It has happened, alas, and very early. The cloven hoof has been shown. Or rather, a number of cloven hoofs. Those, inevitably, of the Argentianians, those of the Hungarians (but I don't suppose we shall be seeing much more of them after the first-round games) and those of the referees.

To be more precise, those of a Portuguese referee named Antonio Garrido. He confirmed what so many had been fearing for so long: that referees taking charge of Argentina's games in the River Plate Stadium of Buenos Aires just wouldn't get a proper grip on them.

To be fair to Garrido, he dealt with almost equal ineptitude Friday night when Argentina beat Hungary 2-1: but can we expect any referee to do better? My own fear is that several will do much worse. My mind goes back to that ghastly week, a year ago, when England and Scotland played successive games against Argentina in this city. Each had a player brutally punched. The referee sent off the aggressors - and their bewildered victims.

Garrido, in the last five minutes Friday night, sent off only a couple of Hungarians, but the trouble was that he had lost his grip of the game long since.

What strange perverseness overcomes such referees, who will strain at a gnat but swallow a camel? Garrido had seen Hungarians chop down Argentinians obstruct and manhandle Hungarians, "till there seemed to be as many bodies lying about as in the last scene of "Hamlet." Yet the first yellow card he gave in the game was to caution Andreas Toroscik of Hungary for petulantly throwing the ball away at a throw-in. It reminded you of the top Mafiosi who were eventually jailed for income-tax evasion, after a life of thuggery and murder.

Not that Toroscik was a thug, but in blind rage, five minutes from the end, he felled one of his chief tormentors, the deplorable Gallego. Toroscik is a small, brave center-forward with lovely ball control, always prepared to take on two or three opponents at a time - and generally beat them. In other words, the kind of player who can make soccer exhilaratingly worth watching.

But the Argentinian motto is, as it has long been, they shall not pass. If fair means don't work, foul means are used. Toroscik had simply had enough of them. I had less sympathy with another gifted Hungarian, Tibor Nyilasi (both men are automatically suspended from the tournament).

Nyilasi, who played disappointingly little part in the game, was sent off soon after Toroscik for kicking Tarantini, not by any means one of the worst of the Argentinians. But what happens now? How do you put steel into the soul of referees like Garrido? Had he firmly shown yellow cards to players of both teams when they were deserved. I doubt if he would have had much trouble. When players feel they are going to get no redress from the referee for ill treatment, they resort to gun law.

Argentina has been playing it rough for a very long time now, especially since they were eliminated from the 1958 World Cup in Sweden by a Czech team, 6-1. Bitterly jealous of the Brazilians, who were by then in the ascendant, they decided to play it hard and rough, sacrificing their natural artistry and skills for negative, defensive play.

Their present team has much talent, notably the two big men up front, Leopoldo Luque and Mario Kempes, marvelously adroit for two so large, and the busy little midfielder, Osvaldo Ardiles. But their defenders are still horrifically callous, abominably cynical.

Lajos Baroti, Hungary's coach, who was surprisingly restrained after Friday's game, apologizing for the hot-headed behavior of his two young players, told me in London of his fears. It was too important to the World Cup financially, he said, that Argentina, the host country, should do well. He expected referees to present them with a couple of penalty kicks. Well, that may happen yet, though oddly enough Baroti admitted that had Daniel Bertoni not scored Argentina's winning goal, they should have a penalty for a foul on Luque.

This week, there doesn't seem much danger of Argentina failing to qualify, when it plays its remaining two matches at River Plate.

What is to be done about the referees? Frankly, a great deal more than Fifa, the organizing body, has done already. Referees should be instructed that certain fouls automatically rate the yellow card. Failure to flourish it would result in a referee being taken off duty.

You may well respond that such instructions should not be necessary to any international referee. You would be utterly right and ludicrously optimistic. Meanwhile, if things go on as they are, Argentina - though perfectly capable of playing good, fast, open, imaginative soccer - will kick its way to the World Cup. As has been widely feared. It would not be very agreeable to watch.