Jordan Henderson was one of football’s good guys, a club captain who fundraised for the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic and a high-profile supporter of LGBTQ+ campaigns. But he shocked many when he left Liverpool in July to join Al-Ettifaq in the Saudi Pro League, a competition bankrolled by an unpleasant regime where homosexuality is illegal and punished by death. Now, the 33-year-old has spoken out to defend his decision and apologize for any hurt caused.
The Liverpool midfielder says that Gerrard, appointed manager of the Saudi Arabia national team in January, is a primary reason he moved to the Arab kingdom. Henderson said he had been a “big fan” of the former England skipper and hailed him as a “role model.”
“He’s a great person, a role model, and was very important to me when I played for Liverpool,” he said. “I’ve seen him do a fantastic job in his new position, and I’m very excited to play under him at the World Cup and beyond.”
Despite a backlash that saw him booed by England fans in their friendly win over Australia on Friday, Henderson insists he has no regrets about his transfer. “I know there’s going to be criticism of what I’ve done, and maybe it’s unfair that I’ve been targeted because I’m a supporter of the LGBTQ community,” he told Channel 4.
Henderson also addressed allegations that Al-Ettifaq had tried to censor his message of support for the LGBTQ community by greying out the rainbow armband he wore in a photo used to announce his arrival at the club. The club was also criticized for a video posted on social media showing him being driven to the stadium in a Rolls Royce, which many saw as a sign of sponsorship from the Saudi government.
But he insisted that his beliefs have not changed and that he will continue to speak out for what he believes in. “I have a responsibility to myself and the people who follow me, and I feel I can do my bit here,” he said.
He added that he thrives on the pressure that comes with representing a big club like Liverpool and that he hopes to be able to do the same for Al-Ettifaq. “I’m used to playing in front of huge crowds, and I believe I can give them the entertainment they want,” he said. “I think that’s what I have to offer – my football.” He may just be the first, but he won’t likely be the last senior English player to join the Saudi Pro League. That’s a change that will benefit the sport in terms of revenue but, in the long run, could prove damaging. It will mean the world’s most popular sport is increasingly becoming a business for unaccountable states, corporations, and individuals who exploit the greed that has long seeped into its DNA. That change harms supporters, the more minor leagues, or most players.