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  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

Soccer writer Grant Wahl was the type of journalist — and person — I want to be

Above all else, Grant Wahl was kind. From my own interactions with the too-soon-gone soccer journalist to the outpouring of tributes written in days after his death, the common theme always comes back to his kindness.

We should all strive to be remembered so well.

A host of other attributes described Wahl so very well. Talented. Courageous. Generous. Brave. Quirky. Principled. Energetic. Supportive. Zealous. But it really all came down to kindness. Wahl had as big a heart as anyone you have ever met. That is why the tragedy of his passing — recently confirmed as an actual broken heart — hit so hard for so many people.

Writer Molly Knight attested about Wahl that, “rather than being annoyed by constant soccer neophytes asking you dumb questions about why offsides ruin every good goal and why certain players were on the bench, you were so thrilled to have any new soccer converts to convince to dedicate their lives to following this crazy sport.”

Similarly, his friend Joe Posnanski noted that it is “more common for sportwriting experts to hoard their hard-won knowledge, to guard their enthusiasm, to view anyone new and curious as a potential rival … Grant didn’t see it that way. He celebrated the triumphs of other soccer writers. He invited young writers to lean on him.”

It seemed every soccer commentator I follow on social media had a similar story or anecdote. He appeared on their podcast or he introduced them to an editor or he gave them story ideas. He lived as a human sun spreading light and warmth, and his death left many in the cold, dark, empty abyss of a blackhole.

I personally came to follow Wahl just over a decade ago when he ran for FIFA president. It was crazy and wild and completely nuts for a journalist to run for the highest-ranking position in the sport he covered. I loved it.

As an experienced campaign operative and election lawyer, as well as a budding soccer aficionado, I reached out on social media to help. He responded almost immediately — despite also getting calls from celebrities like Steve Nash and Chad Ochocinco and Seth Meyers and Xabi Alonso — to thank me for my support and say that he might need that legal help if he got nominated.

He literally made me feel as important as global icons. That is the rarest form of grace.

Wahl ran because he loved a sport fraught with corruption and stuck in decades long since passed. He wanted to provide transparency and to appoint a woman to the highest position in the organization. He argued for video review (something that has since become reality) and term-limits.

Wahl risked his entire career to take those stands. He knew that FIFA was filled with tyrannical leaders and vindictive sycophants who would not only attempt to cut off his access (the lifeblood of a journalist) but attempt to ruin him in any way they could.

It is no coincidence that upon learning of Wahl’s death many fans across the world immediately began questioning whether FIFA or Qatar had played any part. Wahl had been detained by Qatari security for wearing a an LGBTQ+ supportive shirt at the start of the World Cup, and his last column highlighted the human rights indifference Qatar demonstrated while building its stadiums.

Honestly, it is amazing to me that Wahl never received a Pulitzer for his journalistic work (though, that committee seems to share more than a few similarities with FIFA). If he had been speaking similar truth with the same linguistic flare about an orange-hued former president, he would likely have had a shelf full of medals.

Instead, Wahl dedicated himself to spreading the gospel of soccer. Often that meant explaining a beautiful game to people who spent a lifetime programmed to believe it boring or rigged or too complicated and ripe for ridicule. He never let that deter him. He just kept on writing and encouraging others to join his journey.

Every soccer fan in this country and across the world owes him a debt for that kindness.

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