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''The World Cup will be a fantastic tournament'' - China's Zhou Qi
BEIJING (China) - With less than two months from the start of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 in his home country, Chinese big man Zhou Qi's excitement can hardly be contained.
"I am very excited, very excited for the start the competition and for the fans to see basketball's finest in China competing against each other," he said.
"All the arenas are great, our fans are going to be incredible and the best players in the world are excited to come to our country. We have been waiting for a long time to host a competition like this, and I am really excited to play and face the guys that I used to watch on TV or saw when I was in America. All the elements are here for the FIBA World Cup China 2019 to be a fantastic tournament."
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At just 23 years old, the 7ft 2in (2.16m) Zhou is young enough to have watched and idolized many of the superstars who will grace the hardwood at the World Cup, and he knows that his fellow Chinese will be elated to see such grand icons of the sport in the flesh.
"Everyone is very excited to see (the top players) in China. Everyone is speaking about it, and our love for basketball is huge," he explained. "The players are going to love it, the fans are going to love it, and everyone is going to love it. It's going to be a very good tournament, and we are going to make it one of the best tournaments ever hosted."
Another reason for the fans' excitement, of course, is the return of the Chinese national team to the World Cup after missing the 2014 edition in Spain. Fresh from playing at the NBA Summer League, China are returning home and are soon shifting their preparations into even higher gear as they hope to make a big splash in the quadrennial tournament.
"I think that we are doing pretty well, and we have some very good veterans, and some young guys that are impacting the team and showing that Chinese basketball has good days coming ahead," he said. "We love to represent our country, and we are proud to show our fellow compatriots that we play with a lot of passion for the game and with a lot of intensity. I am pretty confident for our present and for our future."
The World Cup draw has actually been seen as quite favorable to the national team as they avoided perceived heavyweights like the USA, Serbia, Spain, France, Australia and Canada. Still, Zhou knows that the road ahead will be littered with hurdles, and the Chinese have to be on top of their game if they are to advance deep into the competition. China find themselves with Cote d'Ivoire, Poland and Venezuela in Group A.
"It's a great group and every team can go to the next round in my opinion," he said. "We are very motivated, very enthusiastic for the start of the tournament and to face those very good national teams. We won't take anything for granted; we will play with a lot of intensity in order to go to the next round. We are here to make our fans proud, and to show the world that the Chinese national team is competitive. We have been waiting for this moment for so long now."
Speaking of the fans, Zhou cannot wait to see the kind of support his fellow Chinese will shower on the national team, whose highest finish ever at the World Cup was eighth place in 1994.
"Some players never have the opportunity to compete on the world stage at home in their entire career, and we will have this great chance to do so this summer," he shared. "Our fans are going to be fantastic as usual, and they are definitely our sixth man. They have our backs, no matter what, and that gives us extra energy to compete with our country and fan base with us. We play for the whole country, for every Chinese fan and to make all of the country proud."
Playing at his first World Cup is a prospect that has kept Zhou on his toes. Despite his youth, he is considered one of the veterans of the squad, though he knows he will need every bit of skill, experience and good fortune to hang with some of the finest players on the planet.
"I am proud to wear the national team jersey every time I am called to compete with the team," he said. "I am still young, and I have many more years to compete at the highest level, and playing for the national team is something that I will do until the end of my career. I am very lucky to be playing, learning and studying about the game with the staff, my teammates and to have the opportunity to play at international level. I learn a lot from the other veterans, from everyone, and I feel that I am a better basketball player since I joined the senior national team. That is the kind of experience that every young player is looking for, is dreaming for."
China open their World Cup account against Cote d'Ivoire on August 31 before taking on the Poles two days after. They finish group play opposite Venezuela on September 4, with all Group A fixtures held at the Wukesong Sport Center in the capital city of Beijing.