Italian sports fans take their national pastime seriously: Sunday soccer games are even a steadier part of the diet than pasta, and millions of dollars are bet legally and illegally each week. But today, Italians wait and wonder. Did dozens of soccer players accept bribes to fix games, and then also defraud the fixers?

A credibility crisis has long loomed in the Italian political arena but some observers say that the soccer problems are the ones that really count with most Italians.

"You cannot imagine what this means in Italy," said a British-based official of the European Football Union (UEFA), the ruling body of European soccer. "There are two religions here. You have the one down the road which the Pope runs from St. Peter's. And you have this one -- soccer. Sometimes I think soccer is the one that really is more sacred."

This week, Italy finds itself in the position of hosting the prestigious European Cup of Nations tournament at the same time it puts its most renowned soccer figures on trial for the alleged fixing of games, conspiracy and swindle.

Although the scandal is the biggest in Italian sports history, soccer may be too deep-rooted here to ever seriously ruffle its fans.

"You (Americans) have a Super Bowl once a year. The Italians have a dozen of them every Sunday," said a West German UEFA official. "Football is a way of life for many in America, but it doesn't touch the infiltration here. Just look around."

He pointed through a hotel-lobby window toward three youngsters across the street kicking a soccer ball across a dirt lot.

All over Rome, there are impromptu pickup games in parks and on cobblestone streets. Numerous daily sports newspapers offer blanket soccer coverage. Sunday afternoons during the season, whether a man goes to the park with his family or rides a motor scooter through town, there is a radio at his ear as he listens to the national broadcast.

But the hero worship, common throughout Europe, has abated this spring. In addition to the Italian scandal, investigations are proceeding in Spain and Greece, where games also allegedly were fixed.

The investigations in Italy began in January, but the story did not become public until March. Two men, restaurant owner Alvara Trinca and grocer Massimo Cruiani, accused 27 players of taking bribes to fix results and then double-crossing them. Trinca and Cruciani, in turn, lost hundres of thousands of dollars in illegal bets.

The allegations and aftermath played havoc with the Italian season. It threatened the validity of the championship, an erosion of fan support and the weekly state-run pool, whose profits go to the Italian Olympic Committee.

With the Italian Soccer Federation's recent penalties and the legal trial beginning this week, Italian players and officials are keeping mum.

For instance, the wife of Lazio's Massimo Cacciatori, 29, suspended for life by the soccer federation, will answer the phone but, she says, when her husband is home, the receiver stays off the hook.

Umberto Lenzini, the administrator for Rome's Lazio, one of the hardest-hit teams in the scanda, said, "I am destroyed, nauseated, disgusted. I don't understand anything anymore. Every minute someone new comes forth and says something different."

Italian soccer stars reacted angrily to the accusations, and some filed lawsuits against Cruciani and Trinca. Paolo Rossi, 23, Italy's highest-paid player and a national team star who could be banned for three years, said, "I will defend my name. They want to ruin soccer."

According to observers, the accusers feared for their lives and happily admitted their own guilt in betting illegally to wreak revenge on the alleged double-crossers.

"They confessed because they owed a lot of money to bookies. They had no choice. They were facing death," said Giuseppe Rossi, a reporter for the II Messaggero newspaper, who first broke the story.

It was reported that the accusers were acting on behalf of a gambling syndicate that had lost $1.8 million this year to illegal bookies when the players allegedly reneged on the deal.

In late March, on a dramatic, bizarre Sunday, 11 soccer players and the president of A.C. Milan, Felice Columbo, were arerested on swindling charges.

Players were jailed at Rome's Regina Coeli prison and held in solitary confinement for four days. The number of incarcerated rose to 14, including Colombo, and they were suspended for two months by the soccer federation.

Perugia's Manta della Martira and Avellino's Stefano Pellegrini admitted receiving checks from Cruciani. But della Martira claimed the money was a bonus for his fine play in the Perugia-Avellino game (allegedly a fixed match) and Pellegrini said the money was payment for a loan.

Meanwhile, the soccer federation announced that the 1980-81 season would not begin until the scandal was resolved, and the group lifted a 1965 ban on signing foreign players with the prospects of many super stars' futures being ruined. Already, three big-name foreigners have signed with Italian teams and numerous others are being courted.

The controversy severely effected Coach Enzo Bearzot's plans for the Italian national team. He named a provisional squad for the European Cup, but many of his players would not compete with star striker Rossi and others absent. But this week, optimism has developed because of problems on other national squads, such as England's.

The federation handed down lifetime suspensions to Colombo (accused of being a go-between for the bribers and the Lazio players), Albertosi and Cacciatori five years to della Martira and Pellegrini, three years to Rossi and Perugia teammate Luciano Zecchia and shorter suspensions to four other players, including Giordano. Seven players were absolved.

In addition, A.C. Milan was dropped to last place in the First Division, effectively relegating the club to the Second Division for the first time in its history. Perugia and Avellino were penalized five points at the start of next season (a severe handicap in Italian soccer) and Lazio was fined about $12,000.

Milan fans have threatened violent action during European Cup games in that city because of the action.

The Italian fans, who will hand down the final verdict on the health and durability of the game here, tend to be philosophical about the scandal.

"The scandal is reality -- it is truth," said Rome taxi driver Francesco Meroni. "Betting and fixing are common. I'm happy to see these players disqualified because it cleans up the game and this is good because a lot of Italians invest their lives in Sunday sports."