These are not the high-rolling Diplomats of Gulf & Western, operated by Madison Square Garden. These are the low-rolling Diplomats, who will open the season Saturday night without a name across their chests. The outfit that makes the letters sent them here yesterday. All too small. Until you get three feet from a fellow, you couldn't read "Diplomats."

No, these Diplomats can't hire Johan Cruyff, a star so bright kidnappers once held his wife for ransom. These Diplomats, if they want a great player, must hire kidnappers to bring him to Washington.

Gone are the Garden's megabucks, which is, truth be told, small cost to say goodbye to the New York chauvinists who came to Washington two years ago and left in a blue snit. They were heard whining, as small children do if denied a lollypop, that This Senator and That Congressman were invited to RFK but never came.

Bye-bye, Johan Cruyff.

Welcome home, Paul Cannell.

Cannell is a journeyman, Cruyff an artist. Yet there is a pleasing symmetry in their leaving and coming. In Cruyff, the New Yorkers hired a mercenary whose bloodless work went to the highest bidder; in Cannell, the born-again Diplomats ahve a creature of passion who links the past, present and future of soccer in Washington.

"The team coming to Washington like this," said Cannell, for three years a Diplomat before being sold off last season, "is a second chance for me, a second chance for the Diplomats and a second chance for D.C. I just hope that this year we attract the same fans who supported the team so well last year, even though we may not have the same vast advertising budget."

How veddy stuffy, that.

We are, after all, speaking of the endearing lad who dropped his drawers in front of 25,000 people preparatory to bending over and launching the first moonshot aimed at a referee.

Cannell had no mad desire to bare all.

But the purblind incompetent of a referee spoke Yugoslavian and Cannell didn't.

So Cannell used a language everyone understands.

Naturally, the league frowned on the moonshot (as, indeed, the referee may have). You can't have every fellow in the league dropping his shorts, or else you'd have to add 20,000 seats to every stadium and have ladies' nights every night. So the league fined and suspended Cannell.

That accomplished one thing. "I've leaned some Yugoslavian curse words now," Cannell said.

Like Jim Palmer, Cannell is so handsome it's unfair. At 27, an Englishman, a bachelor, Cannell as a Diplomat became an expert on the nocturnal habits of birds nesting in Georgetown. When the league suspended Cannell, a reporter found him by the obvious method of dialing up every bar near the corner of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue.

What Cannell has, along with Joe Theismann and no other athlete in Washington, is star quality. Not only can he play some, but everyone who pays for a seat knows that Paul Cannell is loving his work. And if you can't see how much fun he is having, Cannell can tell you. He is a naughty, naughty Theismann in short pants.

"Let us not go overboard on the naughty now," Cannell said. "The things that were said about me when the Diplomats sold me, I only wish I could have done them all. They had me so many places every night, I would have needed to be The Incredible Hulk. If I did half what they said I did, I would be bloody dead."

Let's say he does half of that half, all with a smile on his face, for Cannell believes it is possible, even thrilling, to be a professional athlete and a real person at the same time.

"I play soccer to enjoy it, because it is a game," he said. "Too many professional athletes are thinking only of the dollars, and so they forget to entertain the people. If I can entertain, I will. But only in appropriate times. I wouldn't do anything on a soccer field to put a game in jeopardy. I wouldn't play around with the goalkeeper, for instance, if it was nil-nil. It it was four-zip, yes, then I play around."

The day Paul Cannell spoke so eloquently to the Yugoslavian referree, the Diplomats won, 4-1.

Cannell wishes Boston had nicknamed its team the Stranglers. "Boston Stranglers 3, Memphis Rogues 1. Wonderful."

He has a motto that explains why he leads the NASL in penalty minutes and yellow cards. "Do unto others before they do unto you."

The diplomats drink a lot of beer after a game. "Win or lose," the poet Cannell said, "we have our booze."

The new Diplomats, Cannell said, will be entertaining, because the coach, Ken Furphy, is a Englishman who attacks.

"English soccer is 200 miles per hour faster than others," Cannell said. "After games, the ball goes into the treatment room for treatment, it has been kicked so hard."

Furphy is good for another reason, too, Cannell said. "He wants players with flair. Not to say you should pull your pants down in front of 25,000 people. But if you do something different, you will not be strung up and given 30 lashes."

Lost in Memphis last season, Cannell pined for Washington. He spent the winter playing indoors in Calgary. ("Looked like Alaska to me. I should have traded in my car for a set of huskies.") It is lovely, he says, that fate moved the Detroit Express, for whom he played a few indoor games, to Washington.

"D.C. means Different Class," Cannell said. "To me, it's the capital of the world. I hope this is the last move of my career, because I have so many good friends in Washington. I like mixing with lawyers and doctors and politicians. They're not imbeciles. They have worked at becoming something. pThey are people that matter."

Paul Cannell, who hasn't been in Washington for a while, had a question.

"Any new scandals going on?"

Did he know about the blonde lobbyist with the videotake machine?

"Do tell me."