Jordan Henderson defends move to Saudi Arabia after LGBTQ rights criticism

The England star, who has spoken out in support of LGBTQ rights, apologises for hurt caused by his move to Al Ettifaq.

Ettifaq's English midfielder #10 Jordan Henderson runs past Nassr's Senegalese Forward #10 Sadio Mane during the Saudi Pro League football match between Al-Ettifaq and Al-Nassr
Henderson, right, runs past Al Nassr's Sadio Mane [File: Ali Alhaji/AFP]

England midfielder Jordan Henderson has responded to criticism by defending his decision to join a Saudi Arabian club and apologising for the hurt caused to the LGBTQ community in an interview published by The Athletic.

The 33-year-old moved to Saudi Pro League side Al Ettifaq from Liverpool on a three-year deal in July. The switch to Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death, made headlines as Henderson has long been a supporter of the LGBTQ community.

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“I can understand the frustration. I can understand the anger. I get it. All I can say around that is that I’m sorry that they feel like that. My intention was never, ever to hurt anyone,” Henderson told The Athletic in a story published on Tuesday.

“Now when I was making the decision, the way that I tried to look at it was I felt as though, by myself not going, we can all bury our heads in the sand and criticise different cultures and different countries from afar.

“But then nothing’s going to happen. Nothing’s going to change.”

Henderson has been named in England’s squad to play Ukraine in a Euro 2024 qualifier in Poland on Saturday before visiting Scotland in a friendly the following week.

After the transfer to Al Ettifaq was announced, England LGBTQ group 3LIONSPRIDE issued a statement saying they would no longer cheer his name or use a banner with Henderson’s face. Some of them said they may turn their backs on the pitch.

Liverpool’s LGBTQ+ fan group Kop Outs urged Henderson to “stand by your words as a professed ally & champion of #LGBT+ rights, of women’s rights and of basic human dignity” after he agreed the move to Saudi Arabia.

Henderson said he was hurt by the criticism.

“I do care. I’m not one of these people who goes home, forgets about everything and is just like, ‘I’m fine, my family is fine, just crack on.

“But at the same time, I knew people can look at it like that and they’re entitled to their opinion, they’re entitled to feel like that. All I can say is that I apologise, I’m sorry that I’ve made them feel that way. But I haven’t changed as a person.”

Kop Outs reacted to his interview with The Athletic with a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

“No acceptance by Henderson of his role in sportswashing, trying to disguise the disgusting Saudi human rights record,” it said.

“This sounds more like an attempt to rebuild his ‘brand’, sorry isn’t good enough, actions speak louder than words,” it said.

Al Ettifaq were widely criticised for appearing to censor Henderson’s support for the LGBTQ movement by greying out his rainbow armband on an image of the player when announcing his signing on social media.

When asked if he would still wear his rainbow laces, Henderson said:

“I wouldn’t rule that out. But at the same time, what I wouldn’t do is disrespect the religion and culture in Saudi Arabia.”

Money ‘not a motivation’

After 12 seasons at Liverpool, many fans were shocked at the captain’s decision to leave the club. But Henderson felt he was no longer an essential part of manager Jurgen Klopp’s plans.

“There were a few things that sent alarm bells ringing. I’ve got a very good relationship with Jurgen. He was very honest with me,” Henderson told the Athletic.

“I won’t go into detail about the conversation because it’s private, but it put me in a position where I knew that I wasn’t going to be playing as much. I knew there were going to be new players coming in my position.”

Henderson denied that the reason he agreed to join Al Ettifaq was the financial reward on offer.

“People can believe me or not, but in my life and my career, money has never been a motivation. Ever. Don’t get me wrong, when you move, the business deal has to be tight.

“You have to have financials, you have to feel wanted, you have to feel valued. And money is a part of that. But that wasn’t the sole reason. And these possibilities came up before money was even mentioned.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies