Despite uncertainty whether Argentina and three British teams will compete because of the Falklands situation, preparations for the 1982 soccer World Cup in Spain are on schedule for one of the world's premier sporting events.

The quadrennial tournament will peak with the championship game July 11 in Madrid. A television audience estimated at 1.3 billion is expected to tune in to the opening ceremony in Barcelona June 13.

The World Cup ignites emotions and kindles nationalistic fervor from Argentina to Zaire. Millions are spent to prepare teams for the big event, and nations literally have gone to war after a World Cup qualifying match (El Salvador and Honduras fought their 1969 "Soccer War" over other, longstanding issues, but everyone remembers the immediate cause was a game).

Every soccer pundit has a favorite World Cup tale. Italy's highly paid superstars sneaked home at dawn in 1966 after North Korea eliminated them from the tournament in England with a 1-0 upset. In 1950, the United States scored a stunning upset over England in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, by the same score. London's newspapers, bordered in black, announced a "dark day for England."

There is no chance of that happening this year. The United States, because of its chronic inability to beat Canada and Mexico, has failed to qualify for a World Cup since 1950. The two representatives this year from the zone composed of North and Central America and the Caribbean are those two countries that fought that "Soccer War"--El Salvador and Honduras.

Even had the United States managed to qualify, its chances of winning anything would have been slim. The real powers are from Europe and South America.

Most of the favorites in this year's tournament, which has been expanded from 16 to 24 teams, are showing signs of nervousness and are struggling to reach top form before the start of the tournament. Nobody seems anxious to repeat the mistake of West Germany, one of the favorites for the 1978 tournament in Argentina.

The Germans played exceptionally well in exhibition games in South America about a year before the tournament, but they folded in the tournament--an obvious case of peaking too soon.

This year, the critics are wondering whether Brazil might not have done the same thing. A year ago, the Brazilians had a highly successful European tour, defeating the best teams on the Continent. Their most recent tests, however, have been 1-1 ties and slim, unconvincing victories over uninspired competition, and Coach Tele Santana has to be wondering if his team will be at peak form in Spain.

Although there is no clear-cut favorite, most experts are predicting the winner will be one of the last three champions--Argentina (1978), West Germany (1974) and Brazil (1970)--or one of two European dark horses--Spain, with the home field advantage, and the surprisingly strong Soviet Union.

The Argentines are likely to start a lineup returning nine of the 11 players that started the 1978 final in Buenos Aires, plus two superstars: goal scorer Ramon Diaz, 22, and playmaker Diego Maradona, 21, who has been compared with former Brazilian star Pele at the same age.

West Germany also is deep and experienced. It has rebuilt considerably, however, since 1978, when it lost to Austria, 3-2, in a key match. West Germany will be led by two stars from European Champions' Cup finalist Bayern Munich, attacker Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and midfield leader Paul Breitner, who finished 1-2 in the voting for Europe's player of the year in 1981. It also has two prolific goal scorers in Horst Hrubesch of Hamburg and Klaus Fischer of Cologne.

Brazil is led by superstar Zico (his real name is Artur Coimbra, but nobody in Brazil knows him by that name), and a 28-year-old midfielder who happens to be a real M.D., Dr. Socrates. Brazil is very talented, and if Zico plays well, this team may win an unprecedented fourth World Cup.

As the host team, Spain is under a great deal of pressure. Much of its success depends on a nucleus of players from a team in the independent-minded Basque country, league champions Real Sociedad of San Sebastian.

They include world-class goalkeeper Luis Arconada, midfielders Jesus Zamora and Miguel Alonso, winger Roberto Lopez Ufarte and striker Jesus Satrustegui. The importance of the Basques to the Spanish team's success is one reason many Spanish observers feel that Basque terrorists are likely to keep their attempts at disruption to a minimum, although they have been sending mixed signals on this score.

The other dark horse favorite, the Soviet Union, will rely on three players who finished in the top 10 in the voting for Europe's player of the year, particularly attackers Oleg Blokhine of Dynamo Kiev and Ramas Shengeliya of Dynamo Tbilissi. However, the Soviets' hopes have been dampened somewhat by two key injuries. The talented David Kipiani may have to retire because of a bad hip, and a mysterious ailment has slowed playmaker Leonid Burjak.

The other teams given some chance at winning everything are two of the three British teams in the tournament: England, led by Southampton's Kevin Keegan, and Scotland, which may find it hard to get into the second round, since it is in the toughest first-round group with both Brazil and the Soviets.

At this point most observers expect England, Scotland and Northern Ireland to play despite the Falklands crisis. Neil Macfarlane, Britain's minister for sport, told Parliament last week that the Thatcher government would not ask the three teams to stay home.

Even if the government did, the three ruling bodies, the English, Scottish and Northern Irish football associations, are independent of the government. Still, they might feel moral pressure not to send teams should the Falklands fighting produce heavy casualties.

Political boycotts of World Cup competitions are rare, although a number of teams in the 1930s stayed home for technical and sports-political reasons.

In 1974, the Soviets passed up what was considered a near-certain trip to the finals in West Germany, refusing to play a qualifying match in Chile because the Chilean junta was holding political prisoners in Santiago's National Stadium. This was the closest the postwar era has had to a political boycott of the final round.

The finalists in the 1982 World Cup are Italy, Poland, Peru, Cameroon, West Germany, Algeria, Chile, Austria, Argentina, Belgium, Hungary, El Salvador, England, France, Czechoslovakia, Kuwait, Spain, Honduras, Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, Brazil, Soviet Union, Scotland and New Zealand.

Washington Post special correspondent Tom Burns in Madrid contributed to this article.