SOCCER enthusiasts believe the game will soon come of age in the United States, but it ain't so.

Yes, there are millions of youngsters playing real football, something like 100,000 of them in the Washington region, and yes, the level of skill is very high in select teams such as those fielded by the Annandale Boys Club, which have made triumphant tours of Europe. Yes, a full decade has passed since the sport took hold here, so that there are legions of maturing men and women who have been kicking the ball around since kindergarten days. And yes, baseball and "football" coaches mourn that soccer is siphoning off too much talent.

But no. U.S. soccer has only the faintest glimmerings of world-class class. While our players are coming along nicely, our fans are so slow on the pickup as to invite despair. Not only are they ignorant of the rules and fail to appreciate the skills and strategems, they miss the whole point of soccer. They act as though it were a game.

In world-class soccer many fields are protected by moats, barricades and concertina wire, and three scores are kept: goals, casualties and riot costs. In Latin America, after a losing game the home crowd often tried to burn the stadium, with opponents and officials inside.

Exhaustive research has failed to turn up a single example of really serious soccer at any level of play in this country.

There was a local junior high school game a few years back in which one player punched another into an extended hospital stay, but it turned out that the boy who did it had never done anything like that before and was truly sorry. Think how far that young man has to go before he can qualify as a soccer enthusiast of the first rank.

In Athens in 1965 a fan drove his car on the field and tried to run over a referee who had made an unsatisfactory ruling. The ref dodged up and down the field until another fan pulled a pistol and shot out the tires. After the game the official made his escape disguised in a priest's cassock.

In Fairfax County, in 1979, during the waning moments of a championship game, a 12-year-old forward was preparing to kick what might have been the tying goal when he accidentally stuck his finger in a defender's eye, unseen by the referree.He halted, picked up the ball to stop play, and went to help his opponent. When play resumed, the referee awarded possession of the ball to the opposing team, which stalled until time ran out. The losing coach told the solicitous boy that he had done the right thing, and the parents congratulated the winning and losing teams indiscriminately.

American misapprehension of soccer runs deep. The movement was largely organized by pantywaist parents seeking a sport for their children that was less dreary and brutal than football and more fun than the semipro game known as Little League baseball. Soccer in America has dumb rules like you have to shake hands with the other team, and give them a cheer, and boys and girls can play on the same team if they want. There is even a rule against cussing, and they often enforce it.

If sport is preparation for life, we may be losing a whole generation.

England's tragic example should serve as a warning. The British Empire's sun still was rising when some of her public-school gentlemen began refining rugby into soccer. Rugby was and is the honorable outgrowth of the Roman legionnaires' pastime of kicking around the heads of wild Picts and Celts they caught raiding south of Hadrian's Wall. It is a real man's game, only somewhat sissified into American-style football. What those aesthetes and effetes on the playing fields of Eton did was discard the good parts of rugby -- the banging and gouging and tackling -- leaving only the namby-pamby speed, skill and grace.

These gentlemen took soccer balls and those silly shorts with them when they went out to tame and administer the world. Soon the colonials, seeking to be more British than the British, began to imitate their masters, and before long the subjects were kicking the slats out of the English sides. It did not take them long to draw the conclusion that a Britain that could be beaten on the playing field could be beaten on the battlefield, and then it was Katie-bar-the-door.

Soccer helped free the Third World of European colonialism, but it now serves the dictators who took over. Like the Roman circuses, they use the game as a safety valve to vent the frustrations of the mob. Nigeria's civil war was suspended for a day while the national team played for the honor of both sides. Argentine guerrillas announced more than a year in advance that they would not disrupt the World Cup matches in Buenos Aires.The reason Mexico hasn't had a revolution lately may be that the peons are too pooped between soccer matches; in Mexico City in 1974 a man was killed in a riot during a closed-circuit telecast of a game between Yugoslavia and Spain.

It is small wonder that the United States is in retreat all over the world. Other nations cannot take us seriously when their diplomats come here and see such scenes as one that took place recently on a Northwest Washington playground. The red team of an organized league, decimated by one of those childhood illnesses that sweep schools, could muster only seven players. The blue team, at full strength, refused a forfeit and played seven boys at a time. But it grew worse. The red team, leading 2-1 at halftime, lost several more players to stomach cramps; the blue team coach called for volunteers to play for the enemy, got plenty, and cheered his boys as they whipped their own team. Such un-American activity will hardly produce grownups fit to reassert U.S. international dominance.

The Israelis, now, know what soccer is about. In Tel Aviv, in 1975, a fan ran onto the field and stabbed an opposing player to death. No weakening of moral fiber there that might encourage the Arabs to have another go.

An intelligence analyst could keep track of the world's pulse simply by watching the soccer scores, all of them, from everywhere. It would save no end of grief. One man in the basement of CIA headquarters, sitting in a reclining chair with cold beer ready to hand, could by scanning the scores disabuse us of the notion that Russia is our rival for world power.

In fact the Russians just don't have it, soccerwise, and all their efforts to hold their satellites and capture the emerging nations will come to naught. In world-class play the teams are relatively equal, and so it is the quality of the fans that tips the scale. The Russian fan tries to support the factory-built teams, but hardly is the ball in play before the stands are atwinkle with vodka bottles flashing in the sun. By halftime Ivan is blotto, and it is the curse of the country that Russians are happy drunks.There are mean Russians and drunk Russians but there will never be enough mean-drunk Russians to soccer to us.

Sprawled in that CIA cellar, our analyst would eventually notice that while he has scores from India, scores from Nigeria, scores from Brazil and scores, even, from Bladensburg, he is getting no scores from the Peoples Republic of China. Even deep in beer-befuddlement he will eventually have the wit to wonder why, because they play soccer in China. They just don't talk about it, and they don't talk about it because they aren't good enough yet. When the Chinese soccer teams are unleashed it will be Ping-Pong all over again.

Is there hope for American soccer?

There are a few encouraging signs.

In Prince George's County this season the fathers of two opposing players exchanged heated words, but then the 8-year-old daughter of one of them scolded both into sheepish apologies, so nothing useful was gained.

In Arlington, through some mixup, one team showed up without oranges, and halftime was nearly over before a mother on the other team noticed and brought some over. The generous lady's son's team lost, but she seemed to miss the point.

It will be a long struggle, if the British experience is any guide. It took most of the 20th century for the English to develop teams and fans that can hold up their heads on the world stage, but British pluck won through. Now, in Derby, men refuse to referee women's games "because of their foul language." Her majesty's government is working on a system of registering fans, similar to the longstanding registry of firearms. And there was a riot at a London post office when stamps commemorating a championship went on sale.

Perhaps, with coaching from some of the experienced Latinos, we can build a fire under the American game, from which we could progress to building fires in the stands. A trained cadre of parents whose children have been cut from Little League teams could be seeded into the masses of polite oafs who now dominate the sidelines, and who knows?