Editor’s note: Kartik Krishnaiyer’s Grant Wahl tribute remembers one of soccer’s most influential individuals for the sport in the United States.

Grant Wahl, a fixture on the American and global soccer scene, passed away suddenly on Friday. Wahl was 49.

Wahl was no ordinary soccer writer. Rather, he was an institution in the game and a mentor to so many. Even more critical, arguably, was the role Wahl played in growing the game in the United States. 

Wahl wrote about soccer for over two decades at Sports Illustrated. He first caught my eye during the France 1998 World Cup. Then, his prose was unique among American writers at a mainstream platform at the time. This differed from many in the US. Covering soccer, for them, was a demotion from the traditional sports. It was a time flier or stepping stone into a mainstream sport.

Wahl embraced the culture and understanding of the sport for all its worldliness. 

Through the years, Wahl’s impact grew. Eventually, he became the most visible and well-read writer about the sport in the United States. By the time the mid 2000’s rolled around, I was addicted to his columns. They were a window to the world of soccer. For me, soccer was a fandom, and Wahl provided all the content I could desire. He was the outlet for a sport that barely registered in the US landscape.

A tribute to Grant Wahl

Wahl was such a talented and visible presence. He could have went on to write about college basketball. Or, he had the potential to breach other, more prominent, US sports. We cannot understate his impact on growing the game’s popularity. Its current standing in terms of visibility is much to the credit of Wahl’s determination.

In 2006, I started writing about soccer in a more serious fashion. The form Wahl used in his writing was my clearest model. His writing style gave context and background to a game that was foreign to most Americans. Soccer needed a special touch from writers who were 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 lauded that book for this website. It remains, today, a quintessential read in terms of storytelling and understanding of the trials and tribulations around Major League Soccer in that era. 

Wahl’s byline in this era conveyed a seriousness to the reader. A story gained traction and importance if he was the writer assigned to it.

I jumped to the other side of the desk, so to speak, in 2010. The North American Soccer League (NASL) brought me on as Communications Director. Quite quickly, I registered the potential of getting Wahl to cover stories related to our league. It would be beyond helpful to grow this upstart second division league.

The reach of the writer

Such opportunities did present themselves, perhaps not as regularly as I had hoped but often enough. Wahl dug into stories related to our league and teams. That began with a Tampa Bay Rowdies player who was featuring for the Palestine national team in 2011. It culminated, at least in my experience, with the announcement of Brazilian great Ronaldo buying a portion of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. It was on this last story, in early 2015, that we felt the full impact of Wahl’s persona. He had begun contributing to FOX Sports soccer 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 pay, covering local teams sometimes become resentful. But, in the case of Wahl, when you worked with him on a story, 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 speak to a soccer writer or press officer, no matter how relatively inconsequential they were. He took the time to mentor a whole generation of young writers and was instrumental in helping revive a largely dormant, The North America Soccer Writers (NASR) professional organization, of which I served as Vice President from 2017 to 2019. 

Additionally, he was a friend to so many in the business. Three months ago, Neil Blackmon, one of my closest associates and friends in this business, lost his father. One of the first phone calls Neil received was from Grant Wahl, who was never too busy to spare a minute and a thought for a colleague. 

A pioneer for soccer

Grant was almost like 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 vehicle to talk about and promote the sport to a greater constituency than regularly watched 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 just in the United States but globally that fueled the passion in soccer. 

Speaking the truth

After leaving FOX Sports in 2019 and Sports Illustrated in 2020, Wahl’s voice became arguably even more important. As a freelancer, he became even more committed to telling stories and giving important context about a sport that was becoming increasingly questionable in its ethics and its impact. Wahl was no stranger to controversies around FIFA, briefly considering a run for president of the organization a decade earlier, in 2011. Wahl had hammered FIFA for years for its scandal and ethical lapses, but as the World Cup in Qatar approached and governance of the game became even more questionable, he sharpened his pencil and penned many a column, that raised alarm bells around key issues surrounding the game. 

In 2021 and 2022, writing on a substack platform, Wahl penned some of his most important pieces, which effectively fused activism with a passion for the sport. His final piece, penned the day before his passing, discussed FIFA World Cup 2022 host Qatar’s shameful treatment of migrant workers from South Asia, and the political efforts to silence conversation about it. 

It was a fitting tribute for Grant Wahl to end his career, as that piece reflected his deep sense of justice as well his desire for the beautiful game to be just that. Beautiful, once again. 

PHOTO: IMAGO / Bildbyran