It was 5 am and I couldn’t sleep; my mind replayed over and over again the extraordinary drama of Argentina’s penalty shootout victory over the Netherlands.
And then I checked my phone. I thought I was going to vomit.
American football journalist Grant Wahl, who also covered the match at Lusail, had died.
At first, social media was full of worried rumors, but then came the gruesome confirmation. It all seemed so sudden and too weird to be true.
Grant had tweeted about the match, he had posted about the unlikely Dutch equalizer in stoppage time which extended the game. But then, as more than 80,000 fans were absorbed in the drama on the pitch, Grant was fighting for his life. As we now know, frantic efforts to revive him were tragically unsuccessful.
If my own personal experience is anything to go by, for many journalists covering the World Cup in Qatar, the hours since then have been a surreal, nauseating blur.
I don’t remember the first time I met Grant. Maybe it was in New York for the appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann as head coach of the American football team in 2011, or maybe we had never met in person before this World Cup in Qatar.
But the nature of our business is such that we have turned to each other and interacted so often on social media and through our TV interviews that we have become friends.
Many times our conversations would take place over Skype or Zoom, and I vividly remember one occasion when his wife, Celine, accidentally walked into the room and nearly walked out in front of a global audience. He deftly motioned for her to walk away without breaking her stride.
Over the next few years, epidemiologist Dr Céline Gounder would become one of the public faces of the scientific response to Covid 19, and he could rarely hide his pride in his accomplishments. He told me about her barely two weeks ago.
As a writer for Sports Illustrated, Wahl quickly made a name for himself by introducing then-athlete LeBron James to the world with one of his many covers and the title “The Chosen One.” Just hours after his passing, NBA great James led tributes to Wahl, lamenting, “This is a tragic loss. It’s unfortunate to lose someone as great as him. »
But it was as a football writer that Wahl really made a name for himself. He was a cheerleader for the beautiful game in North America long before it was all the rage – a decade before the English Premier League became a Saturday morning fixture in many American homes and stadiums. of Major League Soccer drew crowds of over 70,000.
Acclaimed 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 red carpet. “He was selling the idea of football in the United States,” he said. “He was almost a missionary in that sense, he was traveling around the world telling people to take American football seriously. he wanted a story in America, it would be Grant Wahl.
It is for this reason that the United States Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer have paid tribute in such glowing terms. Wahl was as important as any player in the growth of the game in America.
Saturday’s tributes were so comprehensive that no one could doubt its impact. “I’m not sure people outside of the US understand Grant’s impact on football there,” UK football broadcaster Max Rushden tweeted, “Definitely didn’t before… ‘having read the tributes.’
But there was so much depth to Grant, because he wasn’t just a journalist who wrote about wins and losses. He was fearless in his pursuit of the truth, and he regularly shone an uncomfortably bright light on the dark side of professional sport by highlighting human rights abuses and standing up for voices that had been 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 rid football’s world governing body of corruption: Let’s cure FIFA of its [Sepp] Blatter infection,” he promised.
He was a constant thorn in FIFA’s side, and once in Qatar he seemed like a magnet for controversy. While collecting his media accreditation at the start of the tournament, he took a picture of the tournament logo on the wall. He reported that he was approached by security guards and inexplicably asked him to delete the image from his phone. Several days later, I found myself in the same place, noticing to my colleagues the now infamous “Wahl’s Wall”.
Ahead of USA’s first game against Wales, he was asked to remove a rainbow t-shirt he had been wearing as a low-key show of support for the LGBTQ community. It was only after he was arrested by stadium security and ordered to remove him (he refused) that he went public with the story.
A few days later, we both attended the same Thanksgiving lunch at the Iconic Torch Hotel, and later that night at 1:30 a.m. he joined us live at our Doha studio. He was keen to appear on the show, but was so busy it was the only slot he had.
Prior to the interview, he described his new freelance business, GrantWahl.Com, and shared that he feared he might not break even during the trip. He also told us that he has set aggressive goals for delivering content to his paid subscribers.
The condensed World Cup landmass in Qatar gave journalists and fans the unique opportunity to attend multiple matches each day, but the condensed schedule, with three or four matches every 24 hours for 17 consecutive days, was exhausting. Nonetheless, many found the action smorgasbord irresistible.
We learned afterwards that Wahl had fallen ill during the tournament, something he expected after covering so many World Cups in the past. He had gone to the medical clinic at the World Cup media center, he could feel the tightness in his chest and was worried it was bronchitis, he said in an episode of the Futbol podcast with Grant Wahl.
But that night we were joking that only on the fifth day of the tournament I had lost my voice. Qatar wasn’t his first “rodeo,” but it was my first in-person World Cup, and my body quickly surrendered to flying across eight time zones and the grueling schedule.
But when I think back to that interview, it featured so much that many of us grew to love about Grant. He was charming, kind and so happy to be covering his eighth Men’s World Cup and the sport he loved. We discussed the t-shirt getaway, Cristiano Ronaldo’s latest antics and the impending clash between Team USA and England.
“There is a search for respect from the United States,” he explained, a search for validation from a country that has always looked down on the growth of the same game with a different name. on the other side of the pond. But he knew the tide was turning now and mentalities were changing.
As with life itself, there is always a time limit for an interview, and we were nearing the end. Needing a quick line to wrap up and send back to the main studio, I thanked Grant and told him it would be “interesting to see what happens next.”
None of us could have ever imagined that the next chapter in his extraordinary life and career would be so sudden and terrifyingly final.