With a shocking 72–59 loss to Venezuela in the FIBA Basketball World Cup on Wednesday, host nation China failed to qualify for the second stage of the tournament, to the dismay of the country’s legions of die-hard basketball fans. Tears flowed freely after the final buzzer at Beijing’s Cadillac Arena, as did impassioned chants of “Class dismissed, Li Nan!” — a call for the team’s head coach to resign.
To determine final seeding, Team China will now play in “classification round” matches against fellow first-stage losers South Korea, Nigeria, and Ivory Coast in the southern city of Guangzhou. In the upper half of the bracket, meanwhile, seven teams — the top squads from Africa, Asia, and Oceania, as well as the top two teams in Europe and the Americas — will directly qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Wednesday’s loss closed the curtain on a fleeting but emotionally charged campaign for the host nation. Following a decisive win against Ivory Coast on Saturday, China wound up in a nail-biter against Poland on Monday that ended in a 76-79 overtime loss. A devastated Chinese commentator became choked up on live television, while one the game’s facepalm moments — an errant inbounds pass from China’s seven-foot center, Zhou Qi — went viral online.
Following Venezuela’s 13-point drubbing of the host nation on Wednesday, 156,000 Chinese netizens said they felt “furious” while 136,000 reported feeling “upset,” according to a poll on microblogging site Weibo. The loss was all the more tragic in fans’ eyes because it was likely the last chance for 31-year-old veteran power forward and former NBA player Yi Jianlian to chase a FIBA World Cup medal, prompting a Weibo hashtag translating to “feel sorry for Yi Jianlian.” The international arm of China’s state broadcaster even published an article titled, “Coach Li Nan owes Chinese basketball fans an answer,” which included five burning questions that had left the author scratching his head.
However, netizens more attuned to China’s lackluster performances at international sporting events managed to find plenty to joke about. On Monday, the defeated body language and forlorn facial expressions of Yao Ming — China’s biggest basketball star, both literally and figuratively, as well as the current president of the country’s professional basketball league — were soon making the rounds online in the form of tongue-in-cheek memes.
A combined photo shows basketball legend Yao Ming’s facial expressions during China’s 13-point loss to Venezuela during the first round of the FIBA Basketball World Cup at Cadillac Arena in Beijing, Sept. 4, 2019. @天下篮球快报 on Weibo
On Wednesday night, Chinese netizens seemed flabbergasted at how their team managed to lose despite seeming to be favored by Turkish referee Yener Yılmaz. “The referee really tried his hardest (to help China win),” one Weibo user joked under a media post about the loss. Some commenters speculated about whether Yılmaz was secretly a Chinese national or a Communist Party member — and, if not, suggested he should be rewarded with permanent residency for his contributions to the country.
The increasingly apparent similarities between China’s basketball and soccer teams — which, coincidentally, are now staying at the same hotel in Guangzhou — also provided ample fodder for humorists. China has never finished higher than eighth in a FIBA World Cup and has yet to win a game, or even score a goal, in a FIFA World Cup. “China’s basketball team is close to catching up to its soccer team,” quipped one Weibo user.
Many saw Venezuela’s victory over China as both humiliating for the host nation and heroic for the South American country, currently in the throes of economic and political turmoil. One Chinese media outlet’s video, titled “Basketball Becomes Comfort in Hardship,” talked about Venezuela’s spiraling inflation and food shortages, as well as the financial and organizational issues within its basketball league.
Similarly, in last year’s FIFA World Cup, Croatia’s surprise berth in the final whipped up a storm of discussion around the Balkan players’ supposedly humble backgrounds. Only later were many sensational details in these stories — including a photo purportedly showing Croatia’s star captain, Luka Modrić, tending sheep as a boy — debunked as fake news.
The sport of basketball is massively popular in China, where the NBA is widely watched and stars like Kobe Bryant have accumulated millions of followers on domestic social media platforms even after their retirement. Although China’s enthusiasm for the sport shows no sign of waning, fans may need a little time to tend to their bruised egos. “I’ll just watch table tennis in the future,” wrote one Weibo user.
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Venezuelan forward Michael Carrera drives to the basket surrounded by Chinese defenders during the first round of the FIBA Basketball World Cup at Cadillac Arena in Beijing, Sept. 4, 2019. Cui Xinyu/Getty Images/VCG)