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Jordan Henderson’s answers over Saudi money-spinner just don’t add up

Jordan Henderson’s answers over Saudi money-spinner just don’t add up

If you have not already, it is worth seeking out Jordan Henderson’s first interview since his controversial move from Liverpool to Saudi Arabia in the summer.

Speaking to The Athletic, Henderson offered a mealy-mouthed apology to LGBTQ+ supporters “that I’ve made them feel that way” and made the scarcely-credible claim that “money has never been a motivation”.

The centre of Henderson’s defence is that he went to Saudi to enact “positive change”, but concedes he is just “one person” and is, therefore, unlikely to be able to change much.

He does not “rule out” wearing Rainbow Laces in a future show of support for the community he once championed, before immediately playing down the prospect because he does not want to “disrespect the religion and culture in Saud Arabia”.

He says he felt unwanted by everyone at Liverpool, the club which not so long ago handed him a four-year deal, aged 31, in a considerable show of faith.

Henderson’s answers are a mess of contradictions and thin arguments; at times revealing a stunning naivety from a player who had previously appeared among the most principled and engaging in English football.

In a particularly revealing answer, Henderson says his experience of meeting migrant workers at the Qatar World Cup was “totally different” from the England squad’s briefings by Amnesty International, seemingly not appreciating that the workers presented to the players — who were also interviewed by this correspondent — were essentially FIFA stooges, taking part in what amounted to little more than a PR exercise.

Fair play to Henderson for fronting up and not choosing a different medium, where he might have faced easier questions or been afforded editorial control.

Still, it would be better if he now went quietly into the night and stopped citing “respect” or claiming his decision was about more than money.

Really, it would have been far more palatable and credible if Henderson had learned from the LIV golfers and insisted his support for the LGBTQ+ is genuine but he was offered a sum of money in a short career that was simply too good to turn down.

He could have pointed out that few of us really know for certain how we would react if offered unimaginable wealth in return for compromising our principles.

He was put in that position and made a choice, so his best explanation is probably the truth: that many people would find it hard to make a different decision.

It is easy to wonder why all this matters so much, given Henderson is just one of a number of ageing, elite players to join the Saudi Pro League this summer.

The answer is that Henderson has not only compromised himself, he has damaged relations between men’s professional football and the LGBTQ+ community.

Henderson is plying his trade with Al-Ettifaq in Saudi Arabia (Getty Images)
Henderson is plying his trade with Al-Ettifaq in Saudi Arabia (Getty Images)

Part of the reason the community has spoken of ‘a betrayal’ is because it will naturally be so much harder for fans of any stripes to trust footballers in future.

Elite male players already seem to exist in a hermetically-sealed world of fabulous wealth and fame, in which every one of their interactions with the outside is carefully controlled and too often contains more than a whiff of PR or spin.

In this context, there was already a degree of scepticism when players showed solidarity with causes, be it LGBTQ+ rights or anything else.

Some players, of course, really do care, and Henderson appeared to belong to this cohort before the appeal of extraordinary riches (or, as he put it, the chance to “to grow the game that I love”) persuaded him to the Middle East.

In turning his back on the community, he has undermined his colleagues who really do want to enact change. Going forward, when a player wears a rainbow armband or the laces, or demonstrably supports any noble cause, it will naturally be viewed with a greater degree of cynicism, only deepening the disconnect between players and supporters.

Sadly, the advent of the Saudi gold rush probably means players will be more wary of speaking out anyway, given the backlash faced by Henderson and fear of being labelled a hypocrite.

If the Saudi Pro League continues to grow and becomes football’s next frontier, it will be increasingly attractive to players both from a financial and sporting perspective. So why speak out now when it could complicate a career move in future? Better to keep your head below the parapet so no one can take a shot.

A cynic might suggest that it is no coincidence the Saudis targeted Henderson. Who better, after all, to be another face of sportswashing than England’s most outspoken player on LGBTQ+ rights and one of the game’s foremost allies of the community? As a powerplay, it perfectly demonstrates that almost no one is beyond reach.

For all Henderson’s justifications, the upshot of his move to Saudi is more cynicism, less trust and a depressing sense that everyone has their price.