TORRANCE, Calif. -- The World Cup has a knack for turning otherwise sober souls into raving Brazilians, has had that knack since Pelé first teamed up with Garrincha to show the world what beauty was possible on a futebol field. Joga bonito, Futebol Arte, Samba soccer, "The Beautiful Game" -- it's all about Brazil, and Brazil, no question, is the world's favorite team.
Starting with that Pelé/Garrincha-inspired title run in 1958, the Brazilians have won an unprecedented five World Cup titles, with a sixth expected by the faithful back home and most of the rest of the planet, even many of those whose teams are still in the running. Three more wins are required, the first Friday against the Netherlands, historically Europe's foremost practitioner of free-flowing, elegant, aesthetically pleasing soccer.
The large, spread-out community of Brazilians in Southern California have no shortage of venues to join their countrymen and those who wish they were Brazilian to watch their heroes, even if Dunga, the 1994-winning captain-turned-head coach, has abandoned much of the flair in favor of pragmatic soccer, much better, he says, to claim the trophy.
The crowd at By Brazil, a Torrance eatery Brazilians swear by -- "proud to be the very first Brazilian BBQ restaurant in Los Angeles," crows its website -- for a first-stage clash is a mix of emigrants, wanna-bes and woulda-beens (if only their ancestors had had the foresight), plus a handful of those who look good in yellow and like a party.
Then there's Danny Dunbar, a 66-year-old Long Beach man whose links to the country are solid: His wife is Brazilian, his son half-Brazilian. He's got none of the blood, but he might as well have. Try to find a more passionate fan in the place.
Try to find a fan who has witnessed more.
Dunbar saw Garrincha, the deformed "little bird" whose abilities with the ball -- nobody past or present could match his dribbling skills -- and addiction to the bottle were legendary. He saw Pelé score from a kickoff, taking the ball straight to goal and firing it in "like it was nothing, like it was everyday business." He has seen Santos, Pelé's old club, against Flamengo, Brazil's most popular team. He has been to the Morumbi to see Sao Paulo. He was there, right behind the goal, when Brazil won the trophy in his homeland.
That passion was stoked well before the sport meant anything, even to kids, in America, while he was serving in the Peace Corps in Bolivia 42 years ago. He would take the half-day trek from the highlands, the Atliplano, to La Paz, where he could see Club Bolivar play. It was there he saw Garrincha, with Fortaleza. His life would never be the same.
"At the time, I didn't really think I'd become interested in soccer, but then when I came back to the States, the World Cup was in 1970, and I had the fever," he said. "I watched all the games I could."
Brazil, in Pelé's final World Cup -- and with what is widely regarded as the greatest team in history -- won the crown that year.
Dunbar saw Santos play a Mexican club at the Coliseum -- Pele's goal is what he best remembers -- and Brazil's national team beat England, also in L.A. He went to the Forum to see closed-circuit telecasts of World Cup games in 1974, when Brazil came within one game of the final.
He officially became Brazilian by marriage, which enabled visits to the country to visit relatives, to experience Carnaval and, of course, to see games. He became, with the help of his in-laws a card-carrying member of Santos.
"Brazilians are a fun-loving people," he said. "One time one of the friends of the family, I said, 'I'm trying to learn about Brazil.' He said, 'What's there to learn? It's football, women and samba. That's it.' "
Dunbar, a hearing officer with the state labor board, says friends and co-workers in the 1970s thought of him as "some kind of odd duck" for his love of the game.
"I don't think they could really see there was a passion in the game," he said. "It's [accepted] now. More Americans see the passion in it, whereas they didn't before. I used to hear a lot and I don't see it as much by sportswriters and sportscasters that it's baseball, basketball and that's it, and soccer is nothing. It's more accepted now."
His wife, Edna, is a fan when the World Cup comes around -- "She doesn't care much for the club teams; I'm probably more connected (to L.A.'s Brazilian community) than she is" -- and his son, Ian, an 18-year-old Long Beach State student, has inherited his love of the game.
Ian saw his first Brazil game, sort of, when he was just a toddler, accompanying his dad for a Brazil game during the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. Danny Dunbar saw Brazil's games at Stanford, was there for Romania-Argentina -- the tournament's most entertaining match -- at the Rose Bowl, and celebrated with his fellow Brazilians when the Selecao beat Italy on penalties in the final.
"The Brazilians went really nuts," he said. "Everyone was hugging each other. It was really an experience."
Ian Dunbar got that experience in 2002, when Brazil won again. He was just 10 and in Brazil for the summer.
"It was, like, we won, and there's, like, this dull silence over the country, and then everything just explodes," he said. "Music's blasting, foods are being thrown about everywhere ... it's a kind of intensity you can't really describe."
Ian visited Brazil annually during childhood but less so in his teens. "I have two identities," he said, "but I'm far more American than I am Brazilian."
In America, he can feel his Brazilian roots. In Brazil, he's a Yank.
"That's basically how it is," he said. "When I'm down there, I'm somewhat of a foreigner. My grasp of Portuguese is lingering, and I don't get a lot of the nuances and on occasion I'm out of the loop."
He loves the culture: "They're so extremely laid back. They don't take anything too seriously. They're oriented for partying and amusing themselves and enjoying themselves. Any circumstance is a chance for a party. Anything."
The Dunbars, too, are expecting Brazil to triumph in South Africa.
"They're good," Danny said. "The way Dunga plays, there's not a lot of joga bonito, it's not flashy. But if they win the World Cup, who cares? At least from my aspect.
"Maybe the Brazilians would still be not that excited because they like to see the flair and the beautiful game. But I'd love it."
Scott French writes the "Football Futbol Soccer" blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.