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Spyers vs. Liars: despite US football strike, the game goes on in Moscow

While millions of football fans glare at empty television screens or mutter to themselves that realm men, even Canadians, don't punt on third down, it may be nice to know that America's autumn pastime is alive and well in Soviet Russia.

It happens every Sunday, just as in the olden times of the National Football League. On a slightly tilted patch of green in a public park near Moscow University, a group of touchingly determined gentlemen from the US Embassy takes on assorted American newsmen. ''Spyers vs. Liars,'' the showdown has come to be known locally. Sometimes a few Canadians join in. They are not allowed to punt on third down.

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Football, Moscow-style, has charms and complications all its own. One advantage for the fans is that in a utopian state, where workers and management are one and nobody gets exploited, the players would not dream of a midseason strike.

The fans seem to appreciate this. But since they tend to be more restrained than the American variety, their feelings are difficult to gauge with certainty. The typical Sunday crowd includes elderly women out for a stroll, young marrieds walking their dogs, a few teen-agers in jogging suits and soccer shoes, and countless frolicking children.

''What game is that you are playing?'' asked a teen-age boy from the sidelines a few weeks back. ''American football,'' replied an embassy officer who had just dropped a pass. ''Oh,'' said the fan.

One problem has been the playing field. At the start of the season - which, in deference to Moscow winter, runs from early spring through late fall - Spyers faced Liars on a surface long, firm, and flat enough to bring tears of joy to Bear Bryant's eyes.

The only conceivable improvement would have been Astroturf, and there was some sentiment among the players that if overall Soviet-American relations warmed a bit, the Kremlin might oblige on that point.

Then one day the teams discovered their field had been plowed under. The embassy squad assumed it was a political signal from the Politburo. The newsmen tended to attribute the move to a recently announced Soviet campaign to improve the food supply. The game was shifted to less appropriate terrain on the other side of the park.

Here, tragedy almost struck. At one end of the new field lies a footpath much used by elderly strollers, children, and other living things. One August Sunday, a star defensive back for the newsmen found himself outpaced by an embassy receiver on an end-zone pass pattern.

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Desperately, the defender lunged for a saving interception, only to find both himself and his diplomat foe in a tangled heap on the ground. Only then did the journalist, terrified and apologetic, realize he had lunged in the wrong direction, toppling not a pass receiver but an unsuspecting Russian babushkam . Mercifully, she arose unscathed and good-natured, nodded, and left.

Yet generally the season has been a success. Sportsmanship forbids recording the precise outcome of the gridiron battles. But, predictably, it is the diplomats who are most often heard to remark: ''It is not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.''

The main triumph, however, has been symbolic. World tension being what it is, both Spyer and Liar suspect there is something to be said for throwingm the long bomb rather than dropping it. There are even some who predict that American football may prove contagious here.

The ordinary babushkam would be excluded. But various other Russians, including the police guards outside the US Embassy compound, have shown remarkable reflexes when a ball was good-naturedly tossed in their direction.

One diplomat puts it this way: ''The Russians have clearly got talent, spirit , desire. Now, if we can just explain that you don't punt on third down. . . .''

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