There is an ancident tradition, practiced in the South Seas, which held that anytime a chief's feet touched the land of another man, the land automatically became his.

Today, in the North American Soccer League, there is a similar tradition: Any soccer field which Johan Cruyff's feet touch, becomes his.

"Pele was magic at 35," said Washington Diplomat defender Robert Iarusci. "But Cruyff, he is something else, something different. He's beyond belief. It's tempting when you're playing against him just to stand back and watch."

At 32, even after spending almost a year in retirement, Cruyff is still regarded almost as a god by his fellow soccer players.

He has turned the Los Angeles Aztecs, who play the Dips at RFK Stadium Sunday at 2:30 p.m., from a ragtag, barely surviving North American Soccer League franchise into one of the league's top draws, a very good team and a team whose future now appears secure.

And while soccer fans in this country are only now learning that there can be a great soccer player whose name is not Pele, players in the league are almost awed by his presence, even after just 17 games.

"Trying to have one man defend him is impossible," said Iarusci. "One on one with any defender in the world, he is virtually unstoppable."

The subject of all this adulation, the man who has been labeled "the greatest soccer player in the world" the past five years, is a 5-foot-9, 150-pound Dutchman who looks more like a disco with his long sandy hair, than a soccer player.

But he has been playing professionally since he was 17 and rarely has known failure. The Aztecs, 9-21 last season, are 14-10 going into weekend games in Rochester tonight and Washington.

"The team has been playing better as the season has gone on," Cruyff said yesterday. "We are starting to know each other better now. I had some trouble getting into shape after my layoff but I feel better now, too."

Even out of shape, Cruyff has been sensational since joining the Aztecs May 22. He has scored eight goals and assisted on 12 for 28 points.

And, he says he is enjoying himself.

"I retired because I had stopped enjoying the game," he said. "In Europe, soccer is one-dimensional. You play, play, play. If you don't get results on the field you are criticized.

"Here your job has three phases. You must play, but you also must get the youth involved in the game. And you must show the public what the game is about. That is much more fun for me."

Cruyff's skills are many. He is both fast and quick and his ability to control the ball when he has it can be mesmerizing. But what sets him apart from other soccer players in his intelligence.

He is not above resting for several minutes when he feels run down, then charging back into action when he senses the other team, or those marking him, are dragging. Like a basket-ball guard with a great first step, he is often by you before you know it.

Last fall, at age 31, after 14 years as a professional, Cruyff decided he had accomplished everthing a soccer player could hope to achieve.

He had led his holland team, Ajax, to six league championships, an unprecedented three consecutive European Cup championships and a World Cup club championship.

He had gone on to Barcelona of Spain and led that team to the 1978 Spanish championship. Most of all, though, he had led Holland into the 1974 World Cup Final and had been named most valuable player of the championships.

In short, he was the greatest soccer player in the world. He had nothing left to prove and was independently wealthy from outside business interests.

So, after playing a farewell game with Ajax. Cruyff retired in November 1978. The Cosmos, always looking for big names, tried to lure him out of retirement.

For $500,000, Cruyff agreed to play a series of exhibition games with them. But that was it. He had no interest in playing regularly in the NASL.

"If you had told me last fall that I would be playing in this league now, I would have told you that you were crazy," Cruyff said yesterday.

"But between December and March I had nothing to do with soccer, just business. I found that I was missing it. I missed training, I missed the game. I knew I was too young to give it up."

In addition to missing the game, two other things happened to bring Cruyff back. First, Rinus Michels, for whom he had played both with Ajax and Barcelona, was hired to coach the Aztecs. Second, a business venture in Europe met disaster. "Money had almost nothing to do with it," Cruyff said. "If I were just trying to make money I would play in Europe and make a lot more than I'm making here.

"But Rinus being in Los Angeles helped. It made my choice easy. If you are going to play on a new continent, it might as well be with someone you know."

Cruyff was committed by contract to play with the Cosmos if he came out of retirement. But they agreed to sell his contract to Los Angeles for $600,000.

We could have held into him," said the Cosmos president, Ahmet Ertegun. "But I would rather have him playing somewhere in the league than not playing at all."

Cruyff signed a two-year Aztec contract worth more than $1 million a year.

"I don't know how long I'll play here," he said. "As long as I enjoy it, I'll play."

"Having Cruyff makes this a completely different franchise, on the field and off," said team spokesman Ron Piazza. "Not only are we a better team but we are a team people want to play against during the offseason. And we're a more attractive team for other good players to come to."

So the legend of Johan Cruyff lives on. Any soccer team he touches turns to gold - or at least silver - and the soccer, Los Angeles, Rochester or Washington, is his and his alone. Even with 21 other players on it. CAPTION: Picture, Johan Cruyff