Little children scurried down a dusty hill past a stone church centuries old. Some carried soccer balls coming apart at the seams. One boy, maybe 7, wore the gloves of a goalkeeper. They came down the hill to Instalacions Esportives d' Esparraguera, a little soccer field with five rows of concrete bleachers on each side. The church bells chimed every quarter-hour.

The day's wash hung from balconies next door. Mountains stood at a distance, hazy even in the dazzling sun. The children jabbered in excitement near the field. There the soccer players from Poland playfully kicked balls around. The boy with the keeper's gloves pressed against a pipe railing until a policeman said to the children, "Vamos, vamos." The policeman held his palm over the muzzle of a machine gun.

We came by bus, nine newspapermen and interpreter Elizabeth McGurk, to see Poland work out before its World Cup semifinal game in Barcelona Thursday night against Italy, the surprise winner over mighty Brazil. Esparraguera is a town of 11,000 about 30 miles northwest of Barcelona in the hills rising toward the Montserrat Mountains. Our bus moved slowly through narrow, curling streets until we stopped in front of Bar la Aficion (The Fans Bar).

Down on the field, a green garden on a hilltop of rock and dirt, the Poles moved through casual drills. For weeks the Polish coach, Anton Peichniczek, said his ambition was to finish third in the world. This presumed defeat in the semifinals by Brazil. But now, with Italy in and Brazil out, the coach said, "An eye for an eye. We can do the same thing to Italy that they did to Brazil."

McGurk did the translating. She is a Pole who moved to London at 20 before coming to Barcelona this year and taking a job with the World Cup organizers. On her first day with the Polish players, they showed their affection for a sister of Warsaw by throwing her in a swimming pool. The star forward, Zbigniew Boniek, gave her his shirt until her dress dried.

On our bus ride into the mountains, McGurk said the Polish players would answer questions only on soccer. "There were a lot of political questions yesterday, especially on Solidarity," she said. Carrying the word "Solidarity," two 30-foot banners rose during Poland's game with the Soviet Union last week, to be seen on worldwide television. "But the players say they don't want to mix politics and sport."

She also said that Pope John Paul II, a soccer player in his youth at Krakow, had told the Poles he would come to Madrid if his countrymen made it to the championship game.

"No, I know nothing about the Pope," said the team trainer, Zbigniew Morolkiewicz.

"An invention of journalists," said Italian journalist Giorgi Reineri, adding, "I know very well my colleagues." It turns out that Pope John Paul said to a St. Peter's Square audience that he wished both his homeland and his adopted country well in the semifinals but said nothing of going to Madrid.

Another story, real or imagined, is that the Poles told World Cup officials they want their prize money in U.S. dollars, not Polish zlotys. Morolkiewicz: "I don't know. Maybe. I am no player. It is a very difficult question."

Boniek, the center forward who scored three goals against Belgium last week, bounded up the steps from the field carrying two children, one under each arm. Down on the field, the coach, Peichniczek, said he had wanted to play Brazil because the artists in gold and green jerseys are so wonderful.

"To lose to them," he said, "would be like falling down from a good horse."

The children followed the Poles up the hill of dust and stones, past the church with the bells. They asked for autographs of men named Smolarek and Lato, Zmuda and Dziuba. They held out their pens and paper to Elizabeth McGurk and the newspapermen. They ran alongside our bus as we drove away, headed now for the Poles' hotel isolated on a mountaintop at the end of a twisting gravel road outside the village of Collberto.

Spain's Guardia Civil patrolled the hotel grounds. The soldiers wore green fatigues and black leather caps. They had revolvers on their hips. They carried machine guns. We counted 25 soldiers. Those taking a lunch break sat next to a children's hand-operated soccer game in a recreation room. Their machine guns hung by the straps from a coat tree.

Posters decorated the hotel lobby. "Polonia en el Mundial '82," they said. One showed a bull ready for the kill, its picture above the legend "Vigo. La Coruna. Barcelona?" Poland has won at the first two cities, and now will try at Barcelona without its star, Boniek. Because of yellow-card penalties, he must sit out Thursday's semifinal. The strong Italian defender, Claudio Gentile, also is out because of penalties.

"It is sad," Boniek said, with McGurk translating, "because I would like to play. But the team will not be worse."

Will he be happy, as his coach has said, with third place or have his ambitions been increased by Brazil's defeat?

"Now that we have the hand," he said, smiling, "we want the arm."

Boniek sat on a couch in the hotel bar, talking to newspapermen. He wore a gold necklace, a trophy from a career that has made him Poland's most celebrated athlete. As Lech Walesa is now held from politics by the ruling communists, Boniek was held from soccer for a year. He is said to have been insubordinate to the national team's coach. Then, wonder of wonders, as the '82 World Cup tournament began, the coach was fired and Boniek reinstated.

Someone today asked Boniek why he had been suspended.

"The Spanish press," came back his answer through the translator, "is the most chauvinistic. They always like sensationalist stories."

But why, the questioner asked again, had he been suspended?

"He doesn't like to look backward," the translator replied. "Only to look forward."

Someone said, "Very diplomatic, Zbigniew."

The famous Pole smiled, although McGurk translated nothing.

Then it was time to leave, and as our bus bumped down the gravel road past the Guardia Civil, the soldiers watched us go.