JOHAN CRUYFF was riding along.

The driver intended to go up Pennsylvania Avenue and turn right on Wisconsin to deliever the famous soccer player to WDVM-TV for a chat with Glenn Brenner on the 6 o'clock sports.

"Turn here," Cruyff said.

But, Johan, Wisconsin is four or five blocks ahead and that's the place to turn and . . .

"Here," Cruyff said quickly. The way he said it, his tone brooking no dispute, told you he knew what he was talking about. It's the tone you want from you brain surgeon.

But, Johan, how can you know your way around? You have been in Washington only a week since signing that $1.5 million contract with the Diplomats. This town is full of drivers who have been lost for years. Just because you are the Pele of the Potomac doesn't mean you can back-seat drive after a week.

"Too many stop signs up there," Cruyff said, dismissing the driver's reluctance to try uncharted routes through the labyrinthine footpaths that Georgetown calls streets. "I don't like stop signs. Stop signs are a waste of time. Here. Turn here."

And so the car turned on 29th Street and zigged and zagged whenever Cruyff said to zig or zag. And it came out on Wisconsin Avenue at a point where there was -- voila! -- no traffic. Cruyff knew it all along. He nodded back down a hill toward cars snarled in rush-hour anxiety at those rat maze stop signs.

"Better this way, yes?" Cruyff said.

Not only better, but fairly amazing, as if the great god of metaphors were riding in the back seat of Cruyff's car.

The man does not like stop signs, which is no surprise to anyone who has seen him play soccer. The Flying Dutchman stops for no one. He invents ways around opponents, zigs and zags on paths he alone imagines through their rate mazes of defense, and he does it all with an air of haughty command that may be disturbing at first but at last is wonderfully reassuring.

And if Johan Cruyff is to pull off the trick asked on him by Diplomats, he will need all the haughty command he can find.

The Diplomats see him as The Final Step. If they cannot make a success of soccer here with Cruyff on the team, then it will be time to pack up and leave the town to the Redskins, Bullets and Capitals. The Diplomats averaged about 13,000 fans a game last year. They hope Cruyff's presence -- along with two other world-class players, all hired at a cost of maybe $4 million -- will increase attendence to 20,000 a game.

No ultimatum is being made. At the end of last season, Jack Krumpe, a vice president of Madison Square Garden, Inc., the team owner, said he and the Garden were unhappy with a $1 million loss and he hinted that another year like 1979 would be the end of the Diplomats here.

Such talk is not allowed now. Steve Danzansky, a Washington lawyer who is president of the Diplomats, said this week, "What Johan Cruyff represents is a continuing commitment to the people of Washington to go first class with everything from the front office to the playing field."

We are searching for an analogy. The Diplomats' hiring of Cruyff is big. We know that. The guy is universally accepted as the second-best soccer player of the last 20 years. Only Pele was better and he is retired. Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer now are the peers without peer.

To get provincial about this, is the Diplomats' hiring of Cruyff a bigger deal than the Senators hiring Ted Williams to manage? Is Cruyff coming here a bigger thing than Vince Lombardi saying he would coach the Redskins?

One word answers both those questions: Yes. Cruyff's arrival in Washington is, in his game, more important to his team, both artistically and financially, than anything Williams or Lombardi brought with them.

Let's try this another way. Put it into football language. For the Redskins today to do something as big as the Diplomats' hiring of Cruyff, they would have to shanghai Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann.

"No, that's different," said Andy Dolich, the general manager of the Diplomats. "The problem is, Cruyff is just so much larger than anyone in American sports. There is no analogy. There's not anyone the Redskins could sign who would have the impact Cruyff does. By himself he makes a team a great team.

"We're talking about Johan Cruyff, a player who by walking through the streets of Barcelona might cause riots, might have his life threatened by the crush of adoring fans or the anger of negative fans, whose wife can't even go shopping."

Johan Cruyff is bigger than big.

Dolich, as nutty about sports as most Americans, has it figured out how big Cruyff is.

"He has the creativity of Dr. j., the grace of Lynn Swann, and the leadership abilities of Willie Stargell," Dolich said.

He is a little fellow, this Dr. J/Swann/Stargell fellow, this Johan Cruyff who can't walk the streets of Barcelona without fear that his adoring fans will see his little Dutch boy face with the big brown eyes and mount an assault of friendliness that would crush Pops Stargell, let alone a little fellow 5-foot-9 and 150.

Cruyff walks in a hurry, his little legs gobbling up distance, his little bowlegged legs carrying him down a corridor of WDVM-TV's building, for by now he is on the hunt for a cup of coffee and his driver is following along behind, a mere mortal in the company of a star of the planet Earth, a star whose little bowlegged legs have carried him from Holland to Spain to Los Angeles and now, with the cup of coffee, to a city that never before has been able to claim as its own an athlete so great at his game.

Johan Cruyff is happy to be here. He wants to make Washington happy with him. He wants to help the Diplomats raise attendance from the 1979 average of 13,000 to 20,000 this year. He wants media to pay more attention to soccer. He wants to widen the sphere of soccer influence in the area.

All of which is nice, of course, but it also may be, to be cynical for a fleeting moment, a crock of Toughskin. Pele, remember, came out of retirement to get rich off the Comos while proclaiming himself a missionary for soccer in the pagan reaches of America. Everyone brought the Pele act, for even if he spoke gawdawful English he had this open and vulnerable face that guaranteed its owner to be sincere. Ever since, the aiports have been clogged with arriving soccer players, here to spread the good word, and a cynic might say Johan Cruyff is more a mercenary than a missionary.

So who cares?

He says he is here to entertain.

"Only 50 percent of my job is on the field," he say. "The rest is public relations. My job is an entertaining job. It is not enough here to have good results on the field. I must have good results and I also must tell the people about those good results.

"In your American football and baseball, the fans give opinions on what they see. Not so in soccer. They don't know soccer. Everybody doesn't have an opinion about the technicalities of soccer. So in soccer here in Washington, I am more of an entertainer."

For $20 a week at age 15, this son of a widowed charwoman turned pro with the Ajax club of Amsterdam, Holland. He had grown up five minutes from the Ajax stadium and often worked out with the club, always playing with older men. And because he was so little -- at 15 he was 5-3 and 115 pounds -- Johan Cruyff became an entertainer even before he knew it.

"You could see as a baby that he was an exceptional player," said Rinus Michels, first his coach at Amsterdam and later at Barcelona and with the Los Angeles Aztecs. "The only obstackle was that he had no body. He learned tricks to survive."

"Two things I don't know," said Cruyff, who speaks five languages and behaves with the assurance of a man who knows everything, including brain surgery, "and how fast I am and what my weight is.

"It makes no difference how fast you are if you see a situation a yard earlier than anyone else. If you start running a yard earlier, you get there first. That's what they call 'reading the game.' It is experience and instinct.

"Of course, Pele was not big. So how could he head the ball so well? He knew where the ball was going. He was not jumping high. But when he jumped, the other players could never win."

With Cruyff scoring and setting up goals from all over the field, Holland went from nothing to the World Cup finals. He was a national hero when, in 1974, he requested to be sold to Barcelona, Spain, which paid Ajax $2.1 million for him. An unprecedented three times, Cruyff was named the European Footballer of the Year.

He left his native Holland, Cruyff said, because of an 80 percent income tax and "lots of problems" with "amateurs running the club." After five years with Barcelona, in which time he became what the Spanish call "a hero of Sunday," Cruyff stunned the soccer world by retiring at age 31. That was two years ago.

"I was fed up with soccer," Cruyff said. "Not with soccer as a sport, but soccer as a profession.

I began in soccer as a hobby. In Barcelona, the only thing that counted was winning. The enjoyment of the game was gone. And if you don't enjoy it, you can't take the pressure."

Six sports magazines and 11 newspapers in Barcelona cover the soccer team daily. The season runs 11 months. "For 14 years, I had been playing soccer 11 months a years," Curyff said. "In Barcelona, I had to talk to the press 1 1/2 hours after every day's training. I could go on physically, but not mentally, I was empty."

Besides the press, the Spanish public demands much of a hero of Sunday. Cruyff couldn't go out to eat. People drove their cars up to his front door. Photographers tracked him. On the road, opponents bullied him without fear of recourse from officials unprotected by moats.

His house had an iron door behind which he lived with his wife and their three children.

So he quit.

The "retirement" lasted only a year, as it turned out, before the Los Angeles team signed him.

"There was a vacuum in my life," Cruyff said.

Some people have said Cruyff suffered financial reverse in Spain and needed the big American money.

"I made some bad investments," Cruyff admitted, "but that's not the major reason I came to America. If money was the major reason for playing again, I would go back to Europe and earn more money there than here."

Cruyff says he is playing again because he likes it and because his personal company, Intersoccer, is building business and his visibility will help. And what he wants most to do, because it will help in all of that, is do a good job for the Diplomats.

"What I hope to do," Cruyff said, "is what so far they have failed to do in this city -- to have soccer be a major sport from April to September.I am not a savior of soccer in Washington. The youth will do that in years to come. But I am here to help."