The du Nord Question & Answer Session With Grant Wahl
Interview conducted and edited by Paul Demko
Grant Wahl is, without question, the best soccer writer in the United States. A decade ago -- when mainstream coverage of soccer was about as common as cholera outbreaks in Antarctica -- that wouldn't have been much of a compliment. Back then Wahl's dogged reporting and seamless prose for Sports Illustrated was manna for futbol fans. These days, thankfully, there are a few other redoubtable reporters on the beat, but Wahl remains the preeminent U.S. soccer scribe.
If there was any lingering doubt about that status, Wahl has quelled any disputes with publication of The Beckham Experiment. It is the definitive account of Goldenballs Goes to America -- and the best book ever written about soccer in this country. Wahl was a fly on the wall during two years of media frenzies, front office buffoonery, coaching incompetence and, most of all, disastrous results on the field. It's a riveting, sharp-eyed and often hilarious peek behind the curtains at the travels and travails of the world's most famous athlete.
The Beckham Experiment hit stores Tuesday, two days before Beckham's return to the pitch for the Galaxy. I caught up with Wahl by phone from Hoboken, NJ. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:
du Nord: You actually wrote the book in South Africa. Why was that?
Grant Wahl: My wife was working for a year as a doctor in South Africa as part of her infectious disease fellowship. After I finished the reporting on the book in November, I took a leave of absence from Sports Illustrated for six months and flew to Johannesburg. I arrived on Thanksgiving Day of '08 and my book was due on March 1st. It was a tight turnaround. I reported for 16 months, but I only had three months to write the whole book. Spent the first two weeks outlining. I wrote 112,000 words in 72 days. 10 hours a day; 7days a week. Craziest thing I've ever done, but thankfully it worked out.
dN: What was a typical day like when you were in that slog?
GW: I would get up at 5:15 every morning and would generally work between about 6:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. I had a schedule mapped out where I wanted to write a certain amount of words per day. Some days were different from others. I had a few 3,000 word days; I had a few 600 word days. It's not like anybody was bothering me over there. I was fully devoted to this writing process. Nobody was even calling me. I would just hide in my cave and write and it worked out.
dN: Were you living in Johannesburg?
GW: Yes. We had an apartment in the northern suburbs. We liked living there. It was actually a nice way to get to know the country before going back for the World Cup next year.
dN: You hear a lot about crime in South Africa generally and Johannesburg in particular. Did you have concerns about that?
GW: I'd never been there before. You notice that every apartment complex and house has a 10-foot-high security wall topped by an eight-wire, electric security fence. We had a 24-hour guard in our complex. It's that way everywhere and we were living in a nice part of our town. We were told not to even walk on the sidewalk in our part of town, and we didn't. That part took some real getting used to. And yet, at the same time, what we found was that if you're smart about what you're doing there, you shouldn't have any real troubles. We didn't have any ourselves. That means putting all your belongings in your trunk. It means always keeping your doors locked. It means not going to the wrong part of town at the wrong part of the night. I understand people's concerns about South Africa who are going there for the World Cup, but if you're smart you should be fine.
dN: What's your sense of how well prepared South Africa is for hosting the World Cup next year?
GW: It's not going to be like the World Cup in '06 in Germany. I think the stadiums will be ready. The organization for Confederations Cup was actually pretty good. It was a good tournament. I don't see it being a real concern. Even this most recent strike with the stadium workers, suddenly you had all these media organizations saying this is going to potentially ruin the World Cup. The fact of the matter is stuff like that goes public usually in an effort to get the problem solved. Lo and behold, the problem got solved. Now we move forward. I think it's going to be a good World Cup. I think the quality of the soccer is going to be good. It's winter down there. Oftentimes it's in the 50 degree range, 60 degree range. Compare that to World Cup '94 in the U.S., in Orlando or Pasadena, where you have 95 degree temperatures with high humidity. That's hard to play soccer in.
dN: What advice would you give people planning to travel to South African in 2010?
GW: Do your research about the country. I'm going to write a piece for our web site soon about tips for all these people going to South Africa, since more tickets have been bought from the U.S. than any other country outside of South Africa. That means rent a car. It means get a GPS for your car so you don't get lost and end up in the wrong part of town, little things like that that make life easier. I would suggest not driving over night. A couple of times I had to do that after games in Confederations Cup and it's pretty dicey driving around that country at two o' clock in the morning. And don't take South African Airways. I'm on a one-man campaign against those guys. They're terrible.
dN: As you make abundantly clear in the book, David Beckham's handlers go to extraordinary lengths to shape his image. What's been their response to the book?
GW: I just had a 15, 20 minute conversation with Beckham's chief publicist today, in person, and it was cordial. I won't go into any details about what we talked about, but it was a professional conversation and we agreed to disagree about a few things. When you're on a beat like I am, you're going to write things occasionally that anger the people you're covering. My general policy is listen to those folks and hear what they have to say and then move forward. I think that's a good way to keep a relationship going. I don't know if my relationship with Beckham's people will return to the point where they want to sit down with me for Sports Illustrated articles, but that's going to be their choice. I look forward to writing more about David Beckham in the future.
dN: Landon Donovan has expressed some regret over his comments. Not for what he said, but for the way he said it, not speaking directly to Beckham himself at the time. Have you had any response from Landon Donovan?
GW: The best way to put it is Landon and I are cool.
dN: Do you think he understood the implications of what he was saying at the time and how explosive those comments would be?
GW: Yes, actually. I think Landon's a very, very smart guy. I think he wanted this to be out publicly and knew he was the only person inside the Galaxy in a position to say those things. For the sake of keeping the team together he has to come out now and apologize publicly for the way that it was put out there. Do I think he would be doing that if Beckham had not come back to the team in 2009? No, not really. This is for the sake of team unity. I also think it's worth pointing out that Donovan has not backed away from the content of anything he said, about whether he believed it or whether it was a fair portrayal of Beckham and his role, or lack thereof, in the team late 2008.
dN: Beckham returns to the field Thursday night with the Galaxy. What's your sense of where that organization stands at this point in time?
GW: I think Beckham's coming back to a different organization than the one he left. Bruce Arena has had time now to start re-vamping the team that was such a disaster under Ruud Gullit. To a large extent that means a lot of new players. More veterans. More guys who might be able to handle the circus that follows Beckham wherever he goes as far as media attention. I think too that Arena sounds like he has brought a lot more discipline into the team from a playing perspective, from a defensive perspective. There appears to be a better vibe within the team. Players aren't disgruntled with the coach like they were under Gullit. There's a lot better communication between the coaching staff and the players. It's just a different way of approaching things. Kind of like Europe versus America. Arena's very different from Ruud Gullit.
dN: At one point you vowed to get to the bottom of why Jurgen Klinsman didn't become the U.S. coach. Did you every get anywhere on that front?
GW: I've learned one thing: never make any promises about getting to the bottom of something if all the people who are involved, which is a small number, have zero desire or incentive to talk about it. Basically it sounds a lot like everyone thought it was, which is that they came very close to making a deal. Klinsman wanted more control than Sunil Gulati was willing to give. Keep in mind Sunil was still in the first year of his presidency and what I understand is that he was unwilling to go all the way with these extreme changes that Klinsman wanted to make in U.S. soccer. Gulati didn't think that he would be able to persuade his base in the federation to go along with that.
dN: Over the years you've written a couple of pieces for Sports Illustrated about watching important matches with folks you've tracked down through Big Soccer or some other means. What's the appeal of taking in a game like that?
GW: I did it in St. Paul for the 2001 World Cup qualifier, U.S. at Honduras I think. At its base it came down to I'm at a place where it's hard to find a way to see a soccer match that I want to see badly. The best way, on a couple of occasions, was to put up a post on Big Soccer and just say, 'Look, can somebody help me out?' In '01 it was because I was covering the NCAA Final Four in Minneapolis and I couldn't find a sports bar that was carrying the game. That's when it came down to I’m desperate here. I need to go somewhere. These guys opened up their basement to me. U.S. soccer fans are the best. They understand the common plight, which used to be a lot more common, of just being able to see a game. It doesn't happen so much anymore. Although this U.S.-Mexico fiasco, with the game being on something called mun2 in English, is off the leash. It's like a trip to the bad old days.
dN: How is covering soccer different from other sports in the U.S.?
GW: When I write about soccer for Sports Illustrated magazine it seems like I have to write for a mainstream audience, in addition to writing for the soccer hard cores, and that's a real challenge sometimes. When I write about soccer for our web site I can write for the hard cores. I don't need to explain stuff. That's what you often run into in the U.S. When I cover college basketball, which is still the main thing I do for SI, I don’t have to assume more ignorance when I write for the magazine. That's probably the biggest difference.
dN: How did you initially get hooked on soccer?
Played it as a kid, quit like just about everybody else at age 13, and then got back into it watching the 1990 World Cup. When I was in college in 1993, I worked for the school newspaper's sports section at Princeton and was given the assignment of covering the NCAA tournament games for the Princeton soccer team. It just so happened that that team went on a run to the final four and was coached by a guy named Bob Bradley.
Then I ended up getting a scholarship during the summer of '94 in college to spend six weeks -- in Buenos Aires for the first three, and Boston for the next three -- comparing the sports culture of Argentine soccer and American baseball. I did that during the time of the '94 World Cup, so I also went to see Argentina play two of their games at Foxboro, and wrote a lot of stuff for my college publications based on those adventures. It was awesome. I traveled with the Boca Junior fans, the hard cores, on a road game to Rosario Central.
Then summer of '95 I spent three months in Argentina doing senior thesis research on politics and soccer in Argentina, got to love Argentine soccer and Buenos Aires became kind of my adopted city. Then the following summer of '96 I was an intern at the sports department at the Miami Herald. Olympic soccer was in Miami. The same Brazil team, basically, that was the '98 World Cup team. First time I saw Ronaldo live. He was unbelievable then.
I joined Sports Illustrated in '96. They didn't really have any writers that wanted to cover soccer. It was kind of my way in and I enjoyed it. First big assignment was the '98 World Cup final, which I think they were nervous about giving to me because it was a tight deadline and a big event. I did the story, they really liked it and they became comfortable with me writing on deadline for the magazine. From that point on I was kind of the soccer guy for SI. If I could cover soccer full-time, as much as I love college basketball, I probably would. There's still not quite enough demand.
dN: When you switch on the TV for non-soccer viewing, what do you watch?
GW: When I'm not on the clock I don't really follow sports. My wife doesn't like sports. We're into movies. We're into restaurants.
dN: What's the best movie that you've seen recently?
GW: Unfortunately we've been in South Africa and therefore there hasn't been anything good. I just finally saw Slumdog Millionaire and really liked it.
dN: What's next? Any big projects in the works?
GW: I've got a two-book contract with Crown. This Beckham book was the first one. I've got a couple ideas I'm looking at. I'm not sure if it's going to be about soccer.