It was supposed to be a welcome home party. But it became a wake.

As they crowded into the waiting area at National Airport's Gate 19 yesterday, fans and Washington Diplomat staff members put on a brave face, insisting to one another, "Everything's going to be okay. Everything will work out."

But when the team members who had opted to come back to Washington from their month-long tour of the far East wandered off the Eastern Airlines shuttle, reality overcame the faithful.

Johan Cruyff was not with the team, having gone home to Holland. The same for Wim Jansen. Coach Gordon Bradley and Juan Jose Lozano were both in New York discussing their futures with their soon-to-be former employers, Madison Square Garden brass. Alan Green wasn't there. Bobby Stokes, Tommy O'Hara and Bill Irwin were also absent.

Steve Danzansky, team president, the one slim ray of hope for the dying franchise, walked around the room, shaking hands with players as they came off the plane. Gary Darrell. Sakib Viteskic. Joe Horvath. Tony Crescitelli. Dragan Radovich. Barney Boyce. Thomas Rongen. Kip Germain. Trainer Steve Hornor.

"It's a sad situation," Rongen said. "None of us really know what's going on. Is soccer really dead in Washington? Is the team gone? I don't know anything, really. We're all just wondering."

The players learned that their futures were in doubt when they were in Hong Kong. Bradley told them that Madison Square Garden had decided to sell the team. They didn't learn how desperate the situation was until their plane landed at New York's Kennedy Airport yesterday morning and they picked up newspapers to learn that Washington had one week to put together a group to revive the franchise.

"It was something of a shock," Crescitelli said. "It isn't the kind of thing you can sit around and worry about, though, because there's nothing you can do about it.

"I have to be practical. There are a lot of other cities in this league."

Others weren't as practical. "I've been here two years. I love it in Washington," Radovich said. "I would hate to see this end after all the work that all these people have put into it. Really, the whole thing is a shame."

Danzansky and Phil Woosnam, North American Soccer League commissioner, met yesterday with a group Danzansky described as substantial.

"We met with them for 2 1/2 hours and I think they're really interested," Danzansky said. "They'll get back to us Wednesday. They are capable of doing it and they asked some hard questions. That was encouraging. We're still hoping. Something perfect might come along tomorrow."

But while his lips said, "There's hope," his eyes said, "It's all over but the shouting."

The Diplomaniac mascot ran around handing out Diplomat memorabilia to the roughly 125 people in the waiting room. One young man pounded on a drum. People held up their "We love the Dips" signs for the players to see. dBut the staff and the fans seemed to realize that this was indeed an ending. They know it will take a miracle to save this franchise now.

And so, the tears came, to the fans and the staff. Some fought them back, some cried unabashedly. But they cried because they felt helpless. The corporate Goliath had chosen to step on its David of a soccer team and there was no slingshot anywhere in sight.

"It was really quite a year," Danzansky said, sounding nostalgic already. "We were right there, on the verge." He brightened suddenly. "It isn't over yet."

Not quite. But Cruyff is under contract now to the Cosmos and apparently negotiating with a Brazilian team to play there next season. General Manager Andy Dolich is gone. Jim Trecker, public relations director, is gone. Bradley is no longer under contract. The end is most definitely in sight.

In one corner of the room stood a security guard watching the cheering, the sign-waving and the crying. "The Diplomats, huh? Who are they?

Informed that the Diplomats were the local soccer team and they were about to go out of business, the guard said, "Really? Too bad. Guess that's why they're all crying."