IT'S HARD to exaggerate the grip that the game of soccer has on much of the world. The sport has, over the years, caused millions of fans to neglect their work or their families or both, and a lesser number to lose their lives. It has caused national passions to be vented, armies to be mobilized and ambassadors recalled. It has even caused Henry Kissinger to take up sports writing -- see today's Topic A if you don't believe us.

The occasion for Dr. Kissinger's essay is the competition among national soccer teams for the World Cup, which is awarded every four years. It is at times such as these that most American sports fans tend to feel most out of sync with the rest of the globe, because they are reminded how steadfastly indifferent they are to soccer.

It's not that Americans shun soccer. They send their sons and daughters out every weekend to play it, more than any other game. But somehow, when it comes to big-league spectator sports, soccer hasn't made it here. Perhaps it's such things as nobody's seeming to know exactly how much time is left in the game. (People in this country are accustomed to having the last 45 seconds of a football game last about a half-hour, with each second's activities being analyzed by the TV people as if it were a historical epoch.) And then there are all the tie games, usually 0-0 or 1-1. This has proved to be a problem even for the World Cup, where you do have to come up with a winner eventually.

Maybe it's just that we Americans are hopeless vulgarians who disdain the austerity of soccer in favor of a game where a team can score as many points with one touchdown as the West German team has scored in the past month, where "mascots" in grotesque polyester-fur costumes compete for attention with oversized armored athletes beneath a scoreboard that could light up Des Moines.

Some of the more earnest advocates of soccer talk as if the national character won't be redeemed until America appreciates the game. But it is, after all, only a game -- and we keep wondering whether the country really needs yet another spectator sport for its Sunday afternoons.

But let us adjourn the argument. Today a marvelous athlete from Argentina named Diego Maradona, who stands only 5-feet-5, will attempt to lead his team past the methodical, well-disciplined West Germans, who don't score much but let the other teams score even less. This Sunday afternoon, at least, a lot of us Americans will be watching soccer.