It’s finally official – Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson has signed for Al-Ettifaq, bringing an end to months of speculation surrounding the future of his playing career. Countless footballers have made the move to Saudi Arabia within the last twelve months, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema both opting to ply their trade in the Middle East.
Yet it is Henderson’s move that has attracted the most controversy, as critics are quick to point out that the Englishman was a staunch ally for members of the LGBT+ community. Homosexuality remains illegal in Saudi Arabia, and the ex-Liverpool skipper has understandably been the focal point of plenty of media discourse over the last few days as fans try to come to terms with the transfer.
In order to gauge a balanced public opinion on the topic, I spoke to numerous football fans, journalists and members of the LGBT+ community to gather their thoughts on Jordan Henderson’s move to Al-Ettifaq.
It was clear from the announcement video alone that Al-Ettifaq were keen to play down Henderson’s historic LGBT+ activism. Photos of the midfielder in full colour were noticeably obscured by a greyscale box on his arm – placed so as to hide the rainbow armband he adorned with apparent pride.
Of course, Al-Ettifaq would have faced huge public backlash within Saudi Arabia if they’d have left the armband on display – but simply muting the colours seems to be an example of the club making a statement against homosexuality. There are thousands of photos of Jordan Henderson, and it surely wouldn’t have been too difficult to find some where the armband is not on display.
“His legacy has been tainted”
Jordan Henderson has established himself as somewhat of a midfield stalwart for Liverpool over recent years – and one of the journalists I spoke to had a very strong opinion on the transfer, stating that ‘his legacy has been tainted, for sure.’ Another fan added that it appears that Henderson has ‘chosen money over morals unfortunately,’ and has ‘kind of commodified the [LGBT+] community for PR, on the face of it.’
During his stay on Merseyside, Henderson became a fan favourite. Having taken on the captaincy role, the midfielder restored glory to Anfield – lifting their first Premier League title during the nationwide lockdown.
But there are fans that feel as though the driving force behind Henderson’s popularity was his activism, with the Englishman vocal in his support for marginalised communities. In addition to donning the rainbow armband, the midfielder was a key face for the Premier League’s Rainbow Laces campaign – and famously said that if fans see something that ‘makes another human being feel excluded, you should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them.’
Members of the LGBT+ community have resurfaced those comments after news of the transfer broke, urging the Englishman to heed his own advice. Notably, Thomas Hitzlsperger came out to criticise the ex-Liverpool man. A former professional player, Hitzlsperger came out as gay in 2014 following his retirement – and now the German says he is ‘curious to know though how the new brand JH will look like. The old one is dead!’
One journalist went as far as to call into question ‘a breaking of trust for the [LGBT+] community, as one of their biggest allies in England has turned his back upon them.’
So Jordan Henderson finally gets his move to 🇸🇦. Fair play to him, he can play wherever he wants to play. Curious to know though how the new brand JH will look like. The old one is dead! I did believe for a while that his support for the 🏳️🌈 community would be genuine. Silly me…— Thomas Hitzlsperger (@ThomasHitz) July 27, 2023
“A statement of intent from the Saudis”
Another of the journalists I spoke to opted to shift his focus onto the development of the Saudi Pro League, noting that ‘it was a real statement of intent that the Saudis could convince the captain of the most successful English side in Europe.’
Sport is being used within Saudi Arabia to diversify the nation’s economy, which has historically been reliant on the oil industry. Football and golf have been chosen in particular – and there are reports that the Saudi government have allocated in excess of £5bn to spend on players before 2030.
Splashing the cash on these household names is merely an investment for officials, who look to build the profile of the Saudi Arabian game. One journalist added that ‘the fact that he was a key advocate for LGBT+ rights amongst football shows that no matter how opposed an individual may be to a country’s policies, money can turn [them].’
“Why would he stay?”
One Liverpool fan insisted that while the morality of the move is questionable, she cannot blame Jordan Henderson for leaving Anfield this summer – ‘he was so disrespected at Liverpool, so why would he stay there when he gets that abuse?’
‘At the end of the day, football is his career and a kind of business so I guess if he gets a better monetary offer then [it’s understandable],’ she went on to add. It’s an interesting take, but the finances of the move were a recurring theme amongst my interviewees – with another adding that ‘it’s difficult to turn down that money!’
Reports circulating from Saudi Arabia indicate that Jordan Henderson was earning circa £200k per week at Anfield, while that figure is set to triple with his new deal at Al-Ettifaq.
“He’s still a Liverpool legend”
Yet while fans understand that Henderson may have desired a change of scenery, they still herald him as a hero on Merseyside – ‘he’s still a Liverpool legend for me because of what he’s done for the club.’
But they also add that they view their former captain in a different light now, as they can’t comprehend his decision to move to a country in which Sharia law evidently clashes significantly with his work as an LGBT+ activist. Kop Outs, the official supporters’ group for LGBT+ Liverpool fans, stated that they ‘hope that Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard don’t have to personally experience the harsh reality faced by LGBT+ people and real advocates for human rights.’ Steven Gerrard receives a mention too, as he recently took the Head Coach job at Al-Ettifaq.
We hope that Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard don't have to personally experience the harsh reality faced by LGBT+ people and real advocates for human rights.— Kop Outs! 🌈⚽🏳️🌈🏳️⚧️ (@LFC_LGBT) July 26, 2023
So, has Jordan Henderson betrayed the LGBT+ community?
It’s hard to tell. Understandably, there are varying opinions on his transfer to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ettifaq, with some fans believing that it shows his supposed support for the LGBT+ community was just a publicity stunt all along, while others believe he is prioritising his career and maximising his earnings ahead of his inevitable retirement.
Regardless, the LGBT+ community do have a right to feel aggrieved. Jordan Henderson has been one of the most vocal supporters for equality within football and society as a whole, and the latest chapter of his career will be written in a country where homosexuality is still punishable by death.
Only Jordan Henderson will truly know the reasons behind his move to Saudi Arabia – but until the midfielder addresses the speculation himself, hypotheses will continue to spread like wildfire within the stands of Anfield, the city of Liverpool and across the LGBT+ community.