It’s 5am and I can’t sleep; the extraordinary drama of Argentina’s penalty shoot-out victory over the Netherlands is replaying in my head over and over again.
Then I checked my phone. I thought I was going to throw up.
American football journalist Grant Wahl, who also covered the game from Lusail, has died.
At first, social media was filled with worrisome rumors, but then came chilling confirmations. Everything seemed so sudden, too surreal to be real.
Grant has been tweeting about the game, tweeting about the Dutchman’s improbable stoppage-time equalizer to send the game into extra-time. But then, as more than 80,000 fans were caught up in the on-field drama, Grant was fighting for his life. A frenzied effort to bring him back to life as we now know failed miserably.
If my personal experience is anything to go by, for many journalists covering the World Cup in Qatar, the hours since have been surreal and sickeningly blurry.
I don’t remember when I first met Grant. When Jurgen Klinsmann was named head coach of the U.S. soccer team in 2011, it might have been in New York, or it might have been before the World Cup in Qatar, and we never actually met.
But such is the nature of our business, we orbit each other, interact frequently through social media and TV interviews, and we become friends.
Many times our conversations took place over Skype or Zoom, and I vividly remember one time when his wife, Celine, accidentally walked into the room and almost walked out in front of a global audience. He waved her away deftly, but didn’t stop.
In the years that followed, epidemiologist Dr Celine Grounder would become one of the public faces of science’s fight against Covid 19, and he could hardly hide his pride in her achievement. As recently as two weeks ago, he was gushing to me about her.
Wall quickly rose to fame as a contributor to Sports Illustrated, introducing then-high school athlete LeBron James to the world in one of his many cover stories and the headline “The Chosen One.” Just hours after his death, NBA great James was the first to pay tribute to Wall, lamenting: “This is a tragic loss. It is unfortunate to lose someone as great as him.”
But his real claim to fame was as a football writer. He was the cheerleader for the beautiful game in North America long before it was fashionable – a decade ago the Premier League became a regular Saturday morning staple in many American homes, with some Major League Soccer stadiums drawing more than 70,000 people.
Well-known British football commentator Jon Champion told me that when he crossed the Atlantic to join ESPN in 2019, Val was the first person to roll out the red carpet. “He was selling football ideas in America,” he said. “He was almost a missionary in the sense that he would travel the world and tell people to take American football seriously. If you asked any front-line European football journalist whose first stop was America, they would be Grant Val.”
It is for this reason that both the U.S. Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer have paid their respects with such fervor. Wahl was as important as any player in growing the game in America.
Saturday’s tribute was so grand that no one doubted his impact. “I’m not sure people outside the US understand Grant’s impact on football there,” British football broadcaster Max Rushden tweeted. “I certainly didn’t until I read the eulogy.”
But Grant has so much depth because he’s not just a reporter who records wins and losses. Fearless in his pursuit of the truth, he has often cast a disturbing light on the dark side of professional sport, highlighting human rights abuses and giving voice to those who have been silenced.
In 2011, just months after FIFA’s controversial decision to award the World Cup to Qatar, he ran for the new presidency, promising to root out corruption in world football’s governing body, “Let us heal FIFA. corruption [Sepp] Blatter infected,” he famously promised.
He has always been a thorn in the side of FIFA and once he arrived in Qatar, he became the focus of controversy. While picking up media clearance at the start of the game, he took a photo of the game logo on the wall. he reports Security officials approached him and inexplicably asked him to delete the photos on his phone. A few days later, I found myself in the same place, speaking to my colleagues on the now infamous “Wall Wall”.
Ahead of the US’s opening game against Wales, he was asked to remove a rainbow-colored T-shirt he was wearing as a discreet support for the LGBTQ community. He didn’t go public with the story until he was detained by stadium security and ordered to remove it (which he refused).
A few days later, we all attended the same Thanksgiving lunch at the Iconic Torch Hotel, and later that night, at 1:30am, he joined us for a live broadcast from our Doha studio. He would love to be on the show, but is so busy it’s the only slot available to him.
Before the interview, he described his new freelance venture, GrantWahl.Com, and expressed his concern that he might not be able to make ends meet on the trip. He also told us that he has been setting ambitious goals for himself to provide content to paying subscribers.
The packed venues of the World Cup in Qatar offer journalists and fans a unique opportunity to watch multiple games per day, but the tight schedule of three or four games played every 24 hours for 17 consecutive days is exhausting. However, many people find the smorgasbord of actions irresistible.
We later learned that Var fell ill during the game, something he said he had expected after so many World Cups in the past. He had been to the medical clinic at the World Cup Media Center, and he could feel a tightness in his chest and worried it was bronchitis, he said on an episode of the Futbol podcast with Grant Wahl.
But that night, we were joking about the fifth day of the game, and I lost my voice. Qatar wasn’t his first ‘arena’, but it was my first World Cup in person, and my body quickly succumbed to flying across eight time zones and a rigors of schedule.
But when I think back on that interview, it showed a lot of the things that many of us came to like about Grant. He’s charming, kind and happy to be covering his eighth Men’s World Cup and the game he loves. We discuss T-shirt pranks, Cristiano Ronaldo’s latest antics and the upcoming clash between Team USA and England.
“It’s seeking America’s respect,” he explained, seeking recognition from a country that has historically looked down on the development of the same game under different titles across the pond. But he knows the tides are turning and attitudes are changing.
Like life itself, interviews are always time-bound, and we’re nearing the end. Needing a quick line to wrap it up and toss back to the main studio, I thanked Grant and told him “it’ll be interesting to see what happens next”.
None of us could have imagined that the next chapter of his remarkable life and career would end so abruptly and horribly.