The little boy looked terrified. At his feet was a soccer ball. In front of him stood a seemingly endless maze of cones that he had to dribble through in order to reach the goal.

"I can't," he said, looking up at Johan Cruyff, who stood next to him.

Cruyff, here with the Washington Diplomats, who played the Minnesota Kicks tonight, knelt and put his arms on the boy's shoulders. "Sometimes," he said, "we all think we can't." He paused to tie the boy's shoes for him. "If you think you can, you can."

He smiled. "All you can do, is try your best."

The little boy, whose name was Mark, smiled at Cruyff.

"Watch me," he said. Slowly, he started through the maze, pushing the ball off the side of his foot again and again. Doggedly, he continued, Cruyff yelling encouragement. When Mark reached the net and pushed the ball past the "goalie," a Special Olympics supervisor, he threw his arms in the air.

Cruyff, who had followed a few steps behind, knelt again and gave the boy a hug. "Now you know," he said. "If you try, you can do anything."

Today, the Special Olympics, the program launched 12 years ago to give the retarded an opportunity to take part in sports, is almost taken for granted.

"One of the reasons I do these clinics is because I hope my being here will give the program some exposure." Cruyff said. "Look at these kids. The people here have worked hard with them. But they need more. How can you enough?"

The clinic here, for about 40 Special Olympians, each of whom was accompanied by a volunteer partner, provided a look at a rarely seen side of Cruyff. Underneath the bluster and the ego beats the heart of a man who can't say no to a child.

Throughout the hour-long clinic, Cruyff tried to say something to each child, tried to give each something to think about.

"A professional can only think about one aspect of the game at one time," Cruyff said."So how can you give children more than that and still expect them to learn."

Cruyff clearly enjoyed himself, posing for pictures, signing autographs and lingering as long as the youngsters wanted when the clinic was over. Many of the children really had no idea who he was. They had been told he was a hero, a star.

One youngster ran to her father, saying, "I want his autograph." Her father gave her paper and pencil. "Now," said the little girl, "which one is he?"

At that moment, Cruyff was hard to spot. He was on his knees again, this time showing a girl wearing a cast from her neck to her waist how to properly kick the ball.

Cruyff demonstrated once, them twice. "Now you," he said. The little girl kicked the ball several feet. Cruyff applauded approvingly.

"You see," he said, "you are a real star." The little girl smiled magically.

Later, as he watched the same girl leave the field with her parents, Cruyff said softly, "We should do more of these."

No one argued with him.