The sports world at large learned some shocking and devastating news on Friday, as renowned American soccer journalist Grant Wahl died while covering the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Wahl fell back in his seat in the media tribune during Friday’s quarterfinal game between Argentina and the Netherlands, and reporters adjacent to him called for assistance, U.S. media members seated near him told The Associated Press. Emergency services workers responded very quickly, the reporters said, and they were later told that Wahl had died. American reporters who knew Wahl said he was 49.
Wahl’s professional career began with Sports Illustrated, where he first covered college basketball and soccer before blossoming into a senior writer by 2000.
In 2002, Wahl wrote an article about a high school basketball phenom from Akron, Ohio named LeBron James, which famously graced the cover of Sports Illustrated with the title “The Chosen One.”
“Very fond of Grant, and having that cover shoot, me being a teenager and him covering that, was a pretty cool thing. … I’ve always kind of watched from a distance,” said James on Friday. “It’s a tragic loss. It’s unfortunate to lose someone as great as he was.”
As Wahl’s career grew, he quickly gained a reputation as a fearless and caring reporter, and one of soccer’s premier journalists — particularly in helping grow the game in America.
In 2011, he announced a possible bid to replace Sepp Blatter as FIFA’s president, with the goal of shaking up the governing body amid corruption allegations surrounding the 2018 and 2022 World Cup host country selections.
“Wherever I go, I encounter lots of dissatisfaction with FIFA. People aren’t happy with the way it has been run but up until now there has been no way for anyone to register their feelings,” said Wahl, who ultimately did not get the required endorsement from a football association to run. “FIFA needs a Wikileaks-type clean out of documents to show what has gone on.”
While in Qatar for the World Cup, Wahl, who recently wrote for his own substack, continued to be outspoken in his coverage, whether it was wearing a rainbow shirt to support the LBGTQ+ community in a country where homosexuality is illegal (for which he was detained), or calling out Qatar’s lack of empathy after yet another migrant worker’s death.
“It’s really important to me and it’s not required by any stretch of the imagination,” said Wahl of wearing the rainbow shirt to CNN. “I’ve got family members who are gay. I’ve got friends who are gay. I’ve got journalist friends who are gay who are here in Qatar. But you don’t need that to be supportive, to be an ally. So, I was thinking about all of those people yesterday. I was thinking about Colorado Springs. I was thinking all sorts of stuff. And if I have to be detained for 30 minutes, it’s kind of annoying. But it’s not an issue for me. And so I was glad to at least help out a little bit.”
For as great a journalist he was, tributes across social media indicate Wahl was twice that as a friend and colleague.
Here’s what so many across the sports world and beyond had to say about Grant Wahl following his tragic death.
— With files from The Associated Press