Bekelee Debele, a little-known 20-year-old from Ethiopia, beat five former champions in a field of established runners for the men's title in the 1983 World Cross Country Championships yesterday over a rain-soaked course at Gateshead, England.

In one of the closest finishes in the 11-year history of the event, Debele, ahead for much of the 12,000-meter race, outsprinted three rivals, including Alberto Salazar, the world's fastest marathoner.

With each of the first three timed in 36 minutes 52 seconds, 1976 winner Carlos Lopes of Portugal, at 36 one of the oldest men in the field of 228, came in second and Kenya's Some Muge third. Salazar, of Eugene, Ore., was fourth in 36:53, his lack of a strong kick at the end foiling his effort to overtake the other three in the final 100 meters.

Ethiopia repeated as team champion with 104 points to 170 for the United States. Kenya was third, 191.

Norway's Grete Waitz won the women's 4,000-meter race for a record fifth time, in 13:29. The second- and third-place finishers, Alison Wiley of Canada and Elena Pozduyakova of the Soviet Union, respectively, had identical times of 13:37. Joan Benoit and Betty Springs placed fourth and fifth, enabling the U.S. women's team to dethrone the Soviet Union, winner the past three years, 31 points to 41.

The 1982 men's winner, Mohammed Kedir, could not cope with the muddy conditions and finished 22nd. Illinoisan Craig Virgin, who suffered a serious kidney ailment after winning the 1980 and 1981 races, finished 42nd.