Remembering Grant Wahl

A great journalist, a great man and a great friend to soccer

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It would be folly and insulting to not write something about Grant Wahl. With the story breaking, and all that surrounded it last night on social media, it was hard not to feel a terrible chill. Given how thorough and great of a journalist Mr. Wahl was, the fact that his last newsletter was about the callousness of the Qatari regime, that he’d been so diligent in documenting the plight of migrant workers in the country on multiple trips there, that he told the world about the tracking app that travelers were forced to install on their phones in Qatar, that he’d been detained briefly before the U.S.-Wales game for wearing a rainbow shirt, and that Qatar gets absolutely no benefit of the doubt…the pieces are all there, I’ll say.

At the same time, Wahl had documented in his newsletter and his podcast how run down he’d felt racing through all the games and his coverage. It’s hard for all of us to connect between someone thinking he simply has bronchitis and merely needing cough syrup to being gone a day or two later. I guess there’s a very dark comfort, very very dark, in linking Grant’s passing to something nefarious, because there is no oasis in seeing a 48-year-old, seemingly in good health, and just so beloved leave us so surprisingly. The confusion between these two sides, where I and so many others are, is such a sad place to be, because there are no good answers.

I think we can all only hope to have a fraction of the outpouring of love and appreciation that Mr. Wahl received last night and today, both for his work and who he was as a person. So many stories of his generosity and warmth, which lets you know that he made a difference. Though he had so much more to give, what more could any of us ask of our lives?

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For soccer fans my age, Grant was something of a beacon. He was perhaps the only prime soccer journalist on these shores, given that Sports Illustrated then was still SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. You could find so many people at the time who were a fountain of information and commentary on the four major sports, but Grant was basically the only port in a storm for soccer fans.

One of the many great things about Grant’s work back then is there was no preachiness or argument to it. Back then, being a soccer fan meant constantly having to justify your fandom to a still very derisive public. Those who wrote about the game or reported on it carried something of a chip, or were only briefly moonlighting from their day job, and were always trying to convince whoever that they had to watch soccer or that they were wrong for mocking those who did.

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Grant’s coverage never had that. His dedication, precision, and passion was the only argument he needed. Grant covered soccer the way he would have anything else, the way anyone would have for anything else, and it was the only argument he or we needed. Soccer deserved the same attention and stage as anything else, and by treating it as such it eventually gained it. It was the same with the women’s game. While Grant never shied from pointing out the inequity or mistreatment within it, he never reported on it or beseeched anyone to watch it out of some duty. He just lent it his unmatched dedication and insight, which again gave women’s soccer all the credence it needed. Though I never met him, he never struck me as a gloater, but there had to be some part of him that was truly satisfied that soccer has become the fifth sport here, that the fight all us fans had to engage in annoyingly has been won. Most likely he never saw it as a fight.

Through his newsletter and podcast he’d become a noticeable presence in my and many others’ lives, and yesterday was a true loss for everyone. Such that the usual shelter of a life well lived, which Grant’s most certainly was, isn’t any balm at all. Whatever the details we eventually find out, it just sucks. It’s just horribly sad, and what hurts most is there is no escaping that. I and so many more are thankful for what Mr. Wahl provided us for so many years, but it’ll never come close to outweighing the sadness of what was lost.