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Journalism of Courage

Who was Grant Wahl, the American journalist who died under mysterious circumstances in Qatar?

Grant Wahl, who was covering the World Cup in Qatar, shockingly passed away during the Argentina-Netherlands match yesterday. We take a look at who he was, his work, and sudden death.

Journalist Grant Wahl (centre) with two football fans from Tehran whom he met in Qatar, November 21, 2022. (Twitter @GrantWahl)
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Some of the best sports journalists are ones who transcend what happens in the games, providing insight about the cultural and political landscape which sport inhabits. Grant Wahl was one such journalist with a storied career covering various sporting events, personalities and prescient issues in sports and beyond. Early in his career he covered multiple sports but over time, he devoted most of his attention to his one true love: soccer. His death has shocked fans and supporters across the world, with tributes pouring in as some question the circumstances of his passing.

The Indian Express takes a look at who Grant Wahl was, some of his famous stories, his coverage of the Qatar World Cup and his tragic, untimely death.

Grant Wahl: sportswriter with an ability to tell stories that transcended the game

Wahl burst into the the consciousness of American readers in 2002, with a story on a teenage basketball phenom from Akron, Ohio on the covers of Sports Illustrated (SI). While he had already received some critical acclaim, notably for a piece titled Where’s Daddy (1998) about illegitimate children born to professional athletes, his latest story would leave a profound impact on his legacy and that of the athlete he covered. Lebron James, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, would be dubbed as the “Chosen One” by Wahl all the way back in 2002. Two decades later, the level of insight and understanding that Wahl displayed in the SI piece still amazes many.

Wahl would write as many as 50 cover stories for SI, many of them intimate investigations into the athlete or team he was covering. He was not just about the tactics of the game or the skills of the player. Wahl was more of a philosopher, with an acute eye for details that others might miss.

For instance, his first book The Beckham Experiment (2009) chronicled the astonishing move of English football’s biggest superstar David Beckham to Major League Soccer (MLS) in the US. The brilliance of the book lay in how it stitched together personal stories from Beckham and those around him with larger structural issues in American soccer. This book would go on to become a NYT Bestseller.

While he would cover many sports, his enduring love would be soccer. For the American public, he was the foremost authority on the game. In many ways, he played a role in growing the game in the US to where it is now. Wahl covered the US Women’s Team at a time when no one seemed to care. He wrote about the problems with MLS at a time when the world thought that the league was on the rise. While not being a cynic, he saw things for what they are and wrote with a hope of making them better.

Tryst with Fifa presidentship


Seeing Sepp Blatter’s corrupt and sycophantic reign ruin the game he loved, he decided to challenge the Swiss administrator in the 2010 elections for Fifa president. He never had a realistic chance of winning the elections, and withdrew his candidature after failing to secure a nomination from any national association. However, he made the statement he had set out to make.

In his extremely “progressive” agenda, he promised to revolutionise the game for the better.

While he failed to become president, just his improbable presence in the field of candidates generally comprising politicians and businessmen shed light into major issues that plagued the game, on and off the field.


Covering the Qatar World Cup

The World Cup in Qatar has been notoriously riddled with off the pitch controversies: from human rights abuses and labour exploitation to corruption. In his coverage of Qatar, Wahl covered many of these issues. In his pieces, he was extremely critical of the Qatari regime. On December 9, he wrote about the death of a migrant worker during the tournament, “They just don’t care. Qatari World Cup organisers don’t even hide their apathy over migrant worker deaths.” His writings showed the world a glimpse of the human cost of this World Cup but did not win him any fans in the country. According to his brother, he received multiple death threats during the tournament.

On November 21, Wahl wore a rainbow T-shirt in support of LGBTQ rights to the United States’ World Cup opener against Wales. He would be detained outside the stadium for over 25 minutes, with security refusing him entry and asking him to remove the shirt. The picture of Wahl being detained in his rainbow shirt almost overshadowed the game. Yet again he had managed to make his point. A subsequent piece detailing his detainment would be one of his most read pieces on Substack.

Sudden death in unclear circumstance

Wahl was tweeting throughout the Argentina-Netherlands match, with his final tweet coming after the Netherlands’ tying goal near the end of the second half. “Just an incredible set-piece goal by the Netherlands,” he wrote. Still in the stands as the match went into extra-time, he would collapse, with paramedics unable to rescue him. A Qatari hospital would pronounce him dead on Saturday morning, sending the footballing fraternity into shock.


The USMNT released a statement, as did the MLS. In a post-game presser, LeBron James spoke with sorrow, “Any time his name would come up, I’ll always think back to me as a teenager having Grant in our building down at St. V’s. It’s a tragic loss. It’s unfortunate to lose someone as great as he was. I wish his family the best. May he rest in paradise.”

The circumstances of his death, the threats he received, and the content of his writing has led to lots of speculation of foul play on social media. His brother added further fuel to this speculation, taking to Instagram to say, “My name is Eric Wahl. I live in Seattle, Washington. I am Grant Wahl’s brother. I’m gay. I’m the reason he wore the rainbow shirt to the World Cup. My brother was healthy. He told me he received death threats. I do not believe my brother just died. I believe he was killed. I beg for any help”


However, Grant Wahl had not been keeping very well. Earlier this week, Wahl wrote, “My body finally broke down on me. Three weeks of little sleep, high stress and lots of work can do that to you… What had been a cold over the last 10 days turned into something more severe on the night of the USA-Netherlands game, and I could feel my upper chest take on a new level of pressure and discomfort.” He tested negative for Covid-19 and felt better after a round of antibiotics.

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More news is awaited about the details of his death.

First published on: 10-12-2022 at 15:11 IST
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