He could barely run. It didn't matter. He couldn't possibly think of pivoting to his left. It didn't matter. He couldn't control the midfield the way he likes to. It didn't matter.

He didn't even want to play. But Johan Cruyff did play last night, hobbling around in his white Washington Diplomats uniform for 24 minutes. That was all that mattered.

Cruyff is 34 and, less than two months after a groin operation, he is a mere shadow of himself, a mortal who limps when he tries to run. But he still has a sense of the dramatic and knows that he can be great theater.

If ever there was a scene set for melodrama it was this night in RFK Stadium. It had rained twice, each time a pouring summer rain accompanied by thunder and lightning. The lightning was probably part of the act.

Cruyff had sat on the bench next to Coach Ken Furphy all evening, having been greeted with as thunderous a reception as a crowd of 10,651 can muster when he was introduced before the game. He had come out wearing his familiar 14, a number young David McGill had sworn only a week ago he would never give up.

Tuesday, McGill said, he changed his mind. He said -- smiling -- that management didn't push him.

When Cruyff trotted out to join his new teammates during the introductions McGill pulled off his own No. 14 and handed it to Cruyff. "Welcome and good luck," the young Canadian told Cruyff, shaking his hand.

That should have been Cruyff's last hurrah for the evening. On a soaking wet field, the groin still sore, he was safest sitting in his orange rain slicker next to Furphy.

But Furphy was a coach in need of a win, in need of inspiration. "The first words came at halftime," Cruyff said. "Down, 2-1, there was talk."

With a break in play and 10:15 left in regulation, Cruyff stripped off his slicker. The crowd, huddled under cover, murmured.

Cruyff stood, stretched and then watched John Lally, the trainer, rub the leg vigorously. He nodded to Furphy and trotted onto the field.

"It was not my idea," Cruyff said. "Before the game it was decided definitely that I would not play. But morale was a little down. The idea was to lift the public behind the team and let the public lift the team."

The sight of Cruyff moving onto the field lifted the public out of its seats.

Quickly, it became apparent that Cruyff could not do certain things, such as run. But he could still see the field and the players well enough to be an effective one-touch and pass player. And he could still point. Cruyff is as famous for his direction-giving as his ball-handling and it took him exactly 10 seconds to begin pointing at his teammates, telling them what to do, where to go.

If life were perfect, Cruyff would have hobbled into position long enough to find a way to score the winning goal. But he was marked closely -- even on one leg, he merits respect -- and although he got off several pretty passes, the winning goal was not to be.

But he didn't aggravate the injury and the Diplomats managed to win in a shootout, after which Cruyff picked his way through opponents and teammates to give goalkeeper Jim Brown a handshake.

Afterward, sitting on a training table, a blue ice pack against his thigh, Cruyff was relaxed, almost quiet by his standards, speaking softly about why he is back in Washington.

"I felt awful when the team was folded last year," he said. "We had worked so hard and done so well, bringing fans in here. I think if Madison Square Garden had kept the team we would have drawn 25-30,000 a game this year. Now, it has been set back. When I found out the team was gone, I thought it was over, I would never play in Washington again.

"But I like to finish what I start. When they called me I was very interested right away."

"Cruyff was diplomatic -- a new wrinkle for him -- when talking about his new team. Only once did the feisty Cruyff of last season peek out from around the angelic smile. "The team works hard," he said. "But it does make mistakes, sometimes at bad times. You do not give up a goal with 20 seconds left in the half (as the Dips did last night). That is impossible. Impossible. Can't be allowed."

He received cheers from his new teammates, who, after initial grumblings, appear delighted to have him in their midst.

"I went on to try to cheer everyone, the players, the public, up," Cruyff said. "I tried to avoid mistakes and prayed for a miracle."

He smiled. There had been no miracle. But it didn't matter.