THE WORLD Cup competition is held every four years to settle the issue of which nation has the best soccer team on Earth. It is a time when passions run high: whole countries shut down for the day to watch their teams play, then stay open all night celebrating if they win. There are occasional suicides by followers of losing teams, and here and there a disappointed fan will fire a revolver at his television set. On the German-Dutch border this week, rowdy fans hurled bricks and insults at one another after West Germany's team defeated the Netherlands in the current World Cup competition.

Through it all Americans have remained steadfastly uninterested -- partly because for 40 years no team from this country qualified for the competition. This spring, however, things were different: Americans made it into the tournament for the first time since 1950 and acquitted themselves pretty well, despite being eliminated in the first round. True, they began by suffering a thumping at the hands of Czechoslovakia and concluded with a loss to Austria that turned into a brawl and may have been the biggest setback to U.S.-Austrian relations since Kurt Waldheim. But in between there was a noble effort against the highly regarded Italian team, which the Americans lost by only a 1-0 score while winning the respect of the home crowd.

Unfortunately it didn't translate into a groundswell of soccer interest back in the U.S.A.: the TV ratings showed that less than 2 percent of viewers watched the game here, compared with 82 percent in Italy. Plainly, America has a way to go in soccer appreciation, especially considering that just four years from now this country will itself be playing host to the World Cup competition.

Soccer probably deserves better from us. It has some admirable features, despite its many scoreless ties and mystifying distinctions about when it's okay to trip the other guy. For one thing, World Cup games can be played only on natural turf, which would seem to rule out domed stadiums. For another, the game has no time-outs to allow waves of commercials to wash over the screen.

But hold on a minute. The FIFA, soccer's governing body, has just announced that American domed stadiums will be considered as sites for some of the 1994 games if natural grass can be maintained in them. It has also been reported that the sport's governors are considering breaking up the games into quarters (they now consist of two 45-minute halves) to provide more opportunities for commercials.

We would warn the world to look out. Next come the pads and helmets, then they start letting them use their hands to catch the ball, and cheerleaders appear on the sidelines to keep the crowd happy during commercials. By the time the 1994 World Cup is over, the rest of the world could have trouble recognizing it as football, but we won't.