For Grant Wahl, Soccer Was a Window Into the Best and Worst of Humanity
The late soccer journalist Grant Wahl, who died suddenly at age 49, imbued his coverage of the sport with his love for humanity. For him, soccer was a microcosm of the world, from greed and corruption to the universal joys that unite us across our differences.
The day after forty-nine-year-old soccer journalist Grant Wahl collapsed in the press tribune at a World Cup quarterfinal in Qatar and died of an aortic aneurysm, a Los Angeles Times headline compared Wahl’s life to that of the late travel host Anthony Bourdain. The two men took dissimilar paths through life, but the comparison felt apt in one particularly important way: Bourdain used food as a lens through which to connect with people and understand the world. Wahl’s lens was soccer.
The game was a perfect choice. More than any other sport, soccer is a microcosm of the world — reflective of its extraordinary diversity and universal joys but also of its inequalities, injustices, corruption. Seldom has that been clearer than over the last month as the world has trained its eyes on a World Cup in Qatar, marred by the deaths of migrant workers and myriad human rights abuses and illuminated by the passion of millions of supporters across the globe.
Wahl was a hugely successful sportswriter and a trailblazer in American soccer journalism, but what set him apart in his field was his unyielding commitment to using his voice to stand up for people of all kinds, in all places. Wahl was a champion of the women’s game in the United States, one of a handful of prominent soccer journalists who covered women’s soccer without any caveat and with the same respect and rigor he afforded the men’s game.
In 2011, Wahl launched a long-shot campaign for president of FIFA, the game’s egregiously corrupt governing body, as the “people’s candidate” — promising to release all of FIFA’s internal documents, enact term limits, and appoint a woman as the organization’s general secretary. Wahl’s bid ended when he failed to convince a single nation’s soccer federation to nominate him for the position, a requirement to get on the election ballot. Several years later, a number of top FIFA officials were charged with racketeering and corruption.
In the buildup to the World Cup in Qatar, Wahl traveled to Doha to speak to migrant workers about their mistreatment working on infrastructure projects related to the tournament. Wahl said on his podcast that he was operating during the tournament under the assumption that he was being watched by the Qatari government. After he arrived and the games started, it would have been easy to get lost in the sensational drama that the games have offered — but he kept his focus on human rights.
Wahl’s penultimate piece of writing from Qatar was about Qatar Supreme Committee CEO Nasser Al-Khater’s callous reaction to a report that a migrant worker had died in a forklift accident at Saudi Arabia’s garish training resort during the tournament’s group stage. Wahl’s lede: “They just don’t care.”
Those were big examples of Wahl’s commitment to his beliefs. There were smaller ones too. Wahl consistently resisted racism and colonial attitudes in the game, excoriating fellow media members for stereotyping black players, and celebrating the fact that all the African nations at this World Cup were led by African coaches instead of imported Europeans. As a student journalist at Princeton, he had the guts to criticize legendary basketball coach Pete Carril for mistreating his players. He traveled to places that other journalists covering the game largely didn’t, or wouldn’t, like Ramallah, to cover the Palestinian national team. He was the first major journalist to platform the website Football Palestine, dedicated to covering the game there. All throughout his career, he provided help to journalists with smaller followings than him.
Before the pivotal US World Cup qualifier in Honduras in 2009, which occurred shortly after the coup that deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, Wahl drove from San Pedro Sula to Tegucigalpa to interview the interim president Roberto Micheletti. His colleague Michael Lewis wrote that Wahl asked other American journalists if they wanted to join him on the trip, but no one did. Wahl was robbed at gunpoint on that journey and produced an exceptional dispatch nonetheless. “Grant wasn’t afraid to take risks, risks that many of his colleagues, including yours truly, didn’t even think about taking,” Lewis wrote last weekend.
Prior to the United States’ first match at the World Cup against Wales, Wahl was briefly detained in Qatar for attempting to enter the stadium wearing a shirt with a rainbow pattern in support of LGBTQ rights. He refused to take off the shirt and was eventually granted entry and an apology from FIFA. A smattering of critics said that Wahl made the gesture for attention. His brother, Eric, who is gay, said that Wahl did it for him.
The glowing tributes that poured in from across the heartbroken American soccer landscape in the days following Wahl’s death captured much of what made him special. They portrayed Wahl as someone who cared about the dignity and rights of people he did not personally know and was deeply invested in the well-being of the people he did. Sports Illustrated was Wahl’s dream job — he landed it right out of college — and he stayed until he was fired at the outset of the pandemic for publicly challenging the publisher Maven’s job and pay cuts that impacted so many of his coworkers.
Wahl’s death is a compound tragedy: that he died so young, so suddenly, so far away from home. It’s also tragic that he was covering the kind of tournament that he was so well equipped to report on: a dystopian monument to elite greed and corruption built on the bones of the poor, but a World Cup of nuance too — of unprecedented African and Arab success, of remarkable shows of Palestinian solidarity, of the bravery of the Iranian players, of the kinds of stories that Wahl lived to chase.
Wahl’s wife, Celine Gounder, a decorated infectious disease physician who has advised Joe Biden’s administration on COVID-19, said Wednesday that she believed her late husband was drawn to soccer because it connected people around the world. “I think for him, soccer was more than just a sport,” Gounder said.
He was right about that and right about what the job of covering it requires. All journalists, whatever their beats, are charged with challenging power. Grant Wahl, by all accounts, was a mensch — generous, caring, curious, kind. He was also an inspirational journalist, driven by his love of people and places and his inability to abide injustice. We miss him more than he could have imagined.