ROME, JULY 7 -- Almost everyone around the world played it at one time. The pope. Presidents of countries. Pavarotti. It's based on the most elementary activity in a round world, kicking a round ball rather than throwing it.

But it's been those whose passion for the game did not allow time to attend universities, seminaries or schools of music who have extracted from the simplicity of soccer its most complex beauties.

As a small boy in Germany, Lothar Matthaeus had his mother play goalkeeper for him, happening onto a way of never being late for dinner. In Argentina, Uncle Cirillo, an old goalie, provided Diego Maradona the inspiration to play his way off the dirt streets and onto the fields he dreamed about when he took his soccer ball to bed.

Matthaeus and Maradona played soccer to the exclusion of almost everything else, proving to be extraordinarily athletic and acrobatic, the game's main ingredients. Matthaeus's heart has the same rhythm as that of the great cycling champion Coppi, 43 beats a minute. During the first day he joined the Napoli club, Maradona kicked a ball onto his head and spun it there as he walked to a water fountain, got a drink and walked back.

Matthaeus and Maradona, the world's most exotic midfielders, both 29 years old, both wearing soccer's premier number, 10, will lead West Germany and Argentina, respectively, into the Olympic Stadium Sunday to play for the World Cup that Maradona won and kissed after the same two teams met four years ago in Mexico City. One of every four people in the world will be watching (2 p.m. EDT) to see what unimaginable feats can be performed.

The viewers will include the curious, the enchanted and the mythically passionate, ready to be meted out joy or sorrow. London bookmakers have made West Germany a 2-1 favorite, for the best of reasons: the West Germans may have their best team ever, including dynamic strikers Jurgen Klinsmann and Rudi Voeller, although Voeller is hurting after being knocked out of the semifinal game with a kick to his calf. But West Germany has another capable scorer in Andy Brehme, who likes to surge from defense.

In Franz Beckenbauer, the West Germans have one of the best coaches. It's rare for a player of Beckenbauer's magnitude to be so successful as a coach, but he was always in control as the game's original sweeper and remains unflappable. He's not given to emotional outbursts, preferring understatement: "Maradona is still a good player."

Part of West Germany's success has been its willingness in an era of increasingly defensive soccer to attack almost all the time. In what looks to be the lowest scoring of the 14 World Cups, it should be Beckenbauer's command that the West Germans keep firing. They do not want to make the same mistake Italy did when it got 1-0 ahead of Argentina in their semifinal.

"Once ahead," said Italy's captain, Giuseppe Bergomi, "perhaps we sat back a bit too much."

That's all it would take for Maradona to spring the biggest of his 1990 World Cup upsets. Brazil gave him the chance when its nervous forwards never scored despite numerous opportunities; Maradona, who plays in spurts of brilliance, beat Brazil with the most stunning play of the Cup finals, rushing past two Brazilians and passing between two others when there seemed no room for a thread-the-needle assist on the winning goal. When Italy sat back, Maradona pounced again.

Now it will be seen if Maradona and 10 others can beat the best team in the world. Five of Argentina's original starters are out. Four are ineligible, having received two yellow cards each, so-called "bookings" for fouls: high-scoring Claudio Caniggia, midfielders Ricardo Giusti and Sergio Batista and defender Julio Olarticoechea. Goalkeeper Nery Pumpido had his leg broken in a first-round game. "The Germans are better off than we are," said Carlos Bilardo, Argentina's coach. "There is no doubt of this."

But all is not lost for Argentina. Ironically, Pumpido's loss has thrust little known Sergio Goycoechea into a starring role. He and West Germany's similarly unheralded Bodo Illgner became celebrated after stopping point-blank penalty kicks to enable their teams to win semifinals that had ended in ties. They'll be ready to settle the Cup itself in the same manner if necessary.

"We have promised Goycoechea that if he continues to save penalty kicks," Maradona said, "we will build a monument to him in Buenos Aires." Argentina's fate is in Goycoechea's hands and on Maradona's nimble feet.

For the first time, the finalists from one World Cup will be meeting in the next. An upset would give Argentina its third Cup in the last four events. West Germany will be playing in its sixth title game and third straight, seeking its third victory and first since 1974. Matthaeus, who marked Maradona but was unable to prevent him from figuring in all three Argentine goals in 1986, will be free to think offensively this time. Guido Buchwald may be assigned to Maradona.

It's been a World Cup that hasn't quite runneth over for purists. An average of 2.26 goals a match and four games decided by penalty shots have led to cries to restore offense to the game. FIFA, soccer's international governing body, has liberalized the offside rule starting next season.

Besides a lack of scoring, other expectations for this Cup fell short. Brazil, playing conservatively in an effort to win its first title since 1970, failed miserably, as did the Dutch. Everyone from Pele to Henry Kissinger has called on Brazil to go back to its old attacking ways. The Dutch were among the favorites, but Marco Van Basten was never heard from and the most attention the team got was when fiery defender Frank Rijkaard spit on Voeller.

"Italia '90" will be remembered more favorably for Roger Milla's Cameroon, the courage of Costa Rica, Salvatore Schillaci and the fervor of all Italy, the luck of the Irish, the tenacity of the English and the United States' starry night in Rome.

ARGENTINA

No. .. GOALKEEPERS .............................. Gm

12 ... Sergio Goycoechea ........................ 17

22 ... Fabian Cancelarich ........................ 0

No. ... DEFENDERS .................. Gm ......... Gl

5 ... Edgardo Bauza ................ 1 .......... 0

11 ... Nestor Fabbri ............... 24 .......... 2

13 ... Nestor Lorenzo ............... 5 .......... 0

15 ... Pedro Monzon ................ 18 .......... 1

16 ... s-Julio Olarticoechea ....... 16 .......... 0

17 ... Robert Sensini .............. 17 .......... 0

18 ... Jose Serrizuela .............. 7 .......... 0

19 ... Oscar Ruggeri ............... 53 .......... 1

20 ... Juan Simon .................. 11 .......... 0

No. ... MIDFIELDERS ................ Gm ......... Gl

2 ... s-Sergio Batista ............ 38 .......... 0

4 ... Jose Basualdo ............... 21 .......... 0

6 ... Gabriel Calderon ............ 21 .......... 1

7 ... Jorge Burruchaga ............ 59 ......... 13

10 ... Diego Maradona .............. 78 ......... 31

14 ... s-Ricardo Giusti ............ 52 .......... 0

21 ... Pedro Troglio ............... 31 .......... 4

No. ... FORWARDS ................... Gm ......... Gl

3 ... Abel Balbo .................. 10 .......... 1

8 ... s-Claudio Caniggia .......... 33 .......... 9

9 ... Gustavo Dezotti ............. 12 .......... 3

s-suspended for receiving two yellow cards

WEST GERMANY

No. ... GOALKEEPERS ............................. Gm

1 ... Bodo Illgner ............................. 22

12 ... Raimond Aumann ............................ 3

22 ... Andreas Kopke ............................. 1

No. ... DEFENDERS .................. Gm ......... Gl

2 ... Stefan Reuter ............... 22 .......... 1

3 ... Andreas Brehme .............. 57 .......... 5

4 ... Juergen Kohler .............. 31 .......... 0

5 ... Klaus Augenthaler ........... 27 .......... 0

6 ... Guido Buchwald .............. 39 .......... 0

14 ... Thomas Berthold ............. 41 .......... 1

16 ... Paul Steiner ................. 1 .......... 0

19 ... Hans Pflugler ............... 11 .......... 0

No. ... MIDFIELDERS ................ Gm ......... Gl

7 ... Pierre Littbarski ........... 72 ......... 18

8 ... Thomas Haessler ............. 17 .......... 2

10 ... Lothar Matthaeus ............ 80 ......... 13

15 ... Uwe Bein .................... 11 .......... 2

17 ... Andreas Moeller ............. 13 .......... 3

20 ... Olaf Thon ................... 35 .......... 3

21 ... Gunther Hermann .............. 2 .......... 0

No. ... FORWARDS ................... Gm ......... Gl

9 ... Rudi Voeller ................ 69 ......... 37

11 ... Frank Mill .................. 16 .......... 0

13 ... Karlheinz Reidle ............ 10 .......... 2

18 ... Jurgen Klinsmann ............ 24 .......... 7

Gm: International games played.

Gl: Goals scored in international games.

ARGENTINA LEADS SERIES, 5-4-2

April 2, 1988: West Germany 1, Argentina 0 (at West Berlin)

Jan. 16, 1987: Argentina 1, West Germany 0 (at Buenos Aires)

c-June 29, 1986: Argentina 3, West Germany 2 (at Mexico City)

Sept. 12, 1984: Argentina 3, West Germany 1 (at Duesseldorf, West Germany)

March 24, 1982: Argentina 1, West Germany 1 (at Buenos Aires)

Jan. 1, 1981: Argentina 2, West Germany 1 (at Montevideo, Uruguay)

Sept. 12, 1979: West Germany 2, Argentina 1 (at West Berlin)

June 5, 1977: West Germany 3, Argentina 1 (at Buenos Aires)

March 14, 1973: Argentina 3, West Germany 2 (at Munich)

c-July 7, 1966: West Germany 0, Argentina 0 (at Birmingham, England)

c-June 8, 1958: West Germany 3, Argentina 1 (at Malmo, Sweden)

c-World Cup match