Trash talk

Sports stars in verbal joust over national team failings

Fan Zhiyi-w

Fan Zhiyi: derided Chinese national basketball team in TV ‘roast’

You don’t see superstars from the worlds of professional football and basketball taking each other on everyday. That was the spectacle last month when Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden’s best-ever footballer, criticised NBA star LeBron James. With more than 70 million Twitter followers, James has made his political views known about issues ranging from the US presidential election to the Black Lives Matter movement. But a row erupted between the duo – and their respective fans – when the Swede mentioned James and then suggested that athletes shouldn’t get involved in politics.

Over in China fans saw a different kind of clash this month between a footballer and a basketballer. This one took place on a Tencent Video online streaming show that saw icons of China’s national football and basketball teams take aim at each other’s failures.

Roast has been an entertainment sensation since 2019. Inspired by the American show Comedy Central Roasts, the Chinese equivalent gets celebrities to mock one another (see WiC497). Occasionally sports professionals have been drafted in to talk about embarrassing sports performances too.

In its latest episode Roast invited Fan Zhiyi, former captain of the national football team, to pick on the abject performance of Chinese basketball players in recent international tournaments.

China’s embarrassing performance in the FIBA World Cup was singled out in particular. For instance, centre Zhou Qi (who formerly played for the Los Angeles Lakers) turned over the ball twice at crunch moments in a decisive match. Starting point guard Guo Ailun was also mentioned for scoring just one point in a defeat against Venezuela.

“Guo? The number one point guard in Asia? It’s not easy to score just one point on the basketball court,” Fan began his rant. “I was a central defender when I played professional football but I think I’ve scored more than Guo Ailun,” he added.

“How bad were they [the Chinese basketball national team]? They were so bad that they need to be roasted by the Chinese national football team,” Fan went on, poking fun at the weak showings of the soccer team that the 51 year-old once captained.

Basketballers Zhou and Guo were both scheduled to appear last week in a counterattack to take down China’s football team (which has a dire track record and is the source of much black humour). However, the episode was spiked a few days before going on air, apparently because many viewers, including the state censors, objected to the mickey-taking.

Shortly after Fan’s comments were broadcast, an unexpectedly large number of comments began to pop up online. Many of them, including contributions from retired and active basketball players, accused him of being disrespectful.

Interestingly enough, Roast seems to have provoked conflicting responses from two of the biggest state media outlets. Xinhua was unimpressed, describing the latest episode as like watching “weak chicken pecking each other” and complained that it had brought back “painful memories for Chinese fans, just for a laugh”.

But state broadcaster CCTV took a different line, claiming that it was no bad thing for Chinese sports stars to go on entertainment shows and show their emotions as a way of relieving pressure.

“The jokes about the mens’ basketball and football teams are not new… The industry should listen to the reasons behind this trend rather than try to mute it,” CCTV added on one of its social media accounts.

Soon afterwards the producers of Roast announced that the episode featuring the basketball players had only been delayed for technical reasons. So viewers might still get a chance to see how Zhou and Guo mock the Chinese national football team, just as Fan rubbished the basketballers.

Of course, critics will argue both roasts are a bit like the proverbial act of ‘shooting fish in a barrel’, given China’s poor performances in both sports in recent years. That said, the basketball team was top-notch in the Yao Ming era while the soccer team has been a national joke for decades.

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