A pioneer for American football
Editor’s Note: Kartik Krishnaiyer’s Grant Wahl tribute commemorates one of football’s most influential figures for the sport in the United States.
Grant Wahl, a fixture in the American and global football scene, passed away suddenly on Friday. Wahl turned 49.
Wahl was no ordinary football writer. On the contrary, he was an institution in the game and a mentor to so many. Perhaps even more important was the role Wahl played in helping the game grow in the United States.
Wahl credited football for more than two decades Sports illustrated. He first stood out during the 1998 World Cup in France. Then his prose was unique among American writers on a mainstream platform at the time. This differed from many in the US. To them, beating football was a relegation from the traditional sports. It was a time flyer or springboard to a mainstream sport.
Wahl embraced the culture and understanding of the sport for all its worldliness.
Over the years, Wahl’s impact grew. He eventually became the most visible and best-read writer on the sport in the United States. By the time the mid-2000s rolled around, I was hooked on his columns. They were a window to the world of football. For me, football was a fandom and Wahl provided all the content I could want. He was the outlet for a sport that barely registered in the American landscape.
A tribute to Grant Wahl
Wahl was such a talented and visible presence. He could have written about college basketball. Or he had the potential to break into other more prominent American sports. We cannot underestimate his influence on the growing popularity of the game. The current status in terms of visibility is a great credit to Wahl’s determination.
In 2006 I started writing about football more seriously. The form Wahl used in his writing was my clearest model. His writing style gave context and background to a game foreign to most Americans. Football needed a special touch from writers trying to sell the game to the masses.
Storytelling was his forte and it reached new heights in his 2009 book, The Beckham Experiment. I praised that book for this website. It remains, today, a quintessential read in terms of storytelling and understanding of the trials and tribulations surrounding Major League Soccer at the time.
Wahl’s byline in this era conveyed a seriousness to the reader. A story gained traction and importance when he was the writer assigned to it.
I sort of jumped to the other side of the desk in 2010. The North American Soccer League (NASL) brought me on as communications director. Soon I noticed that it was possible to have Wahl write stories about our competition. It wouldn’t help to grow this novice second grader.
The reach of the writer
Opportunities like these presented themselves, perhaps not as regularly as I’d hoped, but often enough. Wahl delved into stories about our league and teams. That started with a Tampa Bay Rowdies player who played for the Palestinian national team in 2011. It culminated, at least in my experience, with the announcement that Brazilian great Ronaldo was buying a piece of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. It was in this last story, in early 2015, that we felt the full impact of Wahl’s persona. He had started contributing to FOX Sports football coverage a few years earlier.
One of the challenges of giving stories to national writers with a platform was that local reporters who work long hours for little money and beat local teams sometimes get angry. But in Wahl’s case, when you worked on a story with him, everyone in the game understood the magnitude of the platform he had.
As my role in the game evolved, I came across more people who said Wahl was an inspiration or a mentor. He was someone who always had time to talk to a football writer or press officer, however relatively unimportant they were. He took the time to mentor an entire generation of young writers and was instrumental in reviving a largely dormant professional organization The North America Soccer Writers (NASR), of which I served as vice president from 2017 to 2019.
Plus, he was a friend to so many in the business. Three months ago, Neil Blackmon, one of my closest associates and friends in this industry, lost his father. One of the first calls Neil received was from Grant Wahl, who was never too busy to devote a minute and a thought to a colleague.
A pioneer in football
Grant was almost a missionary for the beautiful game, spreading the gospel of a sport that was secondary or even unknown to most American sports fans. He sought out national news platforms and any other means of talking about the sport and promoting the sport to a larger constituency than regularly watches it.
While breaking news was in his wheelhouse, as described above, more important to him was his efforts to promote the people and personalities around the game, as well as the culture, not only in the United States but worldwide that fueled the passion in football.
Speak the truth
After leaving FOX Sports in 2019 and Sports Illustrated in 2020, Wahl’s voice arguably became even more important. As a freelancer, he focused even more on storytelling and providing important context about a sport whose ethics and impact were increasingly questionable. Wahl was no stranger to controversies surrounding FIFA, briefly considering becoming president of the organization a decade earlier, in 2011. Wahl had harped on FIFA for years for its scandals and ethical missteps, but as the World Cup in Qatar approached and the governance of the FIFA game became even more questionable, he sharpened his pencil and wrote many a column that set alarm bells ringing about key issues surrounding the game.
In 2021 and 2022, Wahl, writing on a substack platform, wrote some of his most important pieces, effectively merging activism with a passion for the sport. His last piece, written the day before his passing, discussed the shameful treatment of migrant workers from South Asia by the 2022 FIFA World Cup host Qatar, and the political attempts to silence the discussion about it.
It was a fitting tribute for Grant Wahl to end his career, as that piece reflected both his deep sense of justice and his desire for the beautiful game to be just that. Beautiful, again.
PHOTO: IMAGO / Bildbyran
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