Jordan Henderson has been accused of “staggering naivety” by football fan groups after suggesting that his move to Saudi Arabian side Al-Ettifaq could be a “positive thing” for the LGBT+ community.
The 33-year-old was widely condemned for joining the club, managed by Steven Gerrard, in July after previously being an outspoken ally of the LGBT+ community and a supporter of the Premier League’s Rainbow Laces campaign to promote inclusivity.
Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia.
In an interview with The Athletic, Henderson said that while he could understand “frustration and anger” at his decision, going to the Saudi Arabia could help to instigate “positive” change given his “views and values”.
Henderson also claimed that he was “hurt” by accusations that he had turned his back on the LGBT+ community by moving to a country that criminalises LGBT+ people.
“The naivety of assuming you’ll make any, albeit incremental, shift by just being there is staggering,” Joe White, co-chair of 3 Lions Pride, England’s LGBT+ supporters’ group, told i.
“This is a state that very clearly states that LGBT+ people are criminals for existing and should be punished or penalised for who they are. One footballer who has ‘values’ will change nothing, as we saw with Qatar.
“If criticism hurts him then he should just imagine the pain of your very existence being criminalised, penalised and the cause of state-sanctioned abuse. His hurt over the valid criticism he has received does not supersede the reality of his decisions.”
That sentiment was shared by Liverpool’s LGBT+ group Kop Outs, with founder Paul Amann saying that Henderson “put himself in a hole” by moving to Saudi Arabia and has now “dug deeper”, describing the interview as a “car crash”.
Mr Amann told i: “I was very surprised that he thinks he can take the ‘oh sorry if people feel that way’ sort of approach. It doesn’t feel like any genuine sense of an apology,” .
“It almost speaks of a white saviour complex for Henderson to think that he’s going to be the individual that will result in change for that regime.”
During his time in the Premier League, Henderson actively participated in the Rainbow Laces campaign by wearing a rainbow-coloured armband and laces in solidarity and in November 2021, he vowed to “stand shoulder-to-shoulder” with anyone who has been discriminated against.
But when asked whether he would continue to wear rainbow-coloured laces in the Middle East, Henderson said he wouldn’t want to do anything to “disrespect the religion and culture in Saudi Arabia”.
“The thought that acknowledgment of our existence is disrespectful is a line we’d expect to hear from oppressive states that criminalise us, not a person who claims to have gone ‘above and beyond’ for the LGBT+ community,” Mr White said.
Henderson was accused by some of abandoning his morals for monetary gain after being offered a contract by Al-Ettifaq worth a widely reported £700,000 per week.
The England midfielder insisted that the reported salary is false, and claimed that his primary motivation for joining the club was a desire to “grow the game” and help the Saudi Pro League become “one of the best in the world”, after feeling “unwanted” by Liverpool.
Mr Amann questioned that logic and said he believed Henderson’s status as Liverpool’s club captain showed he was still valued by Jurgen Klopp and his coaching staff.
“He’s gone to play in what is effectively a Sunday League-type situation in front of 5,000 people in the middle of a scorching desert,” he added. “It just doesn’t stack up.”
After Gareth Southgate called Henderson into his squad for the matches against Ukraine and Scotland this week, 3 Lions Pride said that they would no longer cheer his name or hold a banner with his face on it, and that members would turn their back on him “much like he turned his back on advocating human rights”.
Mr Amann believes Henderson would receive a similarly frosty reception at Anfield from some supporters after the player said that he would welcome a testimonial or even a chance “to go back to say bye” in the future.
“I don’t think that Kop Outs would give him much of a reception at all quite honestly. I don’t know of anyone now who would offer him good wishes or anything like that.
“He had that opportunity to have a testimonial, he had the opportunity to have the most amazing goodbye from all of the faithful at Anfield and he’s turned his back on that himself.”
Some may argue that Henderson was in a lose-lose situation; that no matter what he said, the relationship between himself and the LGBT+ community had already been damaged beyond repair.
Mr Amann acknowledged that the only way Henderson could have mitigated the harm would be to admit that his move to Saudi Arabia was a mistake. Having committed himself wholeheartedly to the Saudi project that was never going to happen.
Before the player’s move to Al-Ettifaq was confirmed, Mr Amann, asked how Liverpool LGBT+ fans would view Henderson if he decided to go, had replied: “We want to make sure that that [his] legacy is one that we can celebrate into the future”.
That no longer seems to be the case: “His contribution as a player is untouchable. He’s captained Liverpool to everything that could be won. His behaviour as a human being is that’s the thing that has been trashed. I would not be happy to celebrate his legacy personally and I don’t think many Kop Outs would be happy because of what he’s done.”