The Nova moved swifty on its important mission to The Pier discotheque through dark city streets and a bright red stop sign.

Behind the wheel sat Paul Cannell, the Washington Diplomat's soccer star who leads the team in goals, fouls, yellow infraction cards, and number of times disputing an officials's call by dropping his shorts. He is also a bachelor, probably one of Washington's best fun-seekers and possibly its worst driver.

The little Nova had been encouraged by a swirling red light to rest a moment, and soon a police officer poked a serious face into Cannell's window. But the uniformed man was to be no match for Cannell's boyish charisma and lyrical English accent.

"I'm a bit lost," said Cannell unhappily.

What followed was a precious tale of a foreigner lost in a land where they drive down the wrong side of the street, of an innocent lad with no registration certificate, and who indeed does not quite know what one is, because he is driving a car leased for him by the Washington Diplomats.

Within minutes, the officer displayed familiar symptoms of exposure to the Cannell radiance. He was incurably charmed.

Cannell drove off without a ticket.

At the disco, an identification and $5 cover charge are required, but Cannell left such paraphernalian in his Nova. He was admitted anyway.Mysteriously, he has the capability once inside the disco to buy gin and tonics and, later, champagne for the four people with him.

Cannell is 24 years old, spoiled, egotistical, a kid who won't grow up. At least, that's what he says.

But those around him see Cannell for what he is, a man specially gifted to play soccer and create enjoyment.

He has a gluttonous urge to cultivate and share his gifts, rather than hide them under a mask of false humility.

It was not unusual, then, for Cannell to say the things he said while watching a recent Dips loss to Toronto from the owner's box (he was serving a one-game suspension for collecting too many points on yellow cards).

Washington was losing, 3-0, and in all candor Cannell admitted that, of course, the team missed him. "I'm the best player," he said informatively.

For anyone who would listen, he predicted "a completely different kind of game next Saturday (the Dips lost)," and on the radio halftime show, he promised to score one goal for every 10,000 people who showed up to watch him at RFK Stadium when the Dips played Vancouver (he didn't score).

The game and all that goes with it fit Cannell like the sleek coating of tropical oil he wore one day at poolside while working on his tan and an interview simultaneously.

"I'm very basic. My favourite things are meeting people and soccer," said Cannell. "My job is not the be-all and end-all, but I am lucky to be making a living at something that is my hobby. I have what you might call an outgoing personality. I love to travel. I'm egotistival and I love crowds. So you see, it suits me down to the ground."

Cannell is the team's rock trivia expert, able to name the artists of any song his teammates can sing a few bars of. A lovely 12-string guitar lays on his living room floor in its case, the lid flipped up to form an open casket for an instrument he has not figured out how to tune.

He does some cooking, claiming to make a delicious steak Dianne. "At the moment," he says, "I'm into steamed shrimp." In his two-bedroom Alexandria apartment, there is not a single picture, poster or ornament on the white walls - only an anonymous message written on a dressing-table mirror in lipstick, "alas, it was a pleasure!"

There are no clocks in the apartment and he does not own a watch. That is much too regimented. There is not a magazine or a newspaper in the place, and Cannell does not pretend to be an authority on current events.

This was never more apparent than at Winston's bar one evening in 1976, when Cannell did something he often does: met an attractive woman and encouraged her to return there to meet him the following night. A teammate of Cannell's who was beside him turned pale after she left.

"Do you know who that was?" the friend asked.

"No," said Cannell.

"Susan Ford," he was told.

"Who is Susan Ford?" Cannell wanted to know.

It was explained to the Washington Diplomat star that she was the daughter of the highest ranking official in America and that she lived in a rather prominently known white house right in Washington, not all that far from Georgetown. Cannell now admits, "I was wondering why the big guy with her had such bulges in his coat pocket."

News of Cannell's encounter spread quickly and he was given the nickname Suzie. Soon, after he scored goals, a band in RFK began treating him to renditions of "If You Knew Suzie."

Apparently none of it inspired him to brush up on matters of Washington. At one point in a recent interview, Cannell was talking about Rehoboth beach, and he was asked what he thought of Delaware.

"Where is Delaware?" he asked innocently.

An answer seemed to nudge his memory. "Oh, yes," he said. "They have terrible drinking laws there."

Cannell is not at all embarrassed that he is the star of the Washington Diplomats and did not know who Susan Ford is or where Delaware is. "You've got to remember," said Cannell, "I'm English."

This is not to say that Cannell does not love America. Cannell loves just about everything, and America is high on the list.And only child, son of a butcher in the industrial town of Newcastle, Cannell became a professional player at 18, although, he claims, "I never wanted to be a soccer player. I wanted to be an eccentric genius."

Cannell was a hero in Newcastle, but an underpaid one. His approximate $30,000 Diplomats salary seems a king's ransom to him, and there were other things he immediately liked upon getting acquainted with America when playing for the Dips in 1976.

"I thought, it's not too bad over here," said Cannell, taking a moment to sneak two kingsize beers through the fence to poolside, where no beverages are allowed. "I like the American beer. I like the young ladies. I like the old ladies . . .

"I like the general was of life. Can you imagine doing this in England?"

Cannell conducts his interviewer on a verbal tour of the cities where the Dips travel, San Francisco being a "magic place with tremendous women," Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Los Angeles also possessing an array of attractions. His favorite?

"I love New York," said Cannell. "Greenwich Village is a magic place. I love the Bowery, the down and out area where the Puerto Ricans live. It's hard to believe the things that exist there. We have poverty in England, but not with that much class."

"Rochester," said Cannell, "is the pits."

At home, Cannell attempts to be as civic-minded as possible. He uncomplainingly helped judge the Miss Georgetown contest. To those familiar with his after-hour excursions, he is known as the mayor of Georgetown. He admits to singing on table tops if the night's victory and libation have been especially sweet.

He curtails his barhopping, however, taking in no alcohol in a two-day period before any game.

"Those are the two days I get serius," said Cannell. "After the game I go beserk."

Some contend that his berserk behavior is not confined to the world outside the boundaries of a soccer field. In one of the more unusual incidents in American soccer history, Cannell, in a game against Tulsa, dropped his pants in response to a referee's call. The official took one look at Cannell's black briefs and awarded him a yellow card.

"It was just my little way of saying he made a terrible call," said Cannell. "I wanted to have a laugh. For me, that's the name of the game. Let's face it. All publicity is good publicity. I love the press. There are players who are better than I am, who are dead straight, average. Who remembers them?"

He has a multitude of friends (many with keys to his apartments), a few lovers and no problems.

"I haven't a care in the world," said Cannell. "Sometimes, it worries me."

He has only one fantasy that will probably remain unfulfilled.

"I would like to be a rock star," said Cannell, "just to stand in front of an audience and hold them spellbound. It must be one of the biggest ego trips ever."