CHAMPIONS HAVE LONG MEMORIES

Champions feel a powerful sense of ownership of their sport, they occasionally live under, and are driven by the illusion that nothing is beyond their powers. By ROHIT BRIJNATH.

A reserve goalkeeper for the Australian soccer team, evidently unafraid of audacity, said last week that his team was not scared of Brazil, which is in its World Cup group this summer. Of course, if necessary, he said, "we will go out and kick them if we have to get a result", which was a bit of amusing bravado.

Australians, if such a generalisation is allowed, are not easily cowed in sport, and part of their appeal, and strength, lies in an attitude that insists they haven't yet met a battle they think they can't win. Confidence apparently is one of the ingredients of their beloved meat pies.

The kicking aside, it was not an altogether offensive comment, and while Australian soccer is somewhat in its infancy, the goalkeeper was merely claiming his team, and why not, was not the easybeat some have already labelled it as.

Yet, for all his defiance, you wonder if some of his team-mates cringed in private. Mate, Brazil, as it is, is hard enough; a provoked Brazil might end in a slaughter.

In an Internet world, no quote, no criticism, no diss, stays secret, winging its way down the information pathways to distant lands, and the goalkeeper's comments will arrive eventually on the desktop at which sits the Brazilian coach. He will read it, but worse he will remember.

Occasionally women, wiser than us, will say that sport intrinsically is about men who have never gone beyond being boys fighting in a sandlot looking for attention. And they're more correct than they think, for so much of sport is one-upmanship. Question an athlete's superiority and he will pout like a child, probably why so many century-makers in cricket shake their fists and bats at the press box, as if to say: SEE, SEE, I CAN BAT, YOU KNOW. And that is a polite interpretation.

Athletes take umbrage easily, it's almost part of their DNA, and their memories of slights, real and imagined, never fade. Ali's cruel calling of Frazier as "ignorant" and as an "Uncle Tom", more than 30 years ago, have not been forgotten and Frazier carried that rage into the ring. You can safely presume sometime later this year, if Australia is hammering England in the Ashes, that Phil Tufnell's gentle taunts to them earlier this year will be sneeringly resurrected.

Some athletes intentionally incite each other, hoping to provoke them into error, to distract their focus, to let an uncontained rage interrupt the signals from brain to hand and feet. Mental disintegration if you like. Of course, one must be careful of both sledges and boasts and England captain Tony Greig's "we'll make them grovel" claim about the visiting West Indies in 1976 stands as a gleeful case in point.

Similarly when Gary Hall jr, the US swimmer, said before the 2000 Olympics of his team's rivalry with the Australian swimmers, that "we'll smash them like guitars", on one shore it was seen as nothing but an excitable, colourful, tease, but on another continent it was read as Yankee arrogance. Almost predictably, when the superb Aussies upset the US in the 4x100 relay, they mockingly, and amusingly, played air guitar on the pool deck.

Provocation translates often into challenge, a criticism is construed as insult and it festers in the brain and turns into fuel. Part of the motivation for Jack Nicklaus' win in the 1986 Masters at 46 was a newspaper article that contended he was "washed up", a clipping the golfer kept pinned to his fridge.

Champions feel a powerful sense of ownership of their sport (Becker called Wimbledon's centre court "his backyard" as if to say, in warning, this was his turf), they occasionally live under, and are driven by, the illusion that nothing is beyond their powers. And a reporter's gentle observation of mortality can become an obsession that deserves response.

When Michael Jordan once stated a desire to be named both defensive player of the year and MVP in the same year, a reporter argued that it was not possible, that to dominate both offensively and defensively through a season would take too much out of a player. Of course, Jordan did it, but more than that he reportedly took pains to regularly remind the reporter of it.

If all athletes bristle at the sly challenge, the great athlete is a slightly different proposition simply because often they can do something about it, they own the ability to make an opponent pay for provocation. I CAN'T DO THIS!!! I'LL SHOW YOU. And then they do. Ten days or so ago, prior to his match with Tiger Woods at the World Matchplay Championships in golf, Stephen Ames commented, correctly, that "Anything can happen, especially where he's (Woods) hitting the ball.

" Fact is, Tiger's swing was awry, data would confirm he was missing fairways, and it was an innocuous remark. Except Woods, as if he requires motivation, was antagonised by it.

Not only did he dismember Ames on the course, administering a terrible beating, but acknowledged later that the remark had irritated and inspired him. Woods may have been a bit precious about it, so were writers who claimed Ames' remarks were "ill-thought" — he was not rude, neither did he need to prostrate himself before the world No. 1. But it was proof once again that a champion's ego can be alarmingly brittle, that the mildest comments have a tendency to return to haunt its owner.

It's why Australia's reserve goalkeeper maybe should have shut up. He has the right to speak his mind. He might also have to pay for it.