When a soccer player has been naughty, his team is punished by giving the other guys a free kick. When the free kick is made, the naughty guys try to block the kick by forming a wall 10 yards away. It's like a firing squad, except the shooter is trying to miss all those people and kick the ball into the goal.

One of the kicker's teammates, if he is clever enough, can insinuate himself into the blockers' lineup. That is what Bobby Stokes of the Washington Diplomats did yesterday as his playmate, Joe Horvath, prepared to strike a free kick.

A novice in the press box (blush) could not figure out why Stokes, in his flaming red shirt, would line up with the white-clad Atlanta Chiefs. Wouldn't one more body in the blockers' lineup hurt Horvath's chances of success?

"Why is Stokes in there?" the novice said, and an expert in the next seat said, "The Brazilians have this old trick . . ."

Before he finished the sentence, Horvath stepped toward the sitting ball . . . and Stokes suddenly sprinted out of the lineup, leaving a cavity . . . and Horvath, with a powerful left-footed swipe, sent the ball screaming through the cavity and into the goal.

"That's the way the Brazilians did it," our expert said. "Except they had it refined even a little more some times. The man in the blockers' lineup would just crouch down and they'd shoot it over him."

In Brazil, the pretty strategy might have put the natives to dancing.Major league soccer sets off riots in Europe. They stopped for a day a civil war in Nigeria when Pele came to play. For most of Washington, though the only kicker of a ball who matters is Mark Moseley, and more's the pity.

The Diplomats beat Atlanta, 5-1, at RFK yesterday. It was a nice time. From an opening-day crowd of more than 12,000 last week, the Diplomats fell with a melancholy thud to 5,385. The Cosmos, champions of the league, come to RFK next Sunday and, if quality brings in customers, the place should be alive.

I have seen the future. It is 4 feet tall and speaks in a high-pitched voice. It kicks a soccer ball. For two hours before their game yesterday, the Diplomats gave over the RFK field to the Severna Park Athletic Association. Twenty-four teams of 330 boys and girls from ages 6 to 12 frolicked where Horvath and Stokes would later bamboozle Atlanta.

Those youngsters are the Diplomats' future. By conservative estimate, 45,000 children under 18 play soccer in the Washington metropolitan area. That is 10 times more than play football. Women up to 40 play soccer. Any game that stops a war for a day has something to recommend it, and America is recognizing the beauty of a game that has grace and speed and can be played with your basic human body.

No need to be 6 1/2 feet tall, no need to bulk up on weights and pills. Just bring your running shoes and iron shins.

Mike Maloney, 9, is giving soccer a shot. The lettering on his red shirt says Mike plays for the Green Hornets in Severna Park. This is his first year at soccer. He scored a goal in his game at RFK yesterday and smiled for an hour afterward.

Do you like soccer, Mike?

"Hmmmm. (Smile) Yeah!"

What do you like about it?

"Hmmmm. I just like playin'. The runnin'. It gets sorta tiresome, but I like it."

The fourth-grader also plays football and baseball and swim. If he had to choose, which sport would it be?

"Maybe soccer. (Smile) But I might join football." If soccer is the kids' game in the area, it's because Everett Germain and the Annandale Boys Club wanted something for the boys who couldn't play football. Germain, president of the club, started four soccer teams in 1962 with 60 younsters.

?In 1962, you could leave a soccer ball on the street for days and nobody would take it," Germain said yesterday. "Now, they'll steal it right and left. Next week, the Diplomats give away 10,000 soccer balls - and they'll run out."

Not only is soccer drawing numbers, Germain said, it also is attracting quality. "Ten years ago, one-third of the superior athletes played soccer and the rest played football, basketball and baseball. Today, you're just as apt to find a superior athlete in soccer as anyplace. It's 50-50 now."

Parity is yet distant. More than 50,000 seats at RFK were empty yesterday. "It's still a good many years off until soccer is the equal of football," Germain said. "You know why? Because The Washington Post, for instance, gives more publicity to the Alexandria Dukes, a Class A baseball team, than it does the Diplomats. The media will create an interest or not."

We would argue that news coverage only reflects interest and 5,385 customers does not indicate mass interest. Germain is more on-target with this: "Soccer is in its infancy in the U.S. Let's say it will equal football when these kids of today become parents and their kids are playing soccer. Then they'll all know what the game is about."

Dave Harper, commissioner of the Severna Park group, is an Englishman. He stood on the sidelines at RFK yesterday, clipboard in hand, and said, "The difference between English and American kids is that English kids will kick a ball to practice - and American kids will carry it. But in five years I believe American players will be really strong."