Wednesday, May 18, 2011

12-Pack Interview Series: Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl (Part Two)

Grant Wahl is the best-selling author of "The Beckham Experiment" and the head soccer writer for Sport Illustrated. Earlier this year he unsuccessfully ran to be nominated for the FIFA Presidency.

In part two of our conversation with Wahl he talks about that run for FIFA's top job, Sport Illustrated's growing soccer coverage in print and online, beer in Qatar, this summer's Gold Cup, early impact players for Brazil 2014, and the soccer's growth in the United States.

You can read part one of our interview here.

Speaking at the American Outlaws Rally.
Photo Credit: Renee Krenk Photography.
FBM: FIFA President. You fell a little short. I don't think you had the money to bribe any officials from federations. They didn't nominate you, but a couple of candidates did come out of the woodwork. What were your expectations? What were your goals? Do you feel like you made your point to the world soccer community?

GW: Oh, yeah. I look back on it now and I'm happy with how the message I was trying to send got out. The response global fans and media was so much beyond what I originally expected. I was pretty floored by the whole thing.

It actually became a lot more than I expected. As a result it became like a second full-time job. Here I am having to do interviews with upward 60 countries. It was interesting to me how much it reverberated in countries like Brazil or some of the European countries. That should, not that it had to do with me, but how much fans around the world are dissatisfied with (current FIFA President Sepp) Blatter and what they're doing.

I didn't know how it was going to play out, but I was trying to get the nomination. I did as much as I could. I contacted 150 FAs (football associations), I went to Paris, the UEFA conference. I was able to write a really long story at the end of it all explaining how hard it was for any outsider to get nominated. I was able to get some journalism.

I taught people to take a different look at FIFA and question some of the absurdities of the electoral process.

In the end I didn't get the nomination, but I was totally satisfied with the process.

FBM: Sports Illustrated had been historically short on soccer coverage. There hasn't been regular soccer coverage in the magazine. Lately, though, we've seen a bit more from SI; magazine stories on Charlie Davies and Jose Mourinho. How has the respect, or the desire to cover soccer changed since you've come aboard? Are you excited about the prospect of continued growth of soccer in Sports Illustrated?

GW: I am excited. I'm excited by their having me go full-time with soccer, by giving me the travel budget to cover it the right way. That's all good stuff. 

I'm excited. When I went full-time in January 2010 it was all about the World Cup, previewing and covering that event. Now that its over here I am covering soccer full-time and it's not about covering the World Cup and how's it going to go forward.

I'm excited about that challenge. It does mean all of the writing I do now for Sports Illustrated, more of it is going to be for the website then for the percentage of what I did for college basketball. And I'm OK with that.

I'm able to treat web stories like magazine stories.

We're in pretty nice position where Jose Mourinho will be willing to give us uncommon access, one-on-one to him, that he really doesn't give to journalists anywhere. Because one thing I've always seen over the years is that the top soccer figures in the world want to be bigger in America. Their willing to give access that they wouldn't give their own journalists in Europe. I can leverage that.

At the same time there's cool things going on in American soccer. I don't want to lose sight of that. I'm pretty much on the ground for every U.S. game. I'll be covering the Women's World Cup in Germany as well. 

I'm perfectly happy writing articles for the magazine, but also for the website.

FBM: has really carved out a decent home for quality, digital coverage of soccer. In this day and age, print media, magazines have weathered it OK. How does Sports Illustrated and its coverage of soccer stay relevant in the digital age?

GW: It is interesting. got a new soccer editor, Jen Cheng from, about a year ago and I tihnk he's been great. He's been given a budget to hire high-quality freelancers like Sid Lowe and Jonathan Wilson, Gabriel Marcotti, some really good writers so I don't have to do it all. It allows me the luxury of cherry-picking somethings and focusing on those.

If you look at our coverage of the sport on there's something good everyday just about now. There's someone in place there that gets the sport. Jen Cheng watches more soccer than anyone I know and he's really having a positive impact.

At the magazine, for about a year and a half now we've had new soccer editor who loves the sport. He's also the NFL editor. He's a rising star editor and he's willing and able to pitch stories to the main SI magazine and get us stories in the magazine. In years past there might have been a hesitancy at the magazine to do consecutive soccer features in the magazine.

It does matter to have a few people in key positions in the media, gatekeeper positions who love the sport. That John Skipper who is tremendously powerful guy at ESPN be a big soccer guy is, I can't tell you how big that is for the sport, for coverage of the sport. There's generation of media people where now, soccer is not a stigma attached to it.

FBM: Alright. A beer question. You knew there had to be a beer and soccer question in here. Beer and Qatar? How is that going to happen?

GW: From everything that I understand, I asked some Australians on Twitter if they were able to get some beers when they were at the Asian Cup. They said that if you're in the hotels before and after the games, but it wasn't like you could at the stadiums. You couldn't walk into a bar off the streets because they don't have any. My guess is, when the World Cup comes around, there will be places to get beer. I don't think its going to be easy. I think its going to be a lot harder that any other previous World Cup.

For as much as beer has been associated with soccer. Getting a beer at a soccer stadium has never been that easy.

Still impact players in 2014.
FBM: If you could project the impact players at the 2014 Brazil World Cup. What would be some of your early predictions for the U.S.?

GW: I still think Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan are going to have big World Cups. Potentially Tim Howard. All three of those featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated for this World Cup. Then you try to project which other guys might be in there. Right now does Juan Agudelo look like a guy that looks like he could have a pretty big World Cup? Yeah, he does. Does Tim Ream look like a guy that could have a pretty big role? Yeah.

You look at what Timothy Chandler is doing in the Bundesliga and with limited time with the National Team and that's very promising. It's kind of hard to predict the future though, you know?

FBM: When you look at Americans abroad and even some players in the MLS that are making an impact and is it easy to be very optimistic about the trajectory of American soccer?

GW: I do. I think its incremental. There are set backs along the way. That's apart of life for the most competitive sport in the world. I wasn't so bothered by the U-20s failing at the World Cup qualifying as much as I don't really see, right now, potential upgrades on Donovan and Dempsey.

Is that a problem that those two guys are probably going to be the top two offensive players in the next World Cup? Considering that they'll be over 30... I guess I do see that as a concern. I look at a lot of these young U.S. players and I'm not sure they've accomplished all that much yet.

Other sports have had young players with a lot of attention, like LeBron James, and what makes you great is dealing with that stuff and still competing. Michael Jordan or Maradona or Pele. It's producing even after you get that attention.

Number five coming?
FBM: Predictions for the Gold Cup?

GW: It is going to be a very interesting tournament. For the U.S., they have the benefit of playing on home soil, but if they have a U.S.-Mexico final that stadium will be pro-Mexico. And that's no different from the 2007 final in Chicago or the 2009 final at the Meadowlands.

I think there will be a lot of pressure on them because Bob Bradley and all the players have talked about how important it was to go to Confederations Cup and have that experience and to qualify for the next. If the U.S. doesn't win there will be some criticism. We'll get a pretty good sense of what the next cycle for the World Cup will look like.

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