Jordan Henderson built a reputation for active allyship towards the LGBTQ community during his eight-year stint as captain of Liverpool FC.
But when the midfielder moved earlier this summer to Al-Ettifaq - a club from the spendthrift Saudi Pro League — his fall from grace in the eyes of many gay football fans was swift.
On Thursday, Henderson was named in the England national team squad for the first time since he upped sticks with his family for Saudi Arabia, where he is reportedly earning £692,000 (US $887,000) a week — nearly four times his previous weekly wage at Liverpool.
His call-up was no major surprise, given he has won 77 England caps to date and with manager Gareth Southgate having stated at the beginning of August that he was still in his plans.
However, the 33-year-old’s inclusion in the squad for matches in September against Ukraine and Scotland resulted in some awkward questions for Southgate in his media conference and later, a statement on the matter was issued by the supporters group for England fans who are LGBTQ and allies.
Saudi Arabia criminalises same-sex sexual activity and the Human Dignity Trust says there is “substantial evidence” that LGBTQ people in the Gulf state continue to be arrested because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some of those detained are believed to have been executed.
Three Lions Pride was launched around six years ago and is recognised and promoted by the Football Association, most recently during Pride Month in June.
After Henderson scored for England while wearing rainbow laces during the quarterfinal of the European Championships in summer 2021, the group commissioned a new banner with a picture of the goal celebration.
At the end of that year, Henderson met with the group’s co-founder Joe White for a filmed conversation in support of the Rainbow Laces campaign. The content was later published by the FA, and included Henderson saying: “The more we can show our support as players, it sets an example and an education to the younger generation that we are all inclusive.”
Yet when the player’s move to Al-Ettifaq was confirmed on July 27, the Saudi club posted an announcement video that featured a greyed-out image of Henderson wearing a rainbow captain’s armband — widely viewed as a deliberate editorial decision. The social posts were later deleted.
In response to Henderson’s call-up and various media enquiries, Three Lions Pride said that while their support for the England team as a whole was “unwavering”, they could no longer support their “failed” former hero as an individual.
“There will be no more cheering when his name is announced, no more banner with his face on,” continued the statement.
“If he does play, we imagine that many of our group (whether LGBT+ or not) will turn their back to the pitch as he enters the field of play, much like he turned his back on advocating human rights.
“Jordan Henderson’s bank balance may be burgeoning but our respect and his off field legacy is lost - and can never be won back.”
In May, the Saudi tourism authority updated an FAQ page on its website to add the question, ‘Are LGBT visitors welcome to visit Saudi Arabia?’ The response claims that “everyone is welcome” but urges readers to “follow and respect our culture, traditions and laws”.
Meanwhile, a report published on the Index on Censorship website a fortnight ago detailed the fears of LGBTQ Saudi refugees in the UK and how it is common for their families to attempt to coerce them back to their homeland.
When it was put to Southgate that LGBTQ fans were likely to feel disillusioned over how an England player they had admired so much had chosen to ply his trade in a country where being gay means discrimination or potentially a death sentence, he noticeably struggled to answer.
"Does football need to accept that LGBT fans are not really their priority when it comes to the moments that matter?"— Mike Minay (@MikeMinay) August 31, 2023
Gareth Southgate was asked this in his press conference today following Jordan Henderson's inclusion in the England squad. pic.twitter.com/0k8kVWmEMg
The manager went on to admit he was “a bit lost” before conceding that he was “not really trained” to navigate “complex political aspects”.
As for the fans who are also members of Three Lions Pride, they have a question to consider as well — how do you react the next time Henderson plays for England?
For some, their decision will be to demonstrate their disappointment by turning away from a man they once lionized.