Grant Wahl was a fierce critic of the World Cup in Qatar. (FOX Sports Photo)
By Michael Lewis
The last time I saw Grant Wahl was during the mixed zone at the U.S. men’s national team World Cup roster reveal in Brooklyn, N.Y. on Nov. 9.
I told him to keep safe in Qatar.
He responded with a smile and said that he would try.
Wahl, a fierce critic of the World Cup in Qatar, died on Friday in Doha. He was 48.
I don’t know all of the deep details of Wahl’s passing – he had said he had been sick with some respiratory problems for two weeks while burning the candle late into the night – but we’ll have to wait for the facts to unravel over the coming days and weeks.
My concern for Wahl was double layered.
Qatar had been widely criticized for using migrant workers and slaves to help build the stadiums. So, we did not know what was on the horizon at the first winter World Cup and the first held in the Middle East.
And Wahl was known to push the boundaries.
For example, when the U.S. men’s national team played at Honduras for a spot in the 2010 World Cup in October 2009, Wahl decided to drive from San Pedro to the country’s capital Tegucigalpa to interview Honduran interim president Roberto Micheletti.
He asked other journalists, including myself, if they wanted to join him. There were no takers.
While in Tegucigalpa, he was robbed in daylight as a young man with a gun demanded everything Wahl had. Wahl gave him his wallet and phone.
After returning to San Pedro, a shaken Wahl related his story to me, adding that he managed to stay at a Marriott hotel overnight because of his points with the chain.
He realized he was fortunate to be around to tell the story.
FOX's Rob Stone opened this morning's pregame broadcast with the news of Grant Wahl's passingpic.twitter.com/QacFZ5HsKD
— Men in Blazers (@MenInBlazers) December 10, 2022
Still, Grant wasn’t afraid to take risks, risks that many of his colleagues, including yours truly, didn’t even think about taking.
Beyond that, I learned from him. He was a great writer and knew how to paint a scene in his stories.
In press conferences, he wasn’t afraid of asking the tough questions, and he also knew how to ask a simple to the point question, without turning his query into a soliloquy. You don’t want to make a question too long in which the interviewee loses the thrust of it.
We also had some good talks together and he always treated me well.
I met Grant for the first time at 1998 World Cup in France. I can’t recall the city, but I remember having dinner near a train station before he had to depart for another venue and another game while covering the tournament for Sports Illustrated. I believe he appreciated me, a veteran journalist, taking time out to talk to him about the business and the World Cup. That was something he took with him for the rest of his career, talking to younger media members or those who were at the cusp of their careers.
Oh, before I forget, Grant and I actually worked together for the same company from 1999-2001, when CNN and Sports Illustrated combined to put out a website. We both had soccer columns and never stepped on each other’s toes, which certainly is not mean feat. Heck, we even commented on each other’s columns in our own work.
In September 2000, we were among a handful of American journalists in Adelaide, Australia for the U.S.’s epic Olympic quarterfinal shootout victory over Japan. That game was one of the most understated wins in U.S. Soccer history as the men reached the medal round of the Summer Olympics for the first time.
We knew we had witnessed something special on a talented side that included Landon Donovan, Josh Wolff, Ben Olsen, Jeff Agoos, Brad Friedel and Frankie Hejduk (Sasha Victorine and Peter Vagenas were among the USA heroes that night).
We joked that we would always have Adelaide.
And then came a surreal venture of a lifetime during the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. Not all the competitions were held in China’s capital, including the soccer tournament.
Grant and I took a train from Beijing to Qinhuangdao for the U.S. women’s national team’s opener against Norway. The train departed the Beijing train station at 7:05 in the morning and arrived there at 9:11. That number alone should have alerted me that we would have some impending personal disasters the rest of the day,
But I did listen to my inner voice?
We got to Qinhuangdao on time and since we didn’t know a thing about this city, we decided to seek out an Olympic volunteer or two to see if there was a media bus.
That was mistake No. 1.
The hospitality center was adjacent to the train station. We were invited in to wait for the bus, although we didn’t know at the time that there weren’t any buses.
We were treated nicely, offered water and drinks, in an air-conditioned room, along with the families of Aly Wagner and Christie Pearce Rampone and two photographers.
The highlight was Rylie Rampone, whose doll got the attention of the police’s drug dog. The dog wanted the doll and had to be pulled away by a policeman. Rylie, meanwhile, wanted to pet the dog, but officials wisely thought otherwise, just in case.
We also waited, and waited and waited.
At 10 a.m., Wahl went up to a volunteer and told her that we had to get to our hotel as soon as possible because we had to work — which was very true. She said something like the bus was coming very soon and that we shouldn’t be in a hurry.
Around 10:20 it was my turn. As I was telling the volunteer how important it was for us to get to the hotel, she said the bus was here.
We boarded and waited for the families and photographers, who had a ton of photo equipment to load.
The bus got going. A few minutes into the trip and we saw our hotel on the other side of the road. But the bus driver didn’t stop.
We went to the families’ hotel and then searched — that’s right — searched for the photographers’ hotel. As it turned out, the driver and volunteer were looking on the wrong street.
We finally found it, but there was another delay — the driver and volunteer apparently wanted to make sure the rooms were OK for the photographers.
Grant finally had had it and I joined him to flag down a taxi within a minute.
Several minutes and a dollar or so later — that’s how much the cab ride cost — we were at the Qinhuangdao Grand Hotel — some two hours after the train pulled in.
One of the volunteers at the hotel apologized to us.
But wait, as they say in the commercials, there’s more!
In the hotel lobby, more volunteers who wanted to make sure just about every need was taken care of, helped us with this or with that. As Grant said, we were getting killed with kindness.
We met someone who I believe was one of the head media honchos. He asked for my card and I told him I mistakenly had left it in my hotel room in Beijing. He seemed to be very disappointed as he gave me his.
I had to sign several pieces of paper (saying what publications, including the New York Daily News, and internet sites for which I was writing).
The head honcho called me Mr. Daily News (my bosses at the newspaper were going to love that one) while I did my best to stifle some big laughs.
I asked Grant if this was test or that we were involved in some kind of reality show we didn’t know about (Big Brother, China, the Ultimate Big Brother Show, or Candid Camera Qinhuangdao) or that we journeyed to another planet.
Oh, and to top it off, the U.S. women lost their Olympic opener to Norway that night, 2-0.
We both learned our lesson. We took cabs back to the train station the next day.
When we looked back at that experience through the years, Grant and I had some good laughs about that day.
I have learned we need to remember the lighter, funnier moments in life, no matter how sad you might feel.
Saying that, my deepest sympathies and condolences to Grant’s wife, Dr. Celine Gounder, and his family and friends.