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American soccer journalist Grant Wahl dies covering World Cup match

Wahl's death comes weeks after he was detained by Qatari security for wearing a rainbow shirt to the U.S. vs. Wales game in November.

DOHA, Qatar — American soccer journalist Grant Wahl has died in Qatar after collapsing while reporting on the World Cup. 

U.S. Soccer confirmed the news Friday evening. In a statement posted to Twitter, the organization said it was "heartbroken" to learn of Wahl's death.

"Fans of soccer and journalism of the highest quality knew we could always count on Grant to deliver insightful and entertaining stories about our game," the statement read in part. "Grant's passion for soccer and commitment to elevating its profile across our sporting landscape played a major role in helping to drive interest in and respect for our beautiful game." 

U.S. media seated near him said Wahl fell back in his seat in the media tribune at Lusail Iconic Stadium during extra time and reporters adjacent to him called for assistance. Emergency services workers responded very quickly, the reporters said, and the reporters later were told that Wahl had died.

Wahl tweeted on Wednesday that he had celebrated his birthday that day. American reporters who knew Wahl said he was 49.

Wahl was covering his eighth World Cup. He wrote Monday on his website that he had visited a medical clinic while in Qatar, and that he tested negative for COVID-19.

“My body finally broke down on me. Three weeks of little sleep, high stress and lots of work can do that to you,” Wahl wrote. “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.”

“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,” he wrote.

His death comes after he drew international attention when he said he was detained by Qatari security. On Nov. 21, security guards stopped Wahl from entering the stadium for the U.S.-Wales match because he was wearing a rainbow shirt. 

Another journalist was also detained and the ordeal lasted about 30 minutes before both were released and Wahl was allowed to wear the shirt, Wahl wrote in a Substack post later that day. Wahl said FIFA later apologized to him over the incident. 

In a video posted to his now-private Instagram account, Wahl's brother Eric said he believes Grant did not die of natural causes. Eric Wahl said his brother told him he had received death threats after the incident. Eric said he is gay and was the reason his brother was wearing the shirt.

The Qatari government said LGBTQ fans were welcome at the World Cup despite the conservative Muslim country's laws against same-sex relationships, but has cracked down on pro-LGBTQ demonstrations from players and others. 

Wahl's wife Céline Gounder said she is "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. I'm in complete shock," Gounder said on Twitter. 

Wahl graduated from Princeton in 1996 and worked for Sports Illustrated from 1996 to 2021, known primarily for his coverage of soccer and college basketball.

One of the most prominent soccer journalists in the United States, there was an immense outpouring of sadness and support online after Wahl's death was confirmed.

"Aside from being the nation's premier soccer journalist, he was a cherished friend and coworker who left his mark on our newsroom through his generosity and kindness as much as through his work," Wahl's colleagues at Sports Illustrated said in a statement. 

Others, including journalist Jason Rezaian, also questioned whether Wahl's death could be related to his reporting on Qatar's human rights abuses. 

Wahl "told stories others wouldn't," Rezaian wrote, retweeting Wahl's recent article about World Cup migrant deaths. "The US government must investigate the cause of his death."

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price tweeted late Friday: “We were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Grant Wahl and send our condolences to his family, with whom we have been in close communication. We are engaged with senior Qatari officials to see to it that his family’s wishes are fulfilled as expeditiously as possible.”

Among Wahl’s work before he began covering soccer exclusively was a Sports Illustrated cover story about LeBron James in 2002, when James was a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High in Akron, Ohio.

“He was always pretty cool to be around. He spent a lot of time in my hometown of Akron,” James said in Philadelphia after the Los Angeles Lakers lost in overtime to the 76ers. “Any time his name would come up, I’ll always think back to me as a teenager having Grant in our building down at St. V’s. It’s a tragic loss. It’s unfortunate to lose someone as great as he was. I wish his family the best. May he rest in paradise.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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