It was a little stinking jail with a bare, splintered wood floor. A four-bladed fan hanging from the ceiling turned slowly against the weight of the steamy darkness that made the jail a nightmare box. At his falling-down desk in a corner of shadows, a policeman pulled from a holster a very large pistol that caused Gordon Bradley to think he was going to be shot.

Bradley is the coach of the Washington Diplomats soccer team, and four months ago he was in Argentina looking for players. What the Diplomats needed was a star player. Although the soccer team plays its games at RFK Stadium, as the Redskins do, the Diplomats have been hard pressed to draw 13,000 customers a game, let alone the 55,000 that come to see Joe Theismann and his playmates. If Elvin Hayes is the Bullets' hero, if Teddy Kennedy is the Democrats' symbol of the time that was Camelot, if Washington is a city whose people navigate by the stars of politics and sports and theater, then the Diplomats needed a star to dance in that firmament.

Bradley thought he would be shot dead. There he was in Rosario, Argentina, five hours by car from his hotel in Buenos Aires. "All I came here to get is a nice soccer player," Bradley thought, "and all I'm going to get is shot. Shot dead in this nightmare box of an evil jail just like the one Bogart saw in the movie 'Casablanca.'" Gordon Bradley shot dead for the greater glory of the Washington Diplomats.

Five thousand miles from Rosario and three months after the policeman put down his pistol, Gordon Bradley tells the story with an occasional chuckle, though it wasn't funny at the time. He had been mugged outside a soccer stadium in Rosario. After chasing down the muggers, Bradley and a friend were somehow suspected of being the criminals, not the victims, and were hauled away in a police car, red lights flashing and siren sounding. And when Bradley's friend argued too much with the cop at the jail, the policeman whipped out his pistol.

"He pointed it at my friend, Victor, and then at me," Bradley said. "I was scouting soccer players, not committing crimes. And nobody knew where I was. I'd gone to Rosario without telling anyone. I was lost to the world. 'Victor,' I said, 'calm down.'"

For eight hours that December day, until 3 o'clock in the morning, the police interrogated the coach and his friend. Bradley's eye was cut and bleeding from the mugging, his clothes wet with blood. No one asked after him. The way things were going, Bradley thought, if he didn't get shot dead, he'd still wind up in a Godforsaken jail, lost to the world.

About then, as inexplicably as they took the men in, the Rosario police let them go.

"Victor wanted to stay in a hotel in Rosario, because he was too tired to drive the five hours to Buenos Aires," recalled Bradley. "I wanted to go anyway. I feared the policeman with the pistol would trail us. We had argued with his superiors, and I feared he would want to get even with us for making him look bad. But Victor insisted on staying the night.

"Between you and me," Bradley said, "I never slept a wink."

The Diplomats begin their seventh season this afternoon at RFK Stadium against the Philadelphia Fury. And what Gordon Bradley couldn't get done in that steamy little stinking jail, the Diplomats did in the glitter of the Congressional Room at the Capitol Hilton. It was there, on Jan. 23, at an afternoon reception for advertisers, media and city officials, that the Diplomats first heard that Johan Cruyff might be for sale. A month later they bought Cruyff at a cost of $2.5 million, and when the Diplomats play today, they will have on ther side the star of stars in soccer.

During that January reception, Steven Danzansky, a Washington attorney who had been the Diplomats' president the last five yeears, sat next to Phil Woosnam, commissioner of the North American Soccer League. In idle chatter Woosnam told Danzansky that the league's Los Angeles franchise was in trouble and might have to sell Cruyff. Had the Pittsburgh Steelers whispered in Jack Kent Cooke's ear that he could buy both Terry Bradshaw and Mean Joe Greene, the Redskin owner could not have come to attention any faster than Danzansky did at the sound of Cruyff's name.

Cruyff is the Flying Dutchman, a small and mercurial athlete of combative imperiousness regarded by most experts as one of the three best soccer players of the last 20 years. Only Pele, the Brazilian legend was better, and he has retired. Franz Beckenbauer of the New York Cosmos and Cruyff are peers without peer today.

"Woosnam told me that L.A. might have to sell Cruyff because (a) they needed the money, or (b) they were selling out to Mexican interests who weren't that keen on keeping Cruyff," Danzansky said.

So Danzansky turned to Sonny Werblin. Werblin is president of Madison Square Garden Inc., which operates the Diplomats for the conglomerate owner Gulf & Western. As agent and counsel to show-business people for decades, Werblin believes in the star system. He owned the New York Jets of the old American Football League when he set the sports world on its ear by giving a $407,000 contract to a college quarterback. Such money was unheard of. Such money, and his considerable talent, made Joe Namath a star forever.

Danzansky said to Werblin, "Cruyff might be available."

"Let's get him," said Werblin.

One month, three days and $2.5 million later, they had him.

We may say fairly, then, that this is a death-defying franchise, the Diplomats of Argentine derring-do, the soccer team for which Gordon Bradley is glad he still has one life to give, the Washington Diplomats with their coach fresh out of a Casablanca-like clink and with a new star so bright he is a shimmmering galaxy all by himself, the Flying Dutchman of RFK.

When last we saw the Diplomats in 1979, they were being eliminated in the first round of the North American Soccer League playoffs and one of the big bosses was in the newspaper saying the team wasn't long for Washington unless things improved in 1980.

Jack Krumpe said that. He is one of Werblin's vice presidents at Madison Square Garden. Though the Diplomats had a 19-11 won-lost record in 1979, the fifth best of 24 teams in the North American Soccer League, Krumpe said the Garden lost $1 million on the deal. The average attendance was 13,000. Krumpe said attendance needed to be closer to 20,000, say, or the Garden, like any good business outfit, would take another look.

He didn't make any threats. It wasn't personal, just business. But everyone understood what the Garden man meant: another year like 1979 and the Diplomats would be deported from the nation's capital.

If Krumpe wasn't happy with Washington, it must also be said that Washington wasn't happy with the Garden. Here came Sonny Werblin with his big bucks and his belief that stars put warm behinds in seats of theaters and stadiums. But for the Diplomats, Werblin bought no Namaths. All Washington heard was how hard it is, and it truly is, to buy world-class players who have contractual and emotional ties to their homelands.

Even as Krumpe, and Werblin on occasion, complained that Washington did not turn out enought people to make it worth the Garden's time to lose $1 million a year here, still there were signs that the New Yorkers did not intend to kill of the Diplomats without giving them a full chance to succeed.

Werblin's son, Tom, left the Cosmos, the ultimate NASL superstars, averaging more than 46,000 people a game, to come work in the Diplomats' front office. The Diplomats hired away the league's publicity director, Jim Trecker, and they made Andy Dolich, who'd put in three years in marketing for the Washington Capitals, the general manager. They changed advertising agencies. And they helped the city of Washington make a successful bid for this season's Soccer Bowl, the NASL championship game to be played at RFK Stadium on Sept. 21.

"Washington is absolutely ripe for soccer development," Danzansky said. "The 13,000 attendance is decent in terms of the entire NASL. It's in the middle range. It is a solid base. And now, through the Soccer Bowl work, the business, labor and political communities -- Mayor Barry, in particular -- have said the city could guarantee the sale of 40,000 tickets to the Soccer Bowl. That's the kind of commitment a great community makes.It has opened the door to bigger thinking."

Through that door has come Johan Cruyff, whose signing is proof positive that the Garden is giving Washington every chance to show it can support a soccer team with a hint of the passion that attaches to the Redskins, Bullets and Capitals. With Cruyff, general manager Dolich hopes attendance will rise this season to that 20,000 figure -- some 6,000 over the 1979 average for the 24 NASL teams.

"We've already taken cosmic jumps in exposure and credibility," Dolich said. "We'll have to work even harder now to get across to customers that our product has changed dramatically. We'll do as much knocking on doors as ever; only where before we'd slip a finger in and try to hold on, now we'll put a size 20 foot in the door and they never close the door on us."

Dolich is cautious, pointing out that the Cosmos averaged less than 20,000 in Yankee Stadium even with Pele and Beckenbauer before moving to the Meadowlands and crowds of over 70,000. The date Dolich is thinking of is June 1. "Everything has to come together," the general manager said. "We play the Cosmos at RFK that day, and we'll see what Cruyff has meant. It wouldn't be unrealistic to expect 35,000 or 40,000 people."

Men with butterfly nets would have rounded up anyone who, in 1967, believed the new professional soccer team in town, the Washington Whips, would draw 35,000 people.

The 1960s were a boom time in American sports. Television made Arnold Palmer famous. Palmer, in turn, made television realize that if it could make a hero out of a guy doing nothing -- well, he hit a golf ball once every five minutes and then took a drag off a cigarette -- it could make team sports very large indeed.

So sports entrepreneurs, to feed television's insatiable appetite for programming, created new leagues in basketball, football and hockey. Baseball's major leagues expanded. Before the pain of Vietnam, America in the 1960s was a nation of affluent, comfortable people looking for something to do. There was a market there, and the sports entrepreneurs rushed in.

They even created soccer. They saw the World Cup on closed circuit television. Many Americans had no idea what the World Cup was, except that it had something to do with Pele down in Brazil kicking a soccer ball. As it happens, the World Cup is the world's largest tournament, a 140-nation tournament that takes two years to complete. The championship game in 1966 was seen on closed-circuit television by a reported 300 million people.

Who, there. Did someone say 300 million people watched a soccer game between England and West Germany? The sports entrepreneurs sat up straight. They took a deep breath. They repeated that number -- 300 million -- and then they created not one, but two professional soccer leagues in the United States: The National Professional Soccer League and the United Soccer Association.

The Washington Whips belonged to the USA and lived two seasons. They still live in the memory of Charlie Brotman, a Washington public relations man who did publicity for the team back then. He remembers a one-armed player. He remembers the Whips losing the USA championship in overtime when one of their own players knocked the ball into his own goal by mistake. And Brotman remebers, "The Whips were not as successful as everyone hoped."

Something forgettable called the Washington Darts, playing in a minor league formed after the USA and NPSL merged to form the NASL, filled the pro soccer vacuum in Washington until sportscaster Jim Karvellas and his partner, Nick Mangion, bought an expansion franchise in the NASL in 1974. The Diplomats were born.

By then the NASL was six years old and regarded by most American sports fans as an aberration that would go away soon, for if soccer is the world's favorite game -- 142 countries play soccer, but only 134 are in the United Nations -- it is still foreign, alien, even threatening to that great army of Americans who believe nothing is a sport unless you can get seriously maimed doing it.

Those red-blooded, fire-eating' Americans see soccer and they dissolve into giggles. Soccer to them is 22 midgets who can't speak English and don't have brains enough to grab the ball with their hands instead of stumbling over it or batting it off their eyebrows.

Soccer is, in fact, a lovely game. It is free-flowing and fast, a kaleidoscope of dazzling improvisations. On every continent except North America, hundreds of millions of people give their hearts to soccer. They once called a day's truce in an African civil war so the combatants could watch Pele play. On meeting Pele, Pope Paul VI said, "Don't be nervous, my son. I am more nervous than you. I have been wanting to meet Pele for a long time."

"When Peru's national team plays on television, everyone sits in front of the television and nobody ever leaves to get a beer," said a man who visited relatives in Lima. "They sit in front of the set, and they're very quiet, like it was a religious service. They sway to and fro as the ball moves from side to side on the TV set. My mother-in-law is 70 years old, and she was swaying back and forth and she would grunt -- ughh! -- every time the ball was kicked."

Perhaps because soccer can be played cheaply -- a ball is the only true essential -- and perhaps because people in countries less affluent than the United States have fewer outlets for the passions that sport builds, soccer is pervasive and emotionally rousing. A member of the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame, Julius Alonso, says without a smile, "Soccer is more than a religion."

The game is very, very big. On vacation in Rome once, Gordon Bradley took his wife to the Olympic Stadium to see Roma, Italy's best soccer team. tWhen an official awarded the visiting team a penalty kick that defeated Roma, there was none of the persnickety booing and throwing of paper cups that goes on at American football games. There was, in Rome, a riot. Tens of thousands of fans charged onto the field. Rome policemen in riot gear -- their usual game-day uniforms -- surrounded the officials in the middle of the field, brandishing rifles against the mob. It took tear gas to clear the stadium.

"I no longer take my wife to games," Bradley said. "Nor, I should say, do I take her to Argentina, either."

In South America so many people have been killed in soccer riots -- 118 in one stadium one day -- that some stadiums now have moats around the playing fields. On the field side of the moats are 30-foot-high fences.

In the United States, where hairy football behemoths roam and basketball pituitary accidents play all day, soccer is an afterthought. It is a mighty tribute to the beauties of the game that soccer is still alive as a professional enterprise. For 13 years now, the NASL has been trying to convince Americans that any game that needs a moat is a game they could go for. And now the Washington Diplomats, seven years old, successors to the late unlamented Whips and Darts, have by the hiring of Johan Cruyff taken The Final Step.

If the Diplomats fail with Cruyff, there are no other steps to be taken. "Cruyff has the creativity of Dr. J., the grace of Lynn Swann and the leadership abilities of Willie Stargell," said Andy Dolich. With such a paragon, and with another $1.5 million worth of world-class players in Juan Jose Lozano of Spain and Vim Jansen of Holland, the Diplomats must do well on the field and at the box office this season. Everywhere Cruyff has gone in Washington -- on TV with Glenn Brenner, on the radio with call-in host Ken Beatrice -- everywhere he goes earning part of his $500,000 yearly salary by talking about soccer, Cruyff says the pressure of the situation does not bother him.

It doesn't bother him for several reasons. For one, Cruyff, a pro for 18 of his 33 years, is palpably confident of his ability. It was only right that he be named the Most Valuable Player in the NASL last season, he said, "even if I did not deserve it, because with Pele gone it is me that people must know about."

The Pele of the Potomac is king now, he is saying, and the league will be the better for it. "I always play good," Cruyff said. "Maybe I don't think I play good, or maybe the coach knows I don't play good. But the fans, for them, because I have been playing so long and have so much experience, for them I cannot play bad. I always play good."

That declaration is not the unabashed bragging it seems. Neither is it free of pride. What the Dutchman means is that he is so good that even on a bad day, the unsophisticated American audiences will not notice whatever small defects there are. And so he is "always good" to them; the better they think of him, the better they think of soccer in America.

"My job here is an entertaining job," Cruyff said. "My job is to get people interested. And then, after a couple of years, they will understand enough to criticize. In your football, people give opinions. But in soccer, everybody doesn't understand, and they don't have an opinion. So I am more of an entertainer."

The pressures on Cruyff to perform well on and off the field so that the Dips will become a Washington success story are small next to those that were part of his life from age 15 to 31. His sojourn in America is something of a vacation. Instead of the 80 games a year he played in Holland and later in Spain, Cruyff will play maybe 40 here. Instead of soccer being an 11-month job, it is April to September.

Here he won't have to put an iron door on his house. "Johan was like a king in Barcelona," said Angel Zuniga, the New York-based correspondent of the Barcelona newspaper, La Vanguardia. "I don't believe in heroes of Sunday, as Cruyff was, but he was very, very popular. He was like your Elvis Presley."

Because Cruyff's adoring fans went to his house, because they wanted in, because he was afraid that someone would get in who would hurt his wife and three children, because he was a hero of Sunday, Johan Cruyff put an iron door on his house and said, "It was like prison."

Here he can eat breakfast with his wife Danny and children Chantan, 9, Susila, 8, and Jordi, 6, at the Four Seasons hotel and no one seems to notice. "Here I can eat breakfast with my family this way," he said. "There, no. I must stay in the room. This I like more."

The skinny son of a widowed Amsterdam charwoman, Cruyff turned pro at 15 for $20 a week to play for the Ajax club that trained in a stadium five minutes from his house. Ten years later, he was a national treasure. An unprecedented three times he was named the European Footballer of the Year, which is celebrity beyond reach of all but rock stars.Twice he led his country to the World Cup championship game. Before Cruyff, Holland had been Europe's version of the hapless Tampa Bay Bucs of 0-26 notoriety. He made Holland into the Pittsburgh Steelers of Europe.

But when he left Holland to play in Spain in 1972, returning only for World Cup competition, some of his Dutch fans were not forgiving of what they saw as desertion. Rocks were thrown through the windows of the home of cruyff's father-in-law. The mail to Cruyff included a box which, when opened, delivered a scorpion.

Holland's 80 percent income tax drove him away, Cruyff said, as did problems with men running the Ajax club. Barcelona paid Ajax $2.1 million for the rights to Cruyff. He worked in Spain for five years.

Even as passionate as Americans are about spectator sports, it is difficult to comprehend the depth of feeling for soccer in Spain. Cruyff said the Barcelona club had at least 1,000 fan clubs with as many as 2,000 members each. When Barcelona defeated its arrogant arch-rival, Real Madrid, winning 5-0 on the Madrid turf, the club sold a half-million -- that's 500,000 -- video tapes of the historic game.

Six Sports Illustrated-type magazines and 11 newspapers publish daily in Barcelona, each interested in one club, one sport: Barcelona soccer.

"Johan was a national hero in Spain," said Rinus Michels, who was named Cruyff's coach with Ajax and later with Barcelona and Los Angeles. "But in his soccer he had a lot of problems. Players on the road were very destructive toward him. They would trip him and gouge him. Players would try to stop him any way they could, and the fans on the road liked the way they did that."

Cruyff, a purist who sees soccer as a chess game in which the moves are invented anew every second, did not like the brutality. At work in a game, Cruyff is fire and ice, the ice a reflection of earnestness, the fire flaming from combativeness. He orders his teammates: "If somebody didn't listen," Cruyff said simply, "he'd go out of the game." And when he feels the opponents are unfairly assaulting him, he berates offcials. Michels said: "It is difficult for Johan to accept that. One of Johan's defects is he talked too much."

It all got to be too much for Cruyff in Barcelona. His house in the mountains was 45 minutes from the city, but it had to be a compound with a guard at the gate. "He was isolating himself and his family," Michels said. "He had to do that to get away from the people. He was always intending to have a family life. He likes to be with his children."

It was too much in Spain, too much soccer-as-religion. The little guy from Holland wanted the game to be fun, as it was at 15 and he didn't like the game when he realized that come Sunday he didn't want to leave his mountain.

I was fed up with soccer as a profession," he said.

So at 31 Johan Cruyff retired. He would spend the rest of his life content to be at home with his family. "He was 31 in age," Michels said, "but Johan was older in soccer. For 16 years he had always to give the last of himself. But when he was out of the game, the appetite came back."

Although Cruyff admitted he lost money in Spanish investments, he denied that his comeback is solely a search for money. "If money was the reason, then I would go to Europe and earn more playing there." What he is looking for, he said, is some of the fun that soccer once was for him.

Less than a year after his retirement, Cruyff came to America to play for Michels at Los Angeles last season. Whether or not he was having fun again, he was certainly sensational with 13 goals with 16 assists in 23 games. He was, he said, as good as ever.

During the 1975 and 1976 seasons, the Diplomats occasionally played games at W. T. Woodson High School in Fairfax County. The games were played in relative privacy, averaging maybe 2,500 fans a night, and Steve Danzansky, the Dips president, remembers standing at mid-field in a rainstorm on Lions Club Night with 325 people in the bleachers.

"I looked up at the sky, with that downpour coming out of the black clouds, and I said to myself: 'Why am I here?' But then last year," Danzansky adds, "I stood on the RFK Stadium field and we had 27,000 people there and the game was on ABC Television (with the Diplomats playing Los Angeles and Johan Cruyff). I looked up at the skies then, too, and said, 'I think I've got my answer.'"

Danzansky told that story at that January reception in the Congressional Room of the Capital Hilton. When he finished, he returned to his seat in the front row of chairs. And he sat down next to Phil Woosnam, the NASL commissioner, who, at the suggestion of Johan Cruyff's name, suddenly remembered that Cruyff might be for sale.