The body of famed soccer journalist Grant Wahl, who died last week while covering the men’s World Cup in Qatar, was repatriated to the United States on Monday as fans around the world mourned his sudden passing.
A senior State Department official confirmed that Wahl’s body and belongings had landed in New York. “They were accompanied by a U.S. Embassy official,” the senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.
Wahl’s brother, Eric, tweeted Monday that he was traveling with Grant’s body for a medical examination and autopsy. A U.S. official also told Eric that, per FIFA, global soccer’s governing body, automated external defibrillators were available at the stadium where the journalist had complications that led to his death.
Among Grant Wahl’s mourners is Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a soccer lover who attended a U.S. game early in the tournament. Blinken shared his thoughts as many throughout the fandom struggled to understand the circumstances behind Wahl’s death, which was first reported Friday. Wahl was in his late 40s.
“I so appreciated Grant Wahl, whose writing captured not only the essence of the beautiful game but also the world around it,” Blinken wrote on Twitter. “I send my deepest condolences to this family, and thank our Embassy team and Qatari partners who worked together so effectively to fulfill their wishes.”
Wahl was one of America’s most prominent soccer chroniclers, and he also was an advocate for the LGBTQ community in large part because his brother is gay. That caused friction in Qatar, which has laws against homosexuality and where fans have been hassled for expressions of LGBTQ pride. Wahl wrote that he’d been temporarily denied entry into a game last month for wearing a shirt with a rainbow on it.
Days ahead of his collapse in a stadium, Wahl had complained of feeling sick and having chest pains. He wrote that he’d gone to a medical clinic, was told he may have bronchitis, and was given antibiotics and cough syrup. Wahl, who was covering the World Cup for his own website, also noted that he’d had weeks of little sleep and high stress.
Still, in the immediate hours after Wahl’s death, his brother, Eric, raised suspicions of foul play, saying Wahl had received death threats, possibly over his LGBTQ advocacy. But Eric also later acknowledged that his brother had been feeling ill.
U.S. officials have avoided public comment on what caused Wahl’s death.
Blinken, however, has used the occasion of the World Cup to talk about how soccer can be a diplomatic tool given its popularity throughout the world. The secretary of State spent his teenage years in France and grew to adore the sport, though he described himself as a “mediocre” player.
The selection of Qatar, a small Middle Eastern country with conservative Muslim roots, to host this year’s World Cup has long been criticized by human rights activists. The country’s use and abuse of migrant laborers to build its World Cup infrastructure has been one flashpoint, as has its government’s views on LGBTQ issues.
But Qatar also has proven a critical U.S. partner in recent years, including helping America as it evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans following the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.
Far from shunning Qatar, Blinken traveled to the country for a game between the U.S. and Wales, which happened to coincide with a session of the ongoing U.S.-Qatar strategic dialogue, a diplomatic initiative.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Blinken stressed that the U.S. routinely talks about human rights with Qatar, and that the country has shown progress in that realm.
“We’ve seen them increase efforts to investigate, to prosecute, [and] to convict labor traffickers,” he noted. “We’ve seen them increase resources for this. They’ve got a specialized trafficking police unit. They’ve been bolstering that.”
Qatari officials have expressed their condolences over Wahl’s passing, as have an array of soccer officials throughout the world. The loss was especially felt by women’s soccer fans given Wahl’s championing of that side of the sport.
Qatari photojournalist Khalid al-Misslam also died Sunday while covering the tournament. His paper, the Gulf Times, said he passed “suddenly.” The circumstances around his death are unclear.
Matt Berg contributed to this report.
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