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WORLD CUP USA ’94 : It’s Almost Un-Rio : Northern California City of Los Gatos Embraces Brazilian Soccer Team

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ordinarily, the scam might have worked. Throw on some trendy sweats with the Brazilian colors, yellow and green; speak in broken English, nod reverently after saying Pele’s name and ask for a bottle of Brahma beer.

No one here at Johnny’s Northside Grill on Santa Cruz Avenue is saying what tipped them that the man who wandered in about three weeks ago claiming to be a Brazilian soccer star wasn’t a player.

How did they know?

Did he blow his cover by speaking Spanish instead of Portuguese? Maybe he made the faux pas of using his first and last name instead of one or the other. Most Brazilian stars are known by one name--Bebeto, Romario, Rai, Cafu, Branco, Ronaldo, Dunga, Aldair and so on.

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“A complete impostor,” said owner John Mesa, scoffing. “He was signing autographs. But he was a phony. We questioned him, made a couple of calls.”

Mesa declined to mention who was being impersonated.

“I don’t want to say,” he said. “We don’t want to embarrass him.”

The bartender at Johnny’s walked by and laughed, saying, “He looked the part--like an athlete. You could tell he was interested in talking to girls. He was a weird one.”

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You can’t get away with posing as a 49er in the Bay Area. And now you can’t get away with pretending to be a Brazilian soccer player. Elsewhere, maybe, but not in the new home base of the Brazilian national team. Los Gatos, which is between San Jose and Santa Cruz, has fully embraced things Brazilian and is ready for the anticipated rush of tourists.

There are Brazilian flags and signs hanging up and down Santa Cruz Avenue, and a banner across the street. The post office has pictorial stamp cancellations with the salutation: “Copa do Mundo ’94 Station Welcomes Brasil.”

Today, there will be a “Music in the Plaza” series featuring three Brazilian and Brazilian-American musical groups. And the Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company is the host of a show of paintings by a local artist who was born in Sao Paulo.

The most visible--at least the largest--symbol of Los Gatos’ new identity is a 17 1/2-foot, 12,000-pound carved wooden statue of Mountain Charley in front of Mountain Mike’s pizza parlor. Mountain Charley is wearing a World Cup T-shirt with Brazilian flag colors designed by local graphic artist Jeff Ino.

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The legend of Mountain Charley dates to the 1850s, when he supposedly wrestled grizzly bears in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. Maybe he did it soccer-style, using only his feet.

Down the street, samba lessons are being organized by Brazilian Ana Paula Olsen, the owner of the Rio Thing, a swimwear shop. Olsen lived in Los Angeles and took extension classes at UCLA after moving to the United States from Brazil four years ago. Besides swimwear, she sells Brazilian coffee and tapes of Brazilian music and has been helping local restaurants translate menus into Portuguese.

The Los Gatos cinema even has a Brazilian film festival, featuring two movies--"Black Orpheus” and “Dona Flor.”

What brought the Brazilians to Los Gatos, a city of about 30,000, had little to do with civic hospitality. Los Gatos won out over several Northern California cities by offering seclusion at a local resort, Villa Felice. There is only one way in and one way out and the entrance and perimeter are closely guarded by a force of about 20 men, some clad in yellow jackets.

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Brazilian Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira has no complaints and offered a glowing opinion when asked about Los Gatos.

“It is very comfortable,” he said. “The place is beautiful.”

Jokingly, he added, “I’d like to change from Brazil to live here.”

Los Gatos Mayor Randy Attaway said he paid his own way to Brazil and spent eight days there in April on a fact-finding trip. He wanted to learn what Los Gatos needed to do for the team and worked on planning a ceremony to give keys to the city to the players and Brazilian team officials.

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He also discovered that about 8,000 tickets had been sold to Brazilians who are planning to come to the United States for the World Cup.

“If all 8,000 came to Los Gatos, we wouldn’t have enough hotel rooms in Los Gatos,” Attaway said. “I think the majority will stay near San Francisco. Of the 8,000 who are coming, a lot are just coming from the quarterfinals on, starting July 10.

“So I don’t think from the town’s perspective, it will have a tremendous economic impact as much as it will be a cultural exchange. . . . Our biggest goal was to be the best host for the No. 1 soccer team in the world.”

The international spotlight on Los Gatos is unprecedented. Helen Sheridan of the Chamber of Commerce paused when asked what has been the biggest previous event for Los Gatos.

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“The ’89 earthquake in Loma Prieta,” she said, laughing ruefully. “Oh, and when Bill (Clinton) and Al (Gore) came and had lunch at the California Cafe last summer.”

This, however, will be longer lasting. After a few weeks of buildup and hype, the full-fledged embrace has grown a bit too tight for some merchants in Los Gatos, who offered pointed opinions on Rio-mania, not for attribution of course.

“The Bay Area doesn’t need the World Cup,” said one merchant, admitting disappointment over a lack of increased sales. “I know I’m kind of provincial. And I know it sounds like sour grapes.”

Visions of Brazilian tourist dollars might have been exaggerated. But no one ever made any grand promises or predictions.

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“We tried to explain that to them, but some people have visions of grandeur and you can’t control it,” Attaway said. “But the real influx is not for a few days.”

Attaway has been mayor since November and will relinquish the post this fall. He already has survived his first international crisis. A Brazilian journalist asked him about the appropriateness of dancers wearing skimpy bikinis at the coming Carnaval in Los Gatos. Attaway said he didn’t think such attire was appropriate for a family event.

In Sao Paulo, he reportedly was invoking a bikini ban. Now, though, Attaway can see the humor in the misunderstanding.

“I was baited and I admit it,” he said. “There were about 40 people at the press conference, and I survived 98% of them. I was asked whether a thong bikini was appropriate. I said it wasn’t appropriate--but it’s not against the law. I think they misconstrued it. But it comes with the territory.”

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The Brazilians rushed off to talk to Ana Paula Olsen, who was a little irritated that people in Los Gatos thought the dancers would walk around the streets wearing only bikinis.

“He didn’t forbid it,” she said. “He said it wouldn’t be appropriate for the girls to dance in a bikini at a family event. I thought, ‘What are you saying? That we don’t have family values?’ We have families and kids. There is a rule that kids are part of the school of samba, part of the community.”

Attaway avoided the next potential land mine when another reporter asked how the local police would deal with Brazilian fans who might overindulge.

“I asked what would the residents of Rio want the police to do if there were drunken Americans? What would you want them to do?” Attaway said.

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International incident averted.

“I’m learning a lot about international politics,” Attaway said, laughing.

So far, everyone seems comfortable with the coexistence between Los Gatans and Brazilians. Everyone is learning about one another.

The team is happy here. And Ana Paula Olsen is able to work on her goal of helping improve Brazil’s image.

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And from the U.S. viewpoint?

“People didn’t know where Los Gatos was, but now they know, even in Brazil,” said Susan Strehlow, director of the Chamber of Commerce.


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