Soccer people believe in magic. Theirs is not so much a game of precise tactics as of improvisation -- part swiftness of foot, part speed of thought.

"The gift of the game," said Gordon Bradley, coach of the Washington Diplomats, "is to see at a glance what exists, and, in an instant, create what might exist."

Of all those who have played the world's game, none has had this gift to a greater degree than Johan Cruyff -- the Dutchman who has moved crowds to change the words of the rock opera to, "Johan Cruyff, Superstar."

These are the days when the Dips -- Cruyff's new team -- have the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a magician. For nearly a month here they have trained, trying to mesh and meld with Cruyff, trying to let a bit of magic rub off.

Saturday night in Tampa, the Dips will open a new NASL season with three new international stars -- Cruyff, Wim Jansen and Juan-Jose Lozano -- whose total price tag was $4 million.

No one, not even the Dips, knows yet how this new collection will come together. But they can't wait to find out. The Dips' practices, scrimmages and exhibition games here are awash in noise. "You can feel the excitment," said Bradley.

"Cruyff can win a game on his own. And he will if he must," said Bradley.

"But he is a marvelous team player. He has been a born captain all his life. "He would rather blend with his mates. Cruyff is a man who cannot be given a bad name."

"We just watch Johan in disbelief," said Kip Germain, a second-season Diplomat who grew up in Annandale. "He seems to be looking away, then, with a flick of his foot, he has spun the ball 30 yards and put it right on your foot."

"He reminds me of a leopard on the skulk," said little Bobby Stokes, an English veteran, "always biding his time and waiting to strike.

"And he's a wonderful fellow . . . just one of the boys. Not at all what I thought he'd be, to tell the truth."

Cruyff, although he has missed considerable practice time here because of business or relocation trips, already is the team's undisputed field leader. He talks, yells, gestures with his hands and directs traffic constantly.

"Doesn't he ever stop?" one Dip on the sidelines asked laughingly this week as the team scrimmaged the University of Jacksonville. "I think we may have to play with cotton swabs in our ears this year."

No one in the soccer world would dare try to change Cruyff. It is the Dips' good fortune that he is a team man by choice. "Cruyff is Cruyff," said Bradley, as though he were saying Einstein or Beethoven. "Our first goal is not to do anything to hurt his play. We must maintain him, then, if it is possible, perhaps, we can help him be even better."

"I am here to perform and to take things over," said Cruyff, a slim, unprepossessing, 5-foot-9, 160-pound 33-year-old who speaks seven languages.

"I always talk a lot," he laughed, "so there's no way out of that. I'll just continue."

It is doubful that native American audiences will appreciate Cruyff during what little is left of his prime. Even he barely understands the things he does.

"The Germans play disciplined soccer. The Italians are great defenders. Latins are wonderful, creative ball-handlers with their feet. The English are great headers," said Cruyff. "We Dutch are in the midst of them. The Dutch are a meld of all.

"Our game," said Cruyff, trying to speak humbly of all the Dutch, but meaning himself, "is not so much creative as improvisational.

"I do things the moment they must be done. I cannot explain it," he shrugged, asking Bradley for help.

"You could take two players of roughly equal athletic ability and one could practice every day and the other could work once a week," said Bradley. "But, in the match, the man who is lazy could be 10 times as good as the hard worker."

"Soccer is the sport where no one can prove that he is right. You can argue for days and both be right. Every opinion is valuable," said Cruyff.

"Suppose I make a pass into a gap and no one is there. Am I wrong for losing the ball? Or is my teammate wrong for not seeing the gap and anticipating my pass? There is no answer.

"When it works, only then do you know it is right. You can almost never say for certain that something is wrong. It is nice in my game that you are allowed to make fine mistakes.

"This is why 'Total Soccer' is so hard to explain," said Cruyff, who has been called the man who invented the daring style called Total Soccer. "To attack, you must take chances.

"People say that in soccer it is hard to create a scoring play while it is easy to destroy. That is because you supposedly have less control of a ball with your feet.

"I think that you can do everything with your feet. There is nothing that is impossible," he said with his best enigmatic smile, one practiced through almost 18 professional seasons. "I believe it is not so difficult to create." a

Without question, the restructured Dips will be a creative and entertaining team. That is far from saying they will be in the 1980 Soccer Bowl at RFK in September.

"When we are on form this season," Bradley said with a smile, "we will certainly entertain."

Even the Dips are surprised by the offensive possibilities opened up by Jansen and Lozano, who will join Cruyff in the Dips' four-man midfield, behind '79's high scorer, forward Alan Green (16 goals, nine assists).

"I don't like to promote my players too much," said Bradley. "I never mind being the underdog. All things can happen in soccer."

Nevertheless, Diplomat goalkeeper Bill Irwin, a rugged, 6-foot-2 rogue with a bristly russet mustache, drools when he sees Lozano's ball control and speed.

"They ought to call a penalty on the bloody fellow," roared Irwin. "He has fingers on his feet. It's like he's throwing the ball, not kicking it."

"See how Lozano strikes it," said Bradley. "He's got an invisible rope on his foot."

If Lozano, like Green, is a dark, long-haired speedster with eyes for the goal, then Jansen, a teammate of Cruyff's on Dutch national terms, is more a defensive midfielder.

Bradley could hardly contain himself while watching his team as it tore though Jacksonville, 10-1, this week.

"Weak competition isn't all bad for us just now," said Bradley. "With less resistance, we can get a better feel for how we can work together.

"Well done, Wim," Bradley burst out, watching Jansen steal a pass."That's a fine ball, Zak," he called to midfielder Sakib Viteskie.

"Yes, we'll entertain at home, though I doubt we'll be 16-0," said Bradley. "But that pleasing stuff at home may not suffice on the road. The bruisers may knock us off our game. Away from home, we'll have to be men as well as players. We may have to fight to win."

At the moment, after three serious injuries, the Diplomat center backs, the heart of the defense, are decimated.

"It's certainly our first priority to be in the market for a central defender, but it's a big problem," said Bradley. "I want to find the player, but time's not on my side. The whole world's playing right now. Where do you look?"

Unless that problem is solved, the defensive vacuum could easily last six weeks or more until the wounded heal.

"We badly need a big 'un in the middle who'll take no prisoners," said Irwin, whose goal-against average was 1.45 last season, best in Dip history. "It's no secret that we've got no bruisers. I dearly wish we had one.

"We're a smallish, very skilled team."

What the Dips may have in place of muscle is a rather formidable companionship -- or, at least, the beginnings of one. They are a daffy, polyglot lot. Cruyff and Jansen, in particular, seem to have joined well with pranksters and wits like Irwin, Stokes, keeper Eric Martin and four-year captain Gary Darrell.

When Cruyff arrived, the veteran Martin threw a soccer ball at his hand, yelling, "Think quick." A soccer player's usual reaction to a speeding ball is to head it. Cruyff headed it.

Unfortunately, this was a soccer medicine ball -- filled with at least 10 pounds of sand. Cruyff's welcome to the Dips was a $1.5 million contract and one headache.

Martin, who missed the last two Dip seasons with a break of both bones in his lower leg, has been made an assistant coach and a club director of promotions. However, he still takes his turn in goal in scrimmages here and continues to harass Irwin about which man is the most handsome keeper.

After an uneventful half in which he had to rebuff only a few shots on goal, Martin groused to his mates, "Bring me coffee and two teas. I think I'll get me pillow and paper for the next half. Bloody mates won't even pass it back to me. I'll save me strength for tonight."

"Now, now," needled Irwin, "you'll be chasing the birds that I leave. These Southern women find me so attractive that I've taken to lockin' me door at night to keep 'em out."

With this crew, which has already improved under Bradley from 10-16 to 16-14 to 19-11 last year, the coach should have little problem with what he calls "man management."

"We were a good team without Cruyff," said Stokes, "and any man who thinks he won't be improved by being on the same team with him is crazy."

"My obligation is simple," said Cruyff. "I must do all the unpleasant things that others do. You cannot have a team if one player takes an outstanding position."

Washington's obligations to the Dips may not be so simple. Last season, the club lost a million dollars. Now, it has spent $4 million to "go first class."

"Last year, we drew 13,000 a game," said Bradley. "Now, with these new salaries, our break-even attendance must be at least 25,000 and probably closer to 30,000. People are talking about drawing 20,000 a game this year. I hope so. I'd bet more like 16,000 to 18,000."

Can the Dips draw 25,000 or more, even to see the man who may be the best soccer player in the world? And how long will Madison Square Garden, Inc., continue to endure seven-figure losses before it considers uprooting the franchise?

Johan Cruyff, a composed, compact man who likes lean meat and black coffee, who moves softly and suddenly like a leopard, seems to have appeared in Rfk Stadium by magic, like one of his daring, blind passes.

If the rest of the world outside America were asked, it might call Cruyff the one athlete most worth watching and studying. Yet, when Cruyff played a full game here against a college team this week, the total attendance -- for free -- was zero. Not a single fan.

"It's a bit of a relief," Cruyff, who retired from soccer for a year in 1978, said with a smile. "I had been drained empty."

Nevertheless, from Holland to Barcelona to Los Angeles to Washington, Cruyff only plays where Cruyff is paid in millions. And he can only be paid if the stadium is full.

Cruyff has arrived in Washington like an unexpected gift of nature. It might be a mistake to assume that this diamond will be on display for long.