Dead ahead of our taxi were the golden arches of McDonald's. The tempting arches glowed against the city buildings of old Europe. The impulse to stop was mighty, but our little language book didn't have the Spanish for "a quarter pounder with cheese, hold the onions, extra mustard." On we went, and it was just as well, for by skipping a grease fix we made the World Cup different from American sports events in yet another way.

At the World Cup soccer stadiums in Barcelona and Madrid, hungry customers can go on a dental adventure with a translucently thin slice of beef between two bricks. Those customers who survive the ballpark sandwiches also can buy potato chips and Coca-Cola. Anything else they want, they must bring themselves. No hamburgers are sold at the World Cup, no hot dogs, no popcorn, and, as defense against riot, no beer.

You can buy water.

In plastic bottles.

Let us count the ways the World Cup is different from our Big Deal games.

There's a four-foot deep moat around the field in Barcelona's 125,000 capacity stadium.

There's an eight-foot fence to keep Madrid's 90,000 customers off the field.

By conservative estimate, 2,000 policemen and soldiers with horses, dogs and guns hang around the Barcelona stadium.

Pele is paid $500,000 for a month's TV work.

"I used to make jokes with the Americans on the Cosmos," Pele said. "They would say, 'World Series,' and I say, 'How can you say "World" when it is played only with American teams?' "

From China to Iceland, from Paraguay to Poland, 108 nations began play four years ago in a tournament that ends Sunday with West Germany meeting Italy for a true world championship.

The U.S. was eliminated years ago.

Howard Cosell isn't here. Neither is the guy with the rainbow hair.

Irvin Cobb wrote half a century ago that until you've gone to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby, you ain't been nowhere and you ain't seen nothin'. The Paducah philosopher wasted little time with the horse race, because a man can drive down any country road and see horses running in a pasture. Cobb's fascination grew from the American habit of finding a good thing and creating a world around it.

Today, the two-minute horse race is an excuse for a week-long civic carnival with parades and concerts and races between balloons, boats and bicycles. They do the same thing at Indianapolis around a car race, and the Super Bowl people always risk arrest on charges of gross excess (some day they'll have the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing the National Anthem while wrapped in American flags and free-falling from a passing space ship).

The World Cup has all the substance of our classic sports events, but none of the style. We dress up a World Series with player-by-player introductions, along with statistics flashed on giant scoreboards. At every stop in play of the NCAA basketball championships, we send cheerleaders into death-defying acrobatics. We abhor a vacuum of silence or action. We rush to fill it.

The rest of the world is content to let its favorite game stand on its own. The World Cup teams have no cheerleaders. There is no introduction of the players. There are no announcements of who scored the goal, with assists by whom, and whether this is a record for red-headed Poles on the third Sunday of July. Mercifully, not a single stadium has the tape-recorded trumpet call of "Charge."

The game's the thing. Because Americans are hooked on sensory overload, we look for new stimuli. The game alone is not enough. We have a zillion other things we might do. So the promoters give us more than a game; they give us a sound and light show of sports. For many other nations, soccer is the only escape from a dreary routine, the only connection to a success that is theirs as truly as it is the players.

"It's not generally realized, but the United States, for all its immense size and power, is very provincial," said Paul Gardner, a Briton who lives in the U.S. and will work for ABC-TV as its color man Sunday in the final between Italy and West Germany.

"Like Britain at the height of its powers, America has an attitude of, 'Why should we be interested in that?' I have an American guidebook to Spain for 1982. There's not a mention, not one mention, of the World Cup being here. It does have three pages on bullfighting."

By ignoring the World Cup, Gardner says, Americans close their eyes to a remarkable phenomenon.

All this last month, 15,000 or 20,000 Brazilians have been in Spain to see their team play. What American sports event would cause 15,000 people to cross an ocean and stay away from home for a month? The only thing that compares to this is an Olympics. But the Olympics, in terms of meaning something to the people, is not even close to the World Cup.

"They know the Olympic stars for maybe three weeks before the Olympics and three weeks after. The football stars are heroes of people who grew up just like them, and who have shared their jobs and sorrows over a lifetime. The relationship of players to the people is enormous, because these are the same set of boys they've always known."

So the rest of the world is concerned more about its game than the parties and parades and statistics and trained bear acts at halftime. And the game speaks with a force that cannot be denied. Without the massive hype that makes Super Bowls ultimately anticlimactic, the Brazil-Italy game of last week was a diamond cut before our eyes.

The handful of American journalists here hasn't talked to a single player yet, other than a five-times translated question to the Italian goalkeeper on what it means to his career, now that he's 40, to be in the World Cup championship. "I hope I do not deceive anyone," came back Dino Zoff's answer. What he really said may have made sense, but the point is that a handful of Americans recognized a game's beauty--and wrote about it--without the interrupting hype of locker room gossip.

It is that considerable beauty that moves 15,000 people to cross an ocean for a month--even when they know they're not going to see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir free-falling from space.