He insists he does not think of himself as The Savior. But he did not object when someone stitched "JC" onto the front of his uniform.

Johan Cruyff has returned to the Washington Diplomats. He says he is here to help sell tickets, to try to stop the franchise from sliding into oblivision, to finish what he started last year with the late Madison Square Garden Diplomats.

But it isn't that simple. Cruyff is hoping to accomplish all of the above.

But those are the reasons the Diplomats brought him here, not the reasons he came. Cruyff is back for money and for love. He is back because the pressure here is far less than in Europe. And, most of all, he is back because he needs soccer as much as sooner needs him.

Johan Cruyff, 34, a professional 19 years, is a soccer junkie. He tried to give up the game three years ago and could not. He had to come back. Bad business investments certainly influenced him then, just as the money he is being paid influences him now.

But the mercenary side of Cruyff, the cold, hard side, is only part of the story.Underneath, Cruyff still is a boy reveling in attention and affection. Johan Cruyff wants to be loved. In Washington, even if he cannot play at the stratospheric level he once achieved, he knows he will be loved.

He came back to Washington because he will be paid $175,000 for the remainder of the season. But he also is here because he will hear cheers whether he scores two goals or 20. Cruyff won over this city last year despite his controversial nature and he knows it.

If Cruyff gets healthy quickly and stays so (possible) and if the Diplomats qualify for the Soccer Bowl (little chance), Cruyff could play 18 games, playoffs included. Even at that, his salary breaks down to almost $9,000 per game.

Since saviors are not supposed to be concerned with money, Cruyff insists money had nothing to do with his decision to return.

"To come back someplace where you have lived seven months and have people come up and say, 'Welcome home,' that is what life is about," Cruyff said last week, signing autographs for waiters at lunch. "When the Garden decided not to go on, I felt terrible, really terrible, because we had done so much. It had gone so well, almost perfect at the end."

Cruyff's normally strident voice is soft when he speaks; in fact, there is a softness about him now that was not evident a year ago. For the last four months, his wife, Danny, has been ill. She still is not well and much of what Cruyff does these days is influenced by her health.

There also is little doubt that he missed Washington and many of the friends he made here. His only demand when the Diplomats contacted him two week ago was that they arrange for him to live in the same Georgetown house he rented last summer. Not because the house is so special but because he likes the neighbors.

It will be a while before anyone, including the owners of the Diplomats (Jimmy and Duncan Hill), who put out the money to bring him here, knows how much Cruyff can help this struggling team, which has lost seven of its last nine games and is now 10-10 for the season.

Cruyff was operated on May 5 for a groin injury suffered in Spain and aggravated it by trying to come back too soon three weeks later. He is not yet fully recovered and will not make this week's Diplomat trip to the West Coast for games tonight at Portland and Saturday at California. Healthy, he still can be a dominant player. Even playing injured with a limp, his ball control, vision and instincts are good. Whether this team will accept him as an on-field leaders -- which it must for him to be effective -- is a question not yet answered.

Cruyff is trying to tread lightly this time, hoping to avoid the kind of ugliness that pervaded the 1980 season. "If I did not have all the trouble last year, there would not be nearly as much interest this year," he said, smiling his best little-boy smile. "A lot was exaggerated. This year, we will do better."

Cruyff is not a person who can be analyzed easily. He is part athlete, part businessman, part missionary and part little boy looking for affection.

His reputation is that of a man who goes where the money is, who makes his deals where he can and when he can. In the last three years, he has worked for five different soccer organizations: Los Angeles; two Washington organizations; Ajax, his old Dutch team, and Levante, a second-division Spanish team.

It often has been said that Cruyff, who retired from soccer three years ago before coming back, returned because his investments in Spain went bad and he was broke, that he had to come back and that even today his finances are muddled.

"Because your investments go bad, it does not mean you have no money left," Cruyff said. "I never had to play soccer; if that were the case, I couldn't do it. You have to enjoy it or you can't do it.

"If money were all that mattered, I would never have come to this country. I would have stayed in Europe. To go someplace and make 100 percent of what you can get is silly if you can go someplace else and get 80 and be happy.

"I enjoy soccer now because it is different than before. It is not just soccer, it is more. The work on the field is only part of it; that makes it fun. As long as it is fun, I will play."

It is fun for Cruyff because he still loves to play the game, loves to teach the game, loves to talk the game.

"I think Johan is a lost soul who needs soccer to survive," said Jim Trecker, who, as the Diplomats' publicity director, worked closely with Cruyff a year ago. "I think his first thoughts in the morning are of soccer. He truly sees himself as a man with a mission and his mission is to teach the game, make people understand it and love it like he does."

Trecker may have seen Cruyff in some of his worst moments last year, moments when he raved on about Gordon Bradley not being a competent coach, about his teammates not knowing what they were doing, about the failings of management and the press.

Yet his first memory of Cruyff, Trecker says, has nothing to do with any of those incidents. "What I'll never forget about Johan Cruyff are two scenes. The first one was Portland, a Special Olympics clinic. I've seen a million of them but I've never seen one that almost made me cry.

"Johan almost made me cry that day.His feeling for those kids, his determination to make them feel good, was unbelievable. A different person, completely different than the one I had seen."

Ironically, one of the people here that Cruyff now is closest to is Bradley, the same Bradley he swore he would never play for again during the 1980 season. "The disagreements we had were only about soccer," Cruyff says now. "Gordon is a fantastic person. I wish he were a part of this organization. They need him."

There is in Cruyff a great deal of the pragmatist. This past winter, he was asked to return to the Dutch World Cup team, a team he had led to glory in 1974 as captain, taking it from nowhere to the World Cup final. The Dutch are not what they used to be and they desperately needed their old captain back to have a shot at making the 24-team field in 1982.

Cruyff said no.

"Why should I have gone back when everything they are doing with soccer in Holland is wrong now," he said.

With Cruffy of course, there is only one proper way to do anything: his way. There is no compromise in the man to give. He is bright enough to understand that about himself and sees nothing wrong with it.

"When you have done something for very long, you should know a lot about it," he said.

Cruyff never stops suggesting changes. A year ago he arrived thinking he had to be player, coach, general manager, PR man and owner. Now, four days after joining his new team he flinched, winced and bit his tongue when asked if he saw need for changes.

"I still do not know the situation," he said. "The time is too short to try to do everything. I think the best we can do is try to be exciting at home and put more people in the stands.

"Last year, we had come so far; now we have slid back." Cruyff held his hands two feet apart. "Last year, we did this much." He moved them to within three inches. "Now, the best we can do is this much. I hope we can stop the slide backwards. They need a brake to stop the engine from going all the way down the hill."

Cruyff obviously believes he can be that brake. If not, he would not be here because he does not like to fail, does not like to be, as he puts it, blamed.

He could have gone to play for F. C. Cologne in Germany, where he would have been reunited with his old coach, Rinus Michels. But again, the pressure to be the greatest would have reared its head there -- and Cologne did not have the kind of money Cruyff wanted. That combination kept him away.

"When you are basically living in a hospital (because of his wife), it is impossible to concentrate totally on soccer," he said. "There is no way to do it. To do what is expected of me, I have to concentrate completely on the game. I could not do that."

It is difficult to believe that Cruyff is 34. His features are still as smooth as a teen-ager's, his blue eyes as innocent as a baby's. He can crackle with disgust, one minute, then open his eyes wide in another and charm his way past a long line to get a new driver's license.

He has lived the life of a nomad for so long now it is second nature. He has played soccer professionally since he was 15 and from the beginning he has been both brilliant and controversial. He has always been a dominant figure, as dominant as any athlete 5 feet 8 and 150 pounds ever has been. There is a story about him, perhaps apocryphal, that once during a game be got so caught up in giving directions that he found himself standing at midfield pointing both ways.

The pointing and the direction-giving never have changed, nor will they as long as he plays. But now, Cruyff seems in search of something on which to grab. As a soccer hero in Europe, he felt smothered, often by affection, more often by pressure. Here, there is a balance. The affection, in smaller doses, is there, but the pressure is not. In the back of his mind, Cruyff must be thinking about settling here, about remaining as an owner or as a coach -- a youth coach.

"I could see myself, when I am through playing, working with players, maybe between 17 and 20," Cruyff said. "I would like to take the best players and maybe get them from playing at 85 percent to 90 percent or 95. That, I would like.

"But it is hard here because of all the rules. In Holland, you can work with someone who is 17; there are no rules to limit you."

But Cruyff might also be talked into partial ownership of an American team, although he says that at the mement he is not interested. But he always will be involved with soccer.

"If you are good at something, it makes sense that it will always be part of your life," he said. "I still enjoy the game very much. I am happy when I am on the field, when I am working, because it is not work to me. As long as that is so, I will play."

As long as he can command the money, the attention, the affection he craves, Johan Cruyff will play. Because there is nothing else he would rather do.