World Class

Purpose, Passion, and the Pursuit of Greatness On and Off the Field

About the Book

“This collection of Grant’s work is a great testament to not only what he did when he was here, but what he’s still doing to impact others.”—LeBron James

The definitive collection of beloved late journalist Grant Wahl’s work—a masterclass in the art of sportswriting

After Grant Wahl died of an aortic aneurysm at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, collapsing in his press seat during a quarterfinal match, tributes to Wahl poured in from around the globe. Wahl was beloved for good reason—he was kind, generous, and unflinching in the face of injustice. He was also one of the best sports journalists of his generation.

Spanning four decades of storytelling, World Class collects for the first time the finest writing of Grant Wahl, from op-eds for his college newspaper to twenty-five years of reporting at Sports Illustrated to his deeply personal work for Fútbol with Grant Wahl on Substack. Wahl was the multi-tool modern sportswriter: clear and direct; able to write long, short, or in between; cosmopolitan; socially aware.

Arranged thematically, World Class demonstrates how Wahl’s career aligned with the evolution of sportswriting. Included are explorations of soccer subcultures from Buenos Aires and F.C. Barcelona to the dusty sandlots of Nacogdoches, Texas, as well as accounts of trophy lifts that have a first-draft-of-history definitiveness. Some pieces capture prodigies early in their careers, like LeBron James and Landon Donovan; others lift the voices of the women athletes to whom Wahl paid early attention—stars like Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe. The book showcases the daring and important positions Wahl took in Qatar in the weeks before he died, supporting migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people.

More than a collection of Grant Wahl's best work, World Class is a portrait of a journalist at the height of his powers, always evolving with the times, revealed by the stories he found and the unflinching way he told them.
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Praise for World Class

“You can’t talk about the history of U.S. soccer without including Grant Wahl. His legendary career and fearless advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community will be a legacy that lives on through this anthology and beyond.”—Megan Rapinoe

“For me, Grant Wahl’s Sports Illustrated cover story was the moment everything started. The time that we shared when I was in high school for that story was pretty special for myself and my family. Wahl was always energetic, always had a smile on his face, and always wanted to do right by his interview subjects. This collection of his work is a great testament to not only what he did when he was here, but what he’s still doing to impact others.”—LeBron James

“Grant Wahl’s job was to write about sports, but his art was to reveal what matters most in life. This anthology is a collection of brilliant storytelling and timeless wisdom about excellence from a world-class professional. He was the best of us, and his work lives on to make us all better.”—Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Hidden Potential and Think Again

“Some of the best, most compelling sportswriting I’ve ever read.”—Clint Smith

“I hesitate to call this collection sportswriting at its best, because I think it is just writing at its best. To me, Grant Wahl was an anthropologist, and sports was his lens for studying humanity.”—David Epstein, New York Times bestselling author of Range and The Sports Gene

“Every word in this book surges with his energy and enthusiasm and love. I was one of the luckiest people in the world to get to know Grant. I miss him. But he’s here in this wonderful collection of his best work.”—Joe Posnanski, New York Times bestselling author of Why We Love Baseball

“A titan of the American game.”—Brendan Hunt

“Grant Wahl was—and his work and legacy remain—world class. Wahl was all class and tops in class, with few peers matching his quality, rigor, vigor, and unswerving honor. He also considered the entire planet his beat, going wherever the story took him. Damn, we miss him.”—Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated writer and 60 Minutes correspondent

“Not only are these informed pieces almost effortlessly readable to aficionados and newbies alike . . . the collection is suffused with both courage and humanity. . . . Recommended for any soccer collection.”Booklist (starred review)

“Far more than an ordinary sportswriter . . . [Wahl] did more than any other writer to elevate soccer in the national sports conversation. . . . A fine collection by a much-missed writer who was just rising to the top of his game.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
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Excerpt

World Class

Foreword

More than a million spectators gathered in Australia and New Zealand for the 2023 Women’s World Cup. My husband, Grant Wahl, was supposed to be one of them. He had been to every Men’s and Women’s World Cup, except one, since 1994—fourteen in all. But this one was special: Thirty-two teams played, showcasing the global expansion and competitiveness of women’s soccer. It was an opportunity to promote gender equality in sports and inspire young girls to pursue their dreams on the football pitch. It was expected to set a new bar for women’s achievement in sports on the world stage. It was that and, as is so often the case with sports, so much more.

The U.S. Women’s National Team, the favorite to win the competition, would lose to Sweden in a penalty shootout in the first knockout round. After the loss, USWNT star forward Megan Rapinoe posted on social media: “This game is so beautiful, even in its cruelest moments. . . . We lay it all out on the line every single time. Fighting with everything that we have, for everything we deserve, for every person we possibly can.” Even before the start of the tournament, the USWNT had been fighting both on and off the field: a gender discrimination lawsuit pressing for equity in pay and working conditions with the men’s team; an onslaught of “discriminatory, abusive, or menacing messages” on social media; and right-wing attacks, which turned to celebration after their defeat.

Spain, not the United States, won the tournament, defeating England 1–0. But that victory was overshadowed by the scandal that ensued. Luis Rubiales, at the time the head of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, kissed the Spanish forward Jenni Hermoso on the lips without her consent during the awards ceremony. This attack was just one of many indignities and offenses suffered by Spanish women soccer players over the years. The players were subjected to Orwellian surveillance. The team’s coach for almost three decades called the players chavalitas, slang for “young girls.” The Women’s World Cup kicked off with the Spanish team in a full-on rebellion against its own federation, which made their triumph all the more remarkable.

As riveting as the action on and off the field may have been, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the 2023 Women’s World Cup. I followed at a distance in print and on the radio. Each story left me feeling gutted, freshly conscious of Grant’s absence—not only in World Cup coverage, but at the center of my life. I know he would have been covering the tournament as he had the 2022 Men’s World Cup in Qatar: not just the beautiful game on the pitch, but also the fight for equity, social justice, and human rights. He would have been holding FIFA, the soccer federations, politicians, and pundits to account.

Still, I had the comfort of shared grief—friends and colleagues (Grant’s and mine alike) reached out to me, wondering what Grant would make of this or that game or goal or gaffe. The sense that Grant should be there was shared, and even in the acuteness of his absence, it brought comfort. I dreaded a time when his absence might not be broadly felt—four or six or twelve years in the future, when Grant’s writing might be a distant memory, when there’d no longer be an empty seat and framed portrait in the press box in his honor. And because the events Grant covered were rooted so firmly in time, I think I feared that as we moved away from those moments, the whole constellation of his existence might recede, the light of his life growing dimmer by the day.

“Grief is not an emotion to move on from,” said writer and podcaster Nora McInerny in a 2018 TED Talk. “It’s a reality to move forward with.” Some of my work in mourning has been to understand Grant’s absence as presence—not naively, not religiously, not even as consolation, but as simple acknowledgment of our interwoven lives, a transmutation of loss into a different form of life and love.

In the weeks following Grant’s death, as those of us who loved him struggled to articulate what he’d meant to us, we longed to nail down his presence—to fix it in words, in time, in truth.

Yet if I’ve learned anything in the past twelve months, it’s that my relationship with Grant could not be pinned down—not then, not now—and that it didn’t end with his death. I carry Grant with me not as a fixed image in a locket or a butterfly pinned to a board, but as a dynamic presence—his mind and his wit still swift and agile, responding both to the world he knew and to the one shaped, in part, by his absence.

Grant covered sports like this, too—in a way that allowed his meaning, his sensibility, his understanding to extend beyond the present moment and the present game, to take up the past and move into the future. Over the course of his career, Grant was told that he should “stick to sports.” But in his mind, this was a false mantra. To “stick to sports”—to limit a story to the scoreboard, to dissection of a play, to the dribbles and drills of practice—is to strip sports of their meaning, power, and soul. Grant had a profound respect for sports, which is why he took them so seriously, in their entirety. Sports aren’t just an escape. Grant knew that sports change the world, just as the world changes sports. At the Women’s World Cup in 2019—with Rapinoe accepting awards as a crowd chanted, “EQUAL PAY! EQUAL PAY!”—Grant felt that process in motion, a ball soaring in midair. So did Rapinoe. “I feel like this team is just in the midst of changing the world around us as we live,” Rapinoe told Grant that summer, “and it’s just an incredible feeling.”

Rereading Grant’s work is hard. As I remember him reporting the stories in this collection, I recall the broader context of our lives—shared dinners, piles of laundry, our travels in different directions, quarrels that seem petty in retrospect but were pressing at the time. I feel, too, Grant’s nimble mind and invisible hand at work, weaving together voices and details in his jovial, kindhearted, voluble way. I hear his laughter, the undulating pitch and volume of his voice as he shares a story, hits upon a phrase he likes, tries out a new metaphor or idea. And as I reread his work and press on with my own, I feel myself tending our lives in a similar way—unspooling what he meant not only to me, but to soccer, and sports; tugging his sensibility forward, even as the games he covered stay pinned in the past.

I am not, as Grant well knew, a “sports person.” Before his sudden death, the idea of me writing a foreword to any compendium of sportswriting—including his—would have been not just ill-advised, but ludicrous. I am here on the force of loss and love alone. Had I asked myself, before knowing Grant, What is sports?—I might have answered with a blank expression. Sports is sports. A field, a ball, a back-and-forth, a contest of skill or might or luck. Grant taught me that sports is so much more than athletics—that it draws on histories, class tensions, economics, politics, old grudges, stubborn hopes; that through sports, we revisit the past and recast the future; that we are shaped not only by our wins, but by our losses, and that both move with us through time.

About the Author

Grant Wahl
Grant Wahl was one of the world’s leading soccer journalists. He was the owner and creator of the Fútbol with Grant Wahl website and podcast, did television work for CBS Sports, and produced documentary films. His book The Beckham Experiment was the first soccer book to make the New York Times bestseller list. Wahl spent twenty-five years at Sports Illustrated, where he wrote more than three dozen cover stories. He covered thirteen World Cups (eight men’s, five women’s). Grant Wahl died in 2022. More by Grant Wahl
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About the Author

Dr. Céline Gounder
Grant Wahl was one of the world’s leading soccer journalists. He was the owner and creator of the Fútbol with Grant Wahl website and podcast, did television work for CBS Sports, and produced documentary films. His book The Beckham Experiment was the first soccer book to make the New York Times bestseller list. Wahl spent twenty-five years at Sports Illustrated, where he wrote more than three dozen cover stories. He covered thirteen World Cups (eight men’s, five women’s). Grant Wahl died in 2022. More by Dr. Céline Gounder
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