More than a billion people worldwide are believed to have tuned in on December 18 to witness the 2022 World Cup final from the Lusail Stadium in Qatar, and were treated to one of the most exciting football matches in history.
Two of the sport’s biggest stars, Lionel Messi of Argentina and Kylian Mbappé of France, led their teams in a dramatic clash that went to extra time and eventually a penalty shootout thanks to Mbappe’s third goal in the 118th minute. But it was Messi – with two goals of his own – who lifted the trophy after the last game of the World Cup in which Argentina won.
But as sensational as the final game was, veteran Associated Press reporter Stephen Wade believed it still paled in comparison to the other story of the World Cup, namely how the tournament was held in Qatar in the first place.
“I don’t stick to the gaming stuff, but politics and money are more intrinsic, more interesting to me,” he said.
Wade, who graduated from the University of Missouri – St. Louis, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1974 and a master’s degree four years later, has covered international sports for the AP since 1991, specializing in sports-related politics and business coverage.
He spent three weeks in Qatar covering his fifth World Cup, covering at least half a dozen games, including the United States’ 3-1 loss to the Netherlands in the Round of 16, and more stories surrounding the competition. He has also covered eight Olympic Games, often embedding himself in host cities long before the world’s eyes are on them to document how global spectacles take shape – including the ramifications they can have for the local community.
Circumstances in Qatar – a country the size of Connecticut with a population of only about 3 million people and no history of success in international football – offered much to pique Wade’s interest.
“This was obviously a huge political event,” he said. “That included being in the Middle East, being in a country that spent $200 billion on the World Cup. It was a bid approved by FIFA in 2010 that was probably corrupt, probably bribed.”
Qataris are some of the richest people in the world, per capita, but they represent only about 10% of the country’s population. The country relies heavily on migrant labor with many workers coming from poorer countries in South Asia, such as Bangladesh, India, Nepal and the Philippines.
They work in slave-like conditions for miserable wages and reports say around 6,500 have died since Qatar won the World Cup – many forced to work in extreme heat to build infrastructure, including seven new stadiums, for the tournament.
The World Cup brought with it an examination of Qatar’s attitude towards women and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“A lot of people are writing about it now in a more serious way, looking at politics, business, culture,” Wade said. “I think the journalists who cover it have raised people’s awareness, and therefore the journalists who cover it feel more empowered to write about other aspects of it.
“These are much, much bigger events than sporting events. No one spends $200 billion on a sporting event. I just finished the Tokyo Olympics and Japan officially spent $13 billion – probably twice that. Nobody spends that much money if they think it’s just a sporting event. This is an opportunity for countries like Qatar or Japan to put themselves on the world stage, to show the world who they are.”
Wade is grateful for the opportunities he has had to cover events such as the 2008 Games in Beijing or the 2016 Games in Rio de Janiero.
He can still, more than four decades later, look back on his time at UMSL as helping him get there.
“University is a game-changer for a lot of kids,” he said. “It was for me.”
Wade was a first-generation student when he started university, and he said he was far from a model student when he was working on his bachelor’s degree. But he remembers faculty members Terry Jones, Lyman Sargent and Gene Meehan leaving an indelible mark on his life.
Jones looked beyond his academic struggles as an undergraduate and helped him get into a master’s program, later serving as Wade’s advisor for his master’s thesis.
Sargent and Meehan helped challenge him to think differently and think about complex topics.
“I remember writing a paper for Gene Meehan, I went to his office and the thing was full of red ink,” Wade said. “I said, ‘Dr. Meehan, I can write.’ He said, ‘Well, your problem is that you can’t think. First, you must learn to think, and then to put ideas clearly on paper.’”
Wade enjoyed the political science department enough to at one point consider a Ph.D., but he got the chance to work in the athletic department at St. Louis Post-Dispatch while finishing his master’s degree and couldn’t miss it.
“I didn’t necessarily want to be a sportswriter, but it was cool to get a job at my hometown paper and see that streak,” he said.
He spent six years at the Post-Dispatch, mostly covering prep sports, starting on the newspaper’s staff in St. Charles to later move to the main office.
Wade longed to see more of the world. He visited Costa Rica a few summers earlier and learned some Spanish, so in 1984 he made the decision to leave the newspaper and St. Louis and moved to Madrid.
His first job abroad was working for the Spanish news agency EFE, which was then launching an English language service.
“Everybody who goes overseas, a lot of times they think they’re going overseas for six months, a year, and the first thing you know it’s five years,” Wade said.
EFE’s office was in the same building as the Associated Press office, and he met the boss. In 1991, she hired him to work at AP.
Little could he have imagined the places his career would take him – a decade spent in London, as well as time in Mexico City, Beijing, Buenos Aires, Rio and, for the last five years, Tokyo.
“Things just fall into place, and then it becomes your life, your job,” he said. “All by chance, mere coincidence.”
Wade returned to Tokyo from Qatar exhausted after the World Cup and got a much needed break around Christmas to recharge his batteries.
The next Olympics are in 2024 in Paris, which Wade expects to cover. But there are plenty of smaller events in 2023 to watch out for: the World Baseball Classic with Japan hosting some games and featuring Los Angeles Angels pitcher and shortstop Shohei Ohtani; this summer’s world swimming championships in Fukuoka, Japan; and Formula 1 races in Japan and China – if China resumes its COVID-cancelled race in Shanghai.
And there are constant stories of corruption surrounding the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which have been postponed for a year.
Even after decades of writing and reporting, Wade said he couldn’t imagine having a more compelling job.
“It’s hard to give it up,” he said. Sports journalists, or people who have jobs like mine, complain a lot, but when you step back, you say, ‘Man, if I walked away from this, in five seconds there would be 5,000 people – most of them better than me – who would want to try in work.'”
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