World Cup

To the end, Grant Wahl fought fearlessly for what he believed

Grant Wahl made headlines earlier at this World Cup for wearing a T-shirt in support of gay rights. Not for the attention, but because he was just a relentless evangelist for his causes.

U.S. journalist died Friday after collapsing during World Cup game

A tribute to American journalist Grant Wahl marks his desk in the press box at Al Bayt Stadium prior to the World Cup match between England and France on Saturday. (Chris Jones)

Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.

Grant Wahl, the famed American soccer journalist, died in the early hours of Saturday morning at Lusail Stadium outside of Doha, while covering his eighth men's World Cup and the game he loved.

He collapsed in the media tribune during the dramatic quarter-final between Argentina and the Netherlands, which had gone to extra time. Paramedics continued to treat him on the scene while the Argentines won on penalties. He was taken away on a stretcher and pronounced dead at a local hospital. The stadium was empty by then.

Grant and I both celebrated our 49th birthdays here in Qatar, four days apart. My overwhelming instinct today — the first cool and grey day since the World Cup began — is to take the next flight home and wrap both of my boys in hugs. I am trying to push through those feelings by writing about my friend.

He was prominent in soccer circles in every respect. Grant was about nine feet tall and had a perfectly bald head, so he stood out anyway. I first met him at the men's World Cup in South Africa in 2010. It was my first and his fifth. He was kind and generous in explaining how things worked.

Someone told me that he laundered his jeans by putting them in the freezer, which struck me as insane, and one night in Johannesburg I screwed up the courage to ask him whether that was true. It was, and he gave me a passionate defence of the practice.

An Internet search revealed that freezing your jeans is, at best, an exercise of dubious efficacy, but Grant was steadfast. When Grant believed in something, he believed in it with his whole heart.

Last night, he sat directly in front of me, one row removed. He arrived in his seat close to the whistle. When he did, I thought, "Oh, there's Grant Wahl," and I gave him a wave. He looked tired and wan, but he wasn't going to miss such a big game.

The last goal he saw came on a sneaky set piece by the Dutch that tied things up in the 101st minute of regulation, the latest equalizer in World Cup history. Grant tweeted his admiration of the play: "Just an incredible designed set-piece goal by the Netherlands," he wrote. A few minutes later, his colour changed, and he fell from his chair. Bedlam broke out. 

Grant had been notably fearless here. Before the USA played Wales on Nov. 21, he had been detained by Qatari security forces for wearing a black T-shirt with a soccer ball encircled by a rainbow on its front.

Eric Wahl, Grant's brother, is openly gay, and Grant was a relentless evangelist for his causes, which included his brother's right to watch a soccer game without fear. 

Grant Wahl smiles as he holds a World Cup replica trophy during an award ceremony in Qatar on Nov. 29 that recognized journalists who had covered eight World Cups. (Brendan Moran, FIFA via AP)

Grant had also mounted a strong and repeated defence of Qatar's migrant workers, and I can't help thinking how in a terrible way he's now one of their number, soon to be delivered home to his widow, Dr. Céline Gounder, while life in Doha and the tournament goes on.

Covering a World Cup is an incredible privilege, as well as an incredible grind. Normally, nobody here would dream to complain about it except to each other.

Grant had been dragging lately. That's not unusual — after three weeks of late nights, scattershot eating, and deadline stress, we're all withered — but he was suffering more than most. He had a bad cough, and he wrote that he'd seen a doctor, who thought he had bronchitis. On Friday he took some medicine and came to his final stadium.

One of the things that always impressed me most about Grant was his work ethic. A couple of years ago, he went independent, selling online subscriptions to his stories. He held himself to the most rigorous professional standards. He wrote copiously on self-imposed deadlines, vowing to keep rewarding his readers for their trust, which he viewed as sacred.

True believer

After Grant had refused to take off his rainbow T-shirt and was released by security — FIFA later apologized for the incident — he walked into the media tent outside the stadium.

He looked rattled and angry, and he was covered in a sheen of sweat. "I was just detained for my T-shirt," he told me, and for the first time he relayed the story that would soon make headlines around the world.

Some of his audience thought Grant had worn his T-shirt on purpose, to provoke the Qataris.

He wore his T-shirt on purpose, absolutely, but not to get attention. He wore it because he was a true believer.

"I guess we know what you're writing about tonight," I said.

"I'd rather be writing about soccer," Grant said.

Then he sat down, opened his laptop, put on his glasses, and got to work.


Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

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