Thousands of Italians come to this tiny Umbriam village each weekend to take part in one of the country's newest social events. Amid the wheat fields and vineyards, the gentle countryside and Gothic architecture, the natives of this central Italian town make new acquaintances, sit in the sun and watch football.

American football.

In a nation that worships football (known as soccer to Americans), the funny game with the funny ball looks grossly out of place here. However, the organizers of the Italian Federation of American Football are determined to supplant rugby as a popular minor-sport alternative to almighty soccer.

Castelgiorgio is being billed as "the European Capital of American Football." The village, about 80 miles north of Rome, doesn't even turn up on road guides, but officials hope American football will put it on the sporting map.

The four-team league, consisting of the Rome Wolverines, Rome Gladiators, Milan Devils and Turni Bulls, started play last month and will end in October with its version of the Super Bowl, the Vince Lombardi, Memorial Trophy Game.

The games are played at Vince Lombardi Stadium, which only has a grandstand on one side holding a bout 2,000 spectators, with American referees and mostly American rules: There are even marching bands, cheerleaders and majorettes " a la America" as the Italians like to say.

The American referees are all armed forces personel stationed in Naples who officiate military games. Federation President Bruno Beneck contacted them early in the year, and they started holding clinics in February.

The Americans -- Ron Gill of Dallas, Jim Simpson of Devner, Doc Christian of Seattle, Jeff Lipscomb of Reno, Nev ., and Bob Jones of Raleigh, N.C. -- seem optimistic that Italians will like American football as much as they like American blue jeans.

"The players have learned a hell of a lot. With a lot of help, they can be good, They so desperately want to play football and play it well," Gill says. "I can see this thing being a big success in a couple of years. They've had some problems finding a stadium and so on. But they can get one notch up on rugby. They'll never compete with soccer, but they can get ahead of rugby."

Benceck and the league want to convince sports-hungry Italians that football is the perfect offseason diet. Most of the players in the league play rugby in the winter, and there is already some tension between rugby and football officials as they vie for the same audience.Two of the Wolverines' best players, Andrea Angrisani and Gianluca Limone, recently returned from a tour of New Zealand with an Italian rugby club.

The season's inaugural game won by the Wolverines over Milan, 30-0) demonstrated the Italians' unfamiliarity with the sport.

Illegal procedure violations were pervasive. Poling on was endemic. Players seemed surprised every time the ball changed possession. Late in the game Milian inserted two wide receivers for the first time, and both wore jersey No. 84. (Rome did not mind -- it had two defensive linemen wearing No. 70).

Other oddities abounded. There were two 30-minute quarters in the first half and two 15-minute quarters in the second half. There was a running clock that stopped only on change of possession. The end zones were filled with gravel and the sideline and end zone stripes were made of concrete. The cheerleaders, all about 10 years old, yelled while munching on popsicles.

The players, who are not yet paid, know they play poorly yet think improvement will come with time. As one player put it, "Of course, we donot play like Americans, but how good is the (North American Soccer League) compared to European teams?"

Bruro Diluglia, a Rome Wolverine wide receiver, says, "I still don't understand most of the rules of the game. No player in the league does. I'm sure the fans don't.The referees probably do, but they speak in Engligh and a lot of the players, including myself, don't know what they're saying. When they convict us of an infraction, we often don't know what we did wrong, and we're likely to make the same mistake again.

"We practice two times a week," Diluglia says. "We have no book for our plays. When we meet before a play, the captain will call a sweep 45, which is the number of the player to get the ball. This is not the ultimate organization, but one has to realize that for us, the game is still primative. But that is not to say that it will never become as complex as or as greatly liked as in the United States."

"I've seen many films of football and once I saw a film of a Dallas Pittsburgh Super Bowl game," said Luca Martino of the Wolverines. "I like the game very much. It seemed like it's a little slow, but maybe that's us. We don't have a real coach yet and we have just started. Yes, we don't pass well, but we are not used to moving the arm in that motion."

According to Stefano Gassoni, assistant to Beneck in the federation, the possibility of American football first came up in 1974 when there was an appempt to form a league in Rome, Vienna, Paris and Monaco. The idea fell through.

Then, after an all-sports tournament in Tuscany in 1977 featured football. Italians again showed interest. Late last year, it was decided to try for a league this summer.

Beneath the lack of player fundamentaals one can see a bona fide attempt by the Italians to capture the spirit of American football -- a sport of physical strength and courage, violence and grace.

"We have entered a time in which there is much fear being shown in soccer where the best players are not always the most courageous," contended Fabbio Right, a Milan running back. "There can be no fearful players in football. You have to outfight the other man or else your team will not advance. American football has arrived at a good time here, a time when Italians want something more than finesse, which soccer offers. Many of them would like to see blood.

Initial fan reaction has been mixed. At the opening game, about one-third of the stands emptied after halftime. Some fans said they came because they had friends in the band. Some admitted their complete ignorance of the the game.

"The game, to me,is no more than a social event, a good place to come with a few friends and meet women," said Luciano Baldini, 27. "I don't understand a thing about the game and I don't care to learn."

"I have played a lot of rugby and wanted to see how it compared to American football," Mario Di Filippo says. "Perhaps by the end of the year, I'll know most of the rules. Right now, though, I can't see why this is the greatest game in America. Only a few players do all the work. The ball is thrown but not caught. They take too much time between plays.

"And, you know," he continues as a player is taken off the field on a stretcher, "they ought to build these stadiums near hospitals so the injured players don't have to go so far. In a way, I like brutality. It almost is a return to the days of Roman gladiators."

At least one American couple -- Roland and Joan Phillips of Chicago -- stumbled upon the game while vacationing in Europe.

"We were just passing through ad we saw the posters. We said, 'why not?'" Roland Phillips explains. Then he looked onto the field and smiled. "Now there's a team the Chicago Bears could beat."

What the league lacks now, besides quality, is tradition and credibility among the public. Fans appreared bored during much of the action. Italian newspapers -- even the sports dailies -- practically ignored the opening games, instead concentrating almost solely on the Italian soccer scandal and the Italian Olympic team.

The Federation's Gassoni says the league will increase its promotion once interest is proven.

If the league wants to sell one personality on the public, its probably should be the Wolverines' Diluglia, at 37 the oldest player on any team.

"For most of the players, like myself, who have played rugby, football serves as a way to prove oneself physically," Diluglia says. "People have asked me why I'm beginning football at 37. I tell them that I as a combatant and have always had a competitive nature.

"But there is a difference between being physically competitive and playing the game to maintaining good physical condition. I smoke too many cigarettes (three packs a day) to deceive myself about that."