Updated at 1:15 p.m. ET on December 10, 2022.
This is an edition of The Great Game, a newsletter about the 2022 World Cup—and how soccer explains the world. Sign up here.
Twenty years ago, when I first called the soccer writer Grant Wahl, he was an exotic species. In those days, most writing about American games existed in niche magazines with low production values and even lower circulations. Grant was the rare domestic journalist covering soccer who had begun to break free from this constricted corner. Where the other American writers rendered the game esoteric and remote—a precious foreign import that only connoisseurs could appreciate—Grant made it appealingly accessible.
My call to Grant was a plea for help. I wanted to write a book about soccer, but I didn’t know anybody or anything. It was a call that I worried might trigger his competitive instincts, and he had no good reason to lend a hand. But even at that early stage in his career, he had traveled the world and implanted himself at the center of a network of the brightest young European journalists. He seemed to know everyone, and he opened his Rolodex to me. It was the sort of generosity that quietly asks its recipients to emulate its model, because it is so selflessly and warmly dispensed.
Even to those who passed through his life as minor characters, his death yesterday at the age of 49, while covering the match between Argentina and the Netherlands, is utterly, brutally crushing.
Although I only saw Grant occasionally in the years that followed our call, I closely watched the role that he played in transporting American soccer into the mainstream of American sporting life. From his perch at Sports Illustrated, he wrote about soccer as if it were any other great subject. He went in search of big characters with compelling backstories. He wrote skeptically and honestly, so much so that players and coaches stopped speaking with him, because he had the temerity to honestly report their conversations without fear of losing his access.
His book on David Beckham’s brief foray into Major League Soccer poignantly captured the strange state of the American game—which plied the aging English midfielder with riches, while it hardly paid a living wage to his less-glamorous teammates. That sense of social justice infused his journalism. He was both unfailingly sweet and capable of righteous outrage.
More than any of his colleagues, Grant championed the women’s game. At a time when the authorities that ran U.S. Soccer treated it as second-class, he didn’t. He wrote about it unselfconsciously, with the same rigor and attention that he accorded the men’s game. Among his many legacies, I’m sure that this is his most important.
Just before he left for Qatar, he came to my house with a film crew. He was working on a documentary about the U.S.-Mexico rivalry, Good Rivals, now airing on Amazon. When he arrived, he looked as if he hadn’t aged since I first met him. He dressed with a hipster edge and remained rail-thin. We talked about his plans for Qatar, where he was bunking with the same group of journalists with whom he shared a house at every tournament. His Substack newsletter was growing nicely, he said. I felt like I wanted more of his enthusiastic presence in my life and invited him to join a fantasy league that I co-run.
Each time I answered one of his questions for the camera—even when I was merely repeating an insight that he’d passed along to me a moment earlier—he reacted as if I had said something extraordinary. He never ceased being the champion of the rest of us.
May his memory be a blessing.
This newsletter originally misstated Wahl’s age.