How Grant Wahl Changed the Place of Soccer in America

When Grant Wahl was a sophomore at Princeton, in 1994, he received funding to spend a summer studying the culture of fútbol in Argentina. Wahl was from eastern Kansas; he’d never left the United States. He asked the coach of the Princeton soccer team, Bob Bradley, whom he’d met while reporting for the Daily Princetonian, where he might be able to practice his Spanish. Bradley suggested Boca Juniors, the legendary sports club in Buenos Aires, best known for its beloved fútbol team.

Wahl watched games standing in the terraces of Boca’s stadium, called La Bombonera, and was caught in the surge that swelled toward the fence every time Boca scored. He drank Quilmes beers with locals, including one of Boca’s most prominent and notorious fans, Quique Ocampo, who had a grocery and was known as the Butcher. Wahl travelled on a bus with Boca Juniors fans to Rosario for a weekend. He fell in love with the songs, with the old stadium in Buenos Aires, with the tidal movements of the crowds. And, of course, there was the beautiful game itself.

Wahl returned to Argentina the following year, this time to research a senior thesis on democratic practices, civic society, and Argentinean soccer clubs. One of his professors called it a “silly idea,” but Wahl was undeterred. He interviewed leading journalists, club directors, politicians; he pored over maps and demographic and economic data. He went to games, too, sitting in general admission, so that he could present an “accurate rendition of associational life.” In his thesis, he provided nuanced arguments about the development of democratic attitudes in Argentina and the ways that soccer clubs there both supported and undermined civic engagement. He was alive to the romance of fútbol culture, but also to the degradation of women, the oppression of the poor, and the pattern of violence, all of which he addressed directly. He reported and wrote with rigor but not with detachment. He brought his social conscience to his understanding of the sport.

After college, he got a job as a fact checker at Sports Illustrated, where he had wanted to work since he was in high school. In his early years at S.I., he wrote mostly about college basketball; later, he would write the magazine’s famous cover story about a sixteen-year-old prospect named LeBron James. Wahl had a terrific sense not only for what the story was but for what it would be. He knew that the big story S.I. had been missing was the story of soccer, the global game—and the women’s game. This was not an easy argument to make, at the time, in mainstream American sports media. S.I. had published its share of essays suggesting that soccer was for sissies. “Someone at Sports Illustrated said once, ‘Soccer is for kids who couldn’t make the football team,’ ” Jon Wertheim, who shared an office with Wahl at S.I. and who became a close friend, told me. Wahl “took it as a challenge,” he said. Wahl pushed to write about soccer, and got his first break in December, 1997, covering the University of North Carolina women’s team’s national championship.

He went to the World Cup in 1998, in France, as the magazine’s third-string soccer writer. But the first went home after the U.S. tumbled out of the tournament, and the second left for a wedding, so, after Les Bleus won the final, Wahl was the one who walked back to the hotel along the Champs-Élysées, by the Seine, through a million French fans thronging the streets, and filed a twenty-five-hundred-word dispatch. He understood before anyone else that S.I. should cover the Women’s World Cup in the United States the following year with similar resources and attention—perhaps more. He knew that, in the United States, the women’s national team had the potential to be a supernova. And he was on hand to write an iconic cover story after Brandi Chastain ripped off her shirt when the U.S. clinched the title.

In 2001, Frank Deford, one of S.I.’s most famous writers, wrote that soccer would “never thrive” in the United States, calling the sport “un-American.” And yet soccer began to slip into mainstream coverage, and Deford’s colleague Wahl was one of the main reasons. He did cover stories on Mario Balotelli, Abby Wambach, David Beckham—but he was also persistent in his pursuit of smaller stories, for covering the sport with a steady rhythm and depth. “He had a huge part in growing and building the game and legitimizing it,” Julie Foudy, a midfielder for the 1999 U.S. World Cup title team, and now an analyst for ESPN, told me.

Wahl regarded women’s soccer as a priority long before the team’s own federation—and perhaps even some of its players—recognized that the women deserved the same kind of coverage as the men. “There was this sense when Grant showed up at events in his little page-boy cap, ‘O.K., this matters,’ ” Foudy said. Wahl wanted to elevate soccer in the United States, but he was not a cheerleader; he wrote about the players, and particularly the institutions around them, not only with respect but with critical scrutiny. His mentor at Princeton had been Gloria Emerson, the war reporter; at S.I., he told Wertheim that he wanted to emulate Nicholas Kristof—to travel the world, asking questions.

Soccer was Wahl’s “way of experiencing the world,” Wahl’s wife, Céline Gounder, told me. “A way of experiencing different cultures, different countries.” It was a way of writing about people—their passions, their triumphs, their failings. While Wahl was pushing to do more and more soccer stories, Gounder was getting her M.D. and becoming a leading expert in epidemiology. In 2007, she told her husband that she would be spending much of the next year doing research in South Africa; he decided to take a leave from Sports Illustrated and come with her, and used the year to write a book about Major League Soccer and David Beckham called “The Beckham Experiment.” It was characteristically intelligent and rich with detail and intrigue, and it became a best-seller. When Wahl returned to S.I., he did it as a full-time soccer writer—a position that did not seem like a silly idea to anyone anymore.

From the age of twenty, when Wahl first went to Argentina, he had understood the way that politics and economics, power and culture intersect in the beautiful game. (When he was researching his senior thesis, he interviewed Mauricio Macri, who was running for president of the Boca Juniors club; two decades later, Macri became the President of Argentina.) He saw these dynamics play out when women fought for equal pay from the U.S. Soccer Federation and when activists and journalists worked to expose corruption within FIFA, the global game’s governing body. Wahl even ran for FIFA president, in 2011, in what he described as only half a stunt. He really did care.

He also understood how the game could connect people, and he sought to build those connections himself. He had some good fortune in the contacts he made—Bradley, the Princeton coach, became the coach of the U.S. men’s national team, in 2006—but he also had a talent for it. “He was comfortable in so many different environments,” Wertheim told me. The salient thing about him, from all accounts, was his generosity, particularly with younger soccer writers. He helped them find jobs. He promoted their work. Having set the path, he made sure there were others with him on it.

When a company called Maven took over Sports Illustrated in 2019, and began cutting jobs, Wahl wrote to editors at other outlets telling them about the young writers they had to hire. After he protested pay cuts that Maven made during the pandemic, Wahl was fired, too. What his new bosses didn’t understand, and he did, was that he didn’t need them. He made documentaries. He started a podcast, “Fútbol with Grant Wahl.” (As always, he saw where the game was going: his first guest was Tyler Adams, who, this year, became the first Black solo captain of the U.S. men’s national team at a World Cup.) He started his own site and a newsletter. He became, in many ways, synonymous with soccer journalism in the United States.

Before the start of the 2022 World Cup, in Qatar, FIFA pleaded with journalists to keep politics out of it. Instead, last winter, Wahl travelled to Qatar and interviewed migrant workers for long pieces about human-rights abuses, carefully reporting on a topic that many were simply speculating about. Shortly before he left for the World Cup, Gounder told me, Wahl was reminiscing about Gloria Emerson, his mentor, who covered the Vietnam War for the Times. He pulled out of his files a profile of Emerson that he had written for a Princeton writing class nearly twenty years ago. The instructor of the class was David Remnick, who would later become the editor of this magazine. There was a note from Remnick on the first page: “This is splendid, among the very best student papers I’ve ever seen.” (When I asked Remnick about Wahl, he immediately remembered having him as a student, and, like so many others, the first thing he mentioned was how kind Wahl had been.)

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