everything ... baseball, basketball, football, hockey, soccer, everything. I knew that I had to see this World Cup final match."

But such unbridled passion for sports didn't appeal to Joseph Mitchai, a cabdriver, who opted to work rather than "foolishly spend time watching games." A self-confessed "soccer fan from somewhere in West Africa" ("I don't talk in specifics," he said), Mitchai offered a pragmatic explanation tinged with philosophy. "My decisions are unilateral," he said. "It doesn't pay me to watch a soccer match. It is not related to my progress. I have a lot of other things to do and think about. I am taking care of my problems and I would rather be doing something constructive."

"I would rather be watching the game," said Eric Weissman, 20, a student and waiter at the American Cafe, who found it difficult to catch a piece of the action while flitting around taking orders or clearing tables. "I am sure that soccer will catch up here," Weissman said, "though it will be a step below baseball, something like hockey."

But television executives and sports pundits who furrow their foreheads thinking about ways to increase the level of American interest in the game need not lose hope.

"I will always watch soccer {as long as} there is television. And I will always tell people to watch it," said a smiling Estrada as he felt the gash on his stomach, his eyes shining with three glasses of beer and the zeal of a soccer buff.