Sportswriter Grant Wahl has died suddenly while covering the World Cup in Qatar, just a few weeks after running afoul of local authorities for defying their crackdown on LGBTQ+ fans, and on freedom of expression.
The United States Soccer Federation confirmed his death in a statement late Friday, praising the 49-year-old veteran journalist for his “insightful and entertaining stories” about the sport.
His wife, Celine Gounder, tweeted that she was “in complete shock.”
“I am so thankful for the support of my husband Grant Wahl’s soccer family & of so many friends who’ve reached out tonight,” she wrote.
His brother, meanwhile, took to social media to question whether foul play was involved, although there was no immediate indication of that from official sources.
Wahl wrote on his Substack earlier in the week that he was not feeling well.
“My body finally broke down on me. Three weeks of little sleep, high stress and lots of work can do that to you. What had been a cold over the last 10 days turned into something more severe on the night of the USA-Netherlands game, and I could feel my upper chest take on a new level of pressure and discomfort,” he wrote Monday.
“I didn’t have Covid (I test regularly here), but I went into the medical clinic at the main media center today, and they said I probably have bronchitis. They gave me a course of antibiotics and some heavy-duty cough syrup, and I’m already feeling a bit better just a few hours later. But still: No bueno.”
Wahl famously took a stand last month for LGBTQ+ rights in a country that forbids same-sex relations. After wearing a rainbow T-shirt to the Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, he said, he was accosted by security guards who demanded he remove it. He refused, he said, and was briefly detained, though he was released after tweeting about the ordeal.
“One security guard told me that my shirt was ‘political’ and not allowed,” he wrote on his Substack. “Another continually refused to give me back my phone. Another guard yelled at me as he stood above me—I was sitting on a chair by now—that I had to remove my shirt.”
He said one of the security guards later told him “they were just trying to protect me from fans inside who could harm me for wearing the shirt.”
“But the entire episode left me wondering: What’s it like for ordinary Qataris who might wear a rainbow shirt when the world isn’t watching here? What’s that like?” he wrote.
U.S. Soccer appeared to hint at the Nov. 21 incident in their statement paying tribute to him. In addition to “elevating” the sport with his “brilliant writing,” the soccer federation said, “Grant’s belief in the power of the game to advance human rights was, and will remain, an inspiration to all.”
A day before he was reported dead, Wahl had also publicly criticized Qatari authorities over the deaths of migrant workers involved in projects for the soccer tournament. “They just don’t care. Qatari World Cup organizers don’t even hide their apathy over migrant worker deaths, including the most recent one,” Wahl wrote in an article published on his Substack.
The article took aim at Qatar World Cup chief Nasser Al-Khater for an interview in which he appeared to shrug off a worker’s death while suggesting the focus should instead be on the “successful World Cup.”
Few details were immediately available on the circumstances of his death. NPR reported that he died in Doha while covering the Argentina-Netherlands World Cup quarterfinal. An NPR correspondent was present when Wahl collapsed suddenly in the press tribune at Lusail Stadium. Stunned reporters watched as paramedics rushed in and performed CPR before carrying him away on a stretcher, NPR reported.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement on Twitter that authorities were “engaged with senior Qatari officials to see to it that his family’s wishes are fulfilled as expeditiously as possible.”
Wahl’s brother, Eric, posted an emotional Instagram video suggesting there was something sinister involved in the his death. However, his post was later removed and his account set to private.
“I’m gay. I’m the reason he wore the rainbow shirt to the World Cup. My brother was healthy. He told me he received death threats. I do not believe my brother just died. I believe he was killed,” he said in the video.
He said Wahl had collapsed at the stadium and received CPR before being rushed to a hospital, where he died.