Grant Wahl’s Utopianism

In 2011, Grant Wahl announced his intention to run for President of FIFA. His platform included the introduction of term-limits for FIFA officials, hiring the best referees for the World Cup and requiring them to explain controversial calls, ending the use of yellow cards for stupid things like removing shirts in goal celebrations, and the dismantling of the system which effectively excluded women from FIFA leadership. It’s worth reading Grant’s take on his “half-serious, half-satire” campaign and watching his campaign ad: “There’s a cure for FIFA’s Blatter infection!

The prescience of this interventionist project is hard to appreciate. He promised to appoint a woman as FIFA’s General Secretary, its most powerful position. The role is now served by Fatma Samoura, appointed in 2016. He advocated for the introduction of goal-line technology and instant replay. We now have a new sports writing sub-genre: complaints about VAR. He promised a “wikileaks”-level release of FIFA’s records which would allow the organization to being to reckon with the rot within its structure and culture. Football leaks, a massive data dump exposing the scale of corruption in the sport, launched in 2015. In recent years, FIFA has been the subject of sustained forms of scrutiny and global reflection on the question of what accountability and change might be for an organization this incestuous, this rotten.

At the time, however, for a candidate to advance to the election, FIFA required the official endorsement of just one of its 208 football association: not one would take the risk of alienating themselves from the affections of the men who run the organization. The action of soliciting a nomination from the 150 FAs that Grant selected as the “least corrupt” in FIFA’s system made visible the shamefulness of FIFA’s so-called democratic process. Without a nomination, his candidacy was stopped before anyone had a chance to vote for him. Sepp Blatter ran unopposed.

Today FIFA requires the endorsement of five FAs, a change attributed to Wahl’s action and one designed to make interventions like his less feasible. But in the wake of his candidacy, Grant wrote, “ordinary fans in countries around the world talked a little bit more about the absurdities of Fifa’s electoral process.”

This is a good moment to reflect on what FIFA might have been under Grant’s leadership, and on the importance of journalism to the project of wrestling this sport away from the hyper-exploitative systems we’ve been tricked into thinking of as inevitable and insurmountable.

Truth tellers with utopian impulses are to be cherished. We saw a little of this side of Grant in the photo he shared of himself in a rainbow shirt when he was stopped from entering the stadium near the start of the tournament. He was eventually allowed to proceed to his seat in the press zone; reporting of his death often includes a photo of Grant in that shirt sitting at a desk, writing. He of course knew he was likely to be stopped, and I am sure he understood the action as pure symbol. But in a week marked by a mass shooting at yet another LGBTQ bar, in a season shadowed by the violent repression of young revolutionaries in soccer-mad Iran and the question of how one honors them at the tournament when the team is used ruthlessly by the country’s dictatorship as if their wins could wash away its sins, at a time when anti-trans hate has been perfectly fused into fascism’s psychosis, Grant’s gesture of solidarity from inside the machine mattered. It was a signal for those of us watching the game and feeling driven to the edge of madness by the gaslight—it was a way of letting us know that there are allies in the press who are also struggling with the structure and with the moment.

I don’t know how he managed to balance his love for the sport with his awareness of the awfulness of the organizations which manage it—I’m in constant awe of the people who write about this day-in, day-out. He clearly understood the importance and the value of that work himself: he was a constant ally and champion of feminist, queer, and anti-racist sports writing. He often let us know when, in our own work, we hit the nail on the head, and via his social media platform he amplified our voices. He read our work.

Great sports writers make you feel the passions invoked by the subject, and, often in equal measure, the frustration and outrage we feel when our love is exploited and betrayed. This has been especially true of Grant’s writing about this World Cup, the enjoyment of which is shadowed and corrupted not only by the ruthlessness of Qatar’s development practice but by the resonance of that practice with those of FIFA itself. Those of us struggling to manage our relationship to this tournament are responding not only to the present, but to decades of the abuse of our love for the sport and for the people who play it. We have really and truly had enough and want a different FIFA, maybe even something that isn’t FIFA at all.

The very deep grief so many of us feel at the news of Grant’s death is tied to the forms of grievance that Grant helped us to name, even as he wrote the story of our love for this game.

Note. There are many sharing their affection and respect for Grant. Although I’m using his name like he was a personal friend, I only met him IRL a few times. There are so many people out there who collaborated with him, worked alongside him, and really knew him and who are writing their grief and sharing stories. Richard Deitsch included a beautiful list on The Athletic as an addendum to the moving sketch of his own sense of loss. If you are feeling sad, I encourage leaning into this community of people who are sitting down at their desks and honoring his memory by giving our love and our grief a shape we can share.

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