It was 5 am and I couldn’t sleep; my mind replayed the incredible drama of Argentina’s penalty shootout victory over Holland, over and over again.
And then I checked my phone. I thought I was going to throw up.
The American football journalist Grant Wahl, who had also covered the game at Lusail, had died.
At first, social media was full of disturbing rumours, but then came the shocking confirmation. It seemed too sudden, and too strange, to be true.
Grant had been tweeting about the game, he had posted about the unbelievable Dutch stoppage time equalizer that took the game to extra time. But then, as more than 80,000 fans were caught up in the drama on the field, Grant was fighting for his life. As we now know, frantic efforts to revive it were unsuccessful.
If my own personal experience is anything to go by, for many of the journalists covering the World Cup in Qatar, the hours since then have been pretty miserable. -moderate and awesome.
I don’t remember the first time I met Grant. Maybe he was in New York to appoint Jurgen Klinsmann as the head coach of the American soccer team in 2011, or maybe we had never met in person until this World Cup in Qatar.
But the nature of our business is such that we have visited each other’s orbits and interacted so often on social media and through our television interviews that we have become friends.
Many times, our conversations would take place over Skype or Zoom, and I clearly remember one time when his wife, Celine, walked into the room by accident and almost walked out in front of a global audience. He sent her away boldly without breaking his stride.
In the following years, the epidemiologist Dr. Celine Gounder would become one of the public faces of the scientific fight against Covid 19, and she was rarely able to hide her pride in her achievements . He was flirting with her just two weeks ago.
As a writer for Sports Illustrated, Wahl quickly made his name, introducing then-High School athlete LeBron James to the world with one of his many cover stories titled, “The Chosen One .” Just hours after his passing, NBA great James led the tribute to Wahl, lamenting, “It’s a tough loss. It’s unfortunate to lose someone as good as him.”
But it was as a football writer that Wahl really made his name. He was a cheerleader for the beautiful game in North America, long before it was fashionable – ten years before the English Premier League became a Saturday morning staple in many American homes and some Major League Soccer stadiums drew crowds of over 70,000.
Renowned British football commentator Jon Champion told me that when he crossed the Atlantic to join ESPN in 2019, Wahl was the first to roll out the carpet. red. “He was selling the idea of soccer in the United States,” he said. “He was almost a missionary in that sense, he would travel around the world, asking people to join -to take American football seriously. If you ask any of Europe’s leading football journalists who their first point of contact is if they want a story in America, it’s It would be Grant Wahl.”
It is for this reason that both the US Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer have given their honor in such clear terms. Wahl was as important as any player in growing the game in America.
The Saturday sacrifices were so full that no one could doubt its effect. “I’m not sure people outside the US understand the impact Grant has had on football over there,” tweeted British football broadcaster Max Rushden, “Of course I didn’t do that until I read the tributes.”
But Grant had so much depth, because he was not just a reporter who wrote about wins and losses. He was fearless in his pursuit of the truth, and he often shone an uncomfortably bright light on the dark side of professional sport highlighting human rights abuses, and speaking for those voices that were silenced.
In 2011, just months after FIFA’s controversial decision to award the current World Cup to Qatar, he campaigned to be elected as the new President, promising to abolish football’s governing body. -a world of corruption, “We will follow FIFA after him. [Sepp] Blatter disease,” he famously promised.
He was always a thorn in FIFA’s side, and once in Qatar he seemed to be a draw for controversy. When he collected his media certificate at the start of the competition, he took a photo of the competition logo on the wall. He reported that security officers spoke to him, and asked him to delete the image from his phone. A few days later, I found myself in the same place, referring to my colleagues on the now infamous ‘Wahl’ wall.
Before the United States’ first game against Wales, he was asked to remove a rainbow t-shirt he was wearing as a hidden show of support for the LGBTQ community. It was only after he was detained by stadium security and ordered to remove (he refused) that he went public with the story.
A couple of days later, we both attended the same Thanksgiving Lunch at the Iconic Torch Hotel, and later that night, at 1:30 am, he joined us live in our Doha studio. He loved appearing on the show, but he was so busy that this was the only slot he had.
Before the interview, he described his new business venture, GrantWahl.Com, and said he was worried he might not break even on the trip. He also told us that he had been setting himself aggressive targets to deliver content to his paying subscribers.
The crowded ground at the Qatar World Cup has given journalists and fans the unique opportunity to attend several matches every day, but the tight schedule, consisting of three or four matches every 24 hour for 17 consecutive days, been tired. Nevertheless, many have discovered that the smorgasbord of action is unavoidable.
We’ve since learned that Wahl fell ill at the tournament, something he says was expected after covering so many World Cups in the past. He had been at the medical clinic at the World Cup media center, he could feel his chest tightening and he feared it was bronchitis, he said in an episode of the Futbol podcast with Grant Wahl.
But that night, we were joking about the fact that I was only on day five of the competition, that I had lost my voice. Qatar wasn’t his first ‘rodeo’, but it was my first World Cup in person, and my body had quickly adapted to the flight across eight time zones and the punishing schedule.
But when I think back on that interview, so many of the things that many of us loved about Grant were there. He was charming, kind and just as happy to be covering his eighth man for the World Cup and the game he loved so much. We discussed the t-shirt escapade, Cristiano Ronaldo’s latest antics, and the upcoming clash between Team USA and England.
“It’s looking for respect from the US,” he explained, a search for validation from a country that has historically looked down its nose at growing the same game with a different name across the pond. But he knew that the tide was now turning and opinions were changing.
As is the case with life itself, there is always a time limit for an interview, and we had come close to the end. Needing a quick line to wrap it up and throw it back to the main studio, I thanked Grant and told him it would be “interesting to see what happened next.”
None of us could have imagined that the next chapter of his life and his amazing career would be so suddenly, and tragically, final.