Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Review: World Class (2024)

By Grant Wahl

Grant Wahl was in the right place at the right time during his too-short professional career.

Wahl came out of Princeton University in the 1990s, and landed a job with Sports Illustrated magazine. You might recall that the Nineties were the time when soccer had just started to make an imprint on the American sports scene, thanks in part to the placement of the World Cup tournament here in 1994. There weren't a great many sportswriters who knew too much about the game and how it was played, especially on an international basis. It was a perfect spot for Wahl, who had "studied" under future U.S. National Coach Bob Bradley at Princeton 

Almost before he knew it, Wahl was writing SI's soccer stories. No, they were never too plentiful, and they were rarely on the cover, but if you went searching for them they'd turn up. He'd found his niche. Grant also worked on college basketball during his time at the magazine. Those assignments lasted for almost 25 years. 

Then Sports Illustrated started to shrink in staff size, and Wahl was one of the casualties. Eventually he wound up freelancing on Substack, writing for an audience of about three thousand instead of many multiple times that number. But the readers were rabid soccer fans, and Wahl even paid his own way to major events to add his informed commentary to the conversation.

Wahl's career was unique in that he was the single unquestioned authority in his area of expertise, soccer. So when he died in December 2022, it was a particularly painful moment for those fans. The outpouring of sympathy was quite impressive and well deserved

"World Class," then, is something of a good-bye present to those supporters. It was put together by Alexander Wolfe and Mark Mravic, both SI alumni. It's Wahl's greatest hits, presented in anthology form and broken into a variety of themes. Realistically, though, the groupings of articles don't really matter much. We bounce from one subject to another rather easily. We're in good hands here. 

One way to judge anthologies is to count the number of stories that hold the reader's interest all the way through. In my case, I'm not going to say I'm a major follower of the sport of soccer. I've only written about it a few times, and know most of the rules and few of the strategies. Still, there were only a few stories here that didn't compel me to keep reading to the conclusion - mostly on international soccer subjects. 

Then again, some of the non-sports articles were definite keepers. Wahl's profile of then-new North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams was written at just the right time. Williams had just arrived from Kansas, and he had almost Shakespearean doubts about whether he was doing the right thing. Speaking of basketball coaches, Wolfe and Mravic reach back to Wahl's Princeton days for a column on why legendary coach Pete Carill wasn't quite the saint he was often portrayed to be by the national media. 

Perhaps my favorite piece in the book has never been published before. It was a paper written for a course taught by New Yorker David Remnick about Gloria Emerson, one of the only women who covered the Vietnam War for a major media outlet. The experience left some serious baggage on her psyche, and Wahl's profile of one of his mentors can stand up with any story of its kind done by more experienced reporters.

The proceeds of "World Class" are going to establish a journalism award at Princeton in Wahl's name, which is nice. Those who enjoy good writing and reporting certainly will find this book rewarding. Those who are big soccer fans will take that level of enjoyment up a notch.

Four stars

Learn more about this book from Amazon.com. (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)

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