Soccer writer Grant Wahl dies at World Cup match in Qatar

Wahl, one of the most well-known soccer writers in the United States, collapsed and died early Saturday while covering the Argentina-Netherlands World Cup match.

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Grant Wahl smiles as he holds a World Cup replica trophy during an award ceremony in Doha, Qatar on Nov. 29.

Grant Wahl smiles as he holds a World Cup replica trophy during an award ceremony in Doha, Qatar on Nov. 29.

Brendan Moran / AP

LUSAIL, Qatar — Grant Wahl, one of the most well-known soccer writers in the United States, collapsed and died early Saturday while covering the World Cup match in Qatar between Argentina and the Netherlands. 

Wahl, who was 48, had made international news last month when he wrote of having been initially denied entry to a United States-Wales World Cup game on Nov. 21 and briefly detained by security for wearing a shirt with a soccer ball surrounded by a rainbow pattern in defiance of Qatari authorities. Gay and lesbian sex is criminalized in Qatar, a conservative Muslim emirate.

Though no cause of death has been made public, Eric Wahl, his brother, said on Instagram that his brother had gotten death threats after wearing the rainbow shirt.

“I’m gay,” Eric Wahl wrote. “I’m the reason he wore the rainbow shirt to the World Cup. My brother was healthy. He told me he received death threats.”

When Wahl, who had written of being sick in Qatar and getting treatment, fell back in his seat in a section of Lusail Stadium reserved for journalists during extra time of the game Friday that stretched into early Saturday, reporters seated near him said they called for assistance. Emergency services workers responded very quickly, treated him for 20 or 30 minutes there and then took him out on a stretcher, said Keir Radnedge, a British sports journalist who was working nearby.

News of Wahl’s death was confirmed by his wife, Dr. Celine Gounder, who served as an adviser on the COVID-19 pandemic to President Joe Biden.

“I’m in complete shock,” Gounder wrote.

The World Cup organizing committee said he was taken to Doha’s Hamad General Hospital, but it did not state a cause of death.

“We are in touch with the US Embassy and relevant local authorities to ensure the process of repatriating the body is in accordance with the family’s wishes,” it said in a written statement.

Wahl, who wrote for Sports Illustrated for a decade, also previously worked for Fox Sports and then started his own website, GrantWahl.com on Substack, was a major voice in introducing professional soccer to an American public more used to seeing the sport as a school-level game. 

He also brought a critical eye to the organizational bodies of the international sport.

He “really helped put soccer on the mainstream sports map in the States,” Radnedge said.

“Grant had a strong moral compass, on where sports should be and how sport ... should help set standards for people,” he said. “There was never any doubt that Grant was on the side of the good guys in wanting soccer to make the best of itself.”

Wahl was covering his eighth World Cup. He wrote Monday on his website that he had visited a medical clinic while in Qatar.

“My body finally broke down on me. Three weeks of little sleep, high stress and lots of work can do that to you,” Wahl wrote. “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.”

Wahl wrote that he tested negative for COVID-19 and sought treatment for his symptoms.

“I went into the medical clinic at the main media center today, and they said I probably have bronchitis. They gave me a course of antibiotics and some heavy-duty cough syrup, and I’m already feeling a bit better just a few hours later. But still: No bueno,” he wrote.

Wahl tweeted Wednesday that he had celebrated his birthday that day.

“We could always count on Grant to deliver insightful and entertaining stories about our game, and its major protagonists,” the U.S. Soccer Federation said in a written statement. “Grant’s belief in the power of the game to advance human rights was, and will remain, an inspiration to all. Grant made soccer his life’s work, and we are devastated that he and his brilliant writing will no longer be with us.”

Gounder — who is an associate professor at New York University School of Medicine, an attending physician at Bellevue Hospital Center and a CBS News contributor — tweeted that she was thankful for the support of her husband’s “soccer family” and friends who had reached out.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a tweet that American officials were in touch with Qatari authorities “to see to it that his family’s wishes are fulfilled as expeditiously as possible.”

Among Wahl’s work before he began covering soccer exclusively was a Sports Illustrated cover story about LeBron James in 2002, when James was a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High in Akron, Ohio.

“He was always pretty cool to be around. He spent a lot of time in my hometown of Akron,” James said in Philadelphia after the Los Angeles Lakers lost in overtime to the 76ers. “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.”

A voter at times in FIFA’s annual awards, Wahl was among 82 journalists honored last week by FIFA and the international sports press association AIPS for attending eight or more World Cups.

“His love for football was immense and his reporting will be missed by all who follow the global game,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said.

Wahl graduated from Princeton in 1996 and worked for Sports Illustrated from 1996 to 2021, known primarily for his coverage of soccer and college basketball. He then launched his own website.

Wahl also worked for Fox Sports from 2012 to 2019.

His death at the World Cup left fellow journalists covering the games stunned.

“You come to a World Cup as a journalist to work, to share the stresses, the pressures but also the enjoyments and the fascination of it — and to share that with your readers, your listeners, your viewers. That’s what Grant was doing, that’s what he enjoyed doing. Everybody recognized that enthusiasm in him,” Radnedge said.

“So for him to not be with us anymore at such a young age, that’s an immense shock.”

Officials with the Chicago-headquartered U.S. Soccer Federation lauded Wahl, writing: “Here in the United States Grant’s passion for soccer and commitment to elevating its profile across our sporting landscape played a major role in helping to drive interest in and respect for our beautiful game. As important, Grant’s belief in the power of the game to advance human rights was, and will remain, an inspiration to all. Grant made soccer his life’s work, and we are devastated he and his brilliant writing will no longer be with us.”

U.S. women’s soccer great Becky Sauerbrunn wrote: “The soccer community lost a real one today. And for women’s soccer, one of the originals who helped drive our game forward. Grant Wahl never shied away from asking the tough questions, the right questions, the ones that got to the heart of the matter. He will be greatly missed.”

Former U.S. women’s soccer star Abby Wambach wrote: “Grant Wahl and soccer are inextricably linked. I have looked to Grant and his work for decades. The soccer story here in the US has Grant’s name all over it.”

“The game in America was lucky to be served by such a brilliant journalist and, in my time covering the US men’s and women’s teams, a kind and helpful companion. I can’t quite believe this,” TV soccer announcer Ian Darke wrote.

Contributing: USA Today

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