Vox in the Box: Grant Wahl

As a senior writer with Sports Illustrated, Grant Wahl is one of the most influential voices in US soccer journalism, appearing regularly in the paper, online and on air.  In 2011, he made a bid to become one of the most influential voices in the sport itself by announcing his candidacy for the FIFA presidency. So how did he get there? And what’s it like covering the sport from the US? 

I grew up in Kansas City, but I ended up getting a really nice financial aid package to go to Princeton. I had never been to the east coast of the United States before. I fell in love with the place and had an amazing time. I got a subscription to Sports Illustrated as a Christmas present from my parents when I was 10 and that became my bible. I read that magazine cover to cover every week, it was in my mailbox on a Thursday. I remember telling my friends in high school that I wanted to write for Sports Illustrated some day.

At that point in time, the way to do it was to go to college, get a journalism degree, go work in a newspaper for 20 years and then rise up through the ranks until Sports Illustrated sees you and wants to hire you. I got lucky, I guess. I did writing courses at Princeton, seminars with people like David Remnick who runs the New Yorker now and I just learned so much. I ended up at Sports Illustrated straight out of college, starting at the very bottom as a fact checker where you’re not even writing. You just got a story every week and you had to make sure it was all factually correct. It was a foot in the door and you just hoped that one day it would allow you to do some writing. And that’s kind of what happened.

Where did the love of soccer come from?

When I was growing up, there wasn’t really any outdoor professional soccer available. The US has such a crazy soccer story. When I was a kid I played until I was 13 and I watched soccer, but it was indoor soccer. In the early 80s, we had the Major Indoor Soccer League and my team was the Kansas City Comets. It was actually a really cool thing to go to these games. They had loud music, a laser light show before the game, it was very American! It still exists now, but it isn’t what it was in the early 80s. There was no outdoor soccer league at that time, the NASL had shut down.

Then in 1990, the US reached the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. That’s when I can remember really starting to pay attention again and for the first time with the outdoor games. When I was growing up you couldn’t see any outdoor soccer games on American television. Now you can see several games a day! My family couldn’t afford cable television, so we couldn’t get the English language broadcast. I watched that entire World Cup on Spanish language television. It was fantastic. Not just the US games, but Cameroon, Colombia and Ireland. It opened this world to me that I really had never had any exposure to before. The US didn’t do very well, it was a bunch of college players, but that was the start of it.  At my first year in college, I covered the university soccer team which was coached by Bob Bradley.

That must have been quite a handy contact to make?

Yeah, he went on to coach the US, but before that he hooked me up with Boca Juniors in Argentina in 1994. I somehow convinced my university to give me a scholarship to spend part of that summer in Argentina, doing ‘journalism and the culture of soccer.’ It was the first time I’d ever left the US. Then I spent half the summer in Boston doing ‘journalism and the culture of baseball,’ but also going to World Cup games with Argentine fans. I guess by that time, I’d started to get really into the sport and the idea of covering it. I learned so much from Bob Bradley, he was amazing. By this time, I was taking a crash course in the sport to make up for what I’d missed.

Were there any writers from the UK that you found influential at this stage?

Paul Gardner was originally from the UK, but he’s been in the US for decades and has written several books about soccer. He’s this famously curmudgeonly British writer who came here and embraced the game. I used to go to the library to read Soccer America, the magazine that he wrote for as well. 

When did you start writing for Sports Illustrated?

That was in 1997. I was doing soccer on the side of college basketball because there just wasn’t the demand for the sport back then. I covered MLS, the main summer tournaments. I did that for a long time, I wrote a book on David Beckham and then finally in 2010, I was made a full time soccer writer.

Was the Beckham book the turning point?

Yeah, it was. And in 2010, ESPN had done an amazing job making the World Cup a big event in the US, so the sport was coming. I’d always wanted to be a full time soccer writer, I loved the variety of the stories, the growing US soccer culture. I could see the way MLS was going, I could see how the top players and coaches wanted to bigger in the US and were willing to provide Sports Illustrated with good access. So I went full time soccer in early 2010.

And shortly after that, you made a bid to run the sport itself!

Ha ha! Yeah, I got to talking with my friend Gabriele Marcotti, who I’ve known since the ’90s. We were talking about the FIFA election and it made no sense to me that Sepp Blatter, a man who seemed to be a villain to so many people I came into contact with from so many countries…why was he running unopposed in an election? It didn’t make much sense to me. We have a tradition in the US of satirical candidacies, a guy called Pat Paulsen who would run for the White House, Norman Mailer would run for New York City mayor. So I asked Gab, can I run for FIFA President? He looked up the rules and sure enough, you could. Anyone could. You just needed a nomination. So I thought, why not? I’ll run for FIFA President. I’ve got no chance of winning this thing, but I think it would be a different way of approaching the issue.

There was a lot of anger out there with FIFA. This was right after the votes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup. I’d been there that day in the lobby of the hotel in Zurich and I felt like I needed to take a shower after being with all of these FIFA ExCo members. I remember sitting there and seeing one of the members so upset that FIFA had released the numbers of votes that each bid had got because he was one of multiple voters who had told the English bid that he’d backed them. And of course, there was no possible way that that could be true. So it was the ultimate in shadiness and I remember that had a pretty big impact on my view of the FIFA culture.

But when you went out looking for nominations, everyone was too scared to vote for you?

Yeah, it was funny. I had written a piece for Sports Illustrated. I’d announced my candidacy, I was going to do a Wikileaks on FIFA, just release everything. It was pretty extreme. Interest was pretty high from the media.

Were you ever concerned that you might actually win?

Ha ha! There was one point where my wife asked me, “Are we going to have to move to Switzerland?” and I looked at her and said, “No, that’s highly unlikely.” I’d contacted about 150 federations and probably 20-25 by phone, really pushing to get their nominations. The most likely scenario was to get one from England, the US or a Scandinavian country, someone known for good governance.

Why wouldn’t they back you?

I went to the UEFA Congress in 2011 and I had a meeting with, I think I can say it now, a member of the Italian FA. The guy told me that the problem was that it was a public nomination. There would be blowback for whoever nominated me. The election is a secret ballot and he told me I’d get votes if I got there, but that no-one would take the risk of nominating me. It increased my desire to get a nomination and get into the election because it would be hilarious. But literally, no-one was going to nominate me. There was no incentive to do so and there was a view that FIFA was a vindictive place. Bad things would come back to anyone who nominated me.

It scared them though, didn’t it? Because they immediately changed the rules afterwards.

Well, maybe it had something to do with my bid. I doubt it, but yeah, they changed the rules. You now need five nominations and to be active in football for two years from five before the election, so I’m not sure how David Ginola will qualify for that one.

What do you make of Ginola’s candidacy?

The idea of it is great. You have a recognised player who had a really good career, he works in TV, he’s polished. The idea of someone in that position running against Blatter is a good thing on the face of it, but the second that the bookmakers got involved and it emerged that he was being paid so much money to be doing this, it just took the wind out of it. I think it’s unfortunate. His first press conference went appallingly. I don’t understand why Change FIFA is going about it in this way, to be honest. I guess it takes some money to run for something like this, I get that, but I’d rather see him doing some good in the game than just doing this for $400,000.

Even though we know it’s not the case, the US soccer scene still has a lingering reputation in the UK as something of a joke, doesn’t it?  There’s the USA Soccer Guy Twitter account, the tired old gags about making the goals bigger and so on. But that’s not the case, is it?

I think the jokes linger from the 1970s, but I think we’re smarter about the sport here than we’re given credit for in some places. But it’s good to have a sense of humour about yourself. When the US Soccer Guy does his thing, I think you’ve just got to laugh about it.

Do you think it inhibits US journalists?

Not really. I love being a soccer journalist in America. You’re starting out, it’s a pretty blank canvas in terms of how you can approach things. All I try to do is cover it with curiosity and passion. There still aren’t that many soccer journalists in America, so you feel like you’re blazing a trail with the stuff you do. It’s good fun.

There was one moment during the last World Cup when you said a player had, “shifted from tilted left to tilted right,” and it brought a vicious response on Twitter, not just from readers, but from English journalists too. Was that upsetting?

This is the internet and you just have to deal with it. There is an element, not just in England, of smugness coming from people who do things a certain way and think their way is the way of doing things. That’s a term that is used in the US, it was used by Bob Bradley a lot when I was covering his teams. My friend Rafa Honigstein came out afterwards and said that it was an expression that was used regularly. There’s going to be a loss of translation in this sport and people talk about it differently.

My response to one tweeter…well, I apologised. I was covering a game and I said something to him that I shouldn’t have. There is some negativity, but the bottom line is I shouldn’t have responded the way I did. Do I wish that there was more civility from people? Yeah, including from me. But overall, the Twitter experience is 98% good.

Has Twitter been a good thing for you personally?

It’s been fantastic. For me, it’s changed how I go about my working day. The first thing I do when I wake up is go on Twitter and get a sense of the news over in Europe. It takes this giant world of soccer and makes it a bit more manageable. It’s allowed me to put out my thoughts in front of a much bigger audience. I think it’s amazing.

You can follow Grant Wahl on Twitter (@grantwahl)

Vox in the Box: Grant Wahl
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