After signing for a club in Saudi Arabia 5 1⁄2 weeks ago — and ripping up his reputation as one of British soccer’s staunchest LGBTQ allies — Jordan Henderson has finally spoken about his decision.
The former Liverpool FC captain lifted the Premier League, Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup trophies during his time on Merseyside.
He also memorably reached out in solidarity to a gay Liverpool fan on social media, vocally and visibly supported the Rainbow Laces campaign, and said he was “proud” to be regarded as an ally.
But in an interview published by The Athletic on Tuesday, he was attempting to apologize to supporters who once held him in high esteem but now feel betrayed by his move to a country with one of the world’s worst LGBTQ human rights records.
“I can understand the frustration. I can understand the anger,” said Henderson. “I get it. All I can say around that is that I’m sorry that they feel like that.”
He was similarly considered reliable as an ally when on duty with the England national team, publicly thanking a non-binary fan for their support during the most recent European Championships before then playing — and scoring — in rainbow laces en route to the final.
The 33-year-old is currently back in his homeland having been called up for England’s forthcoming internationals against Ukraine and Scotland.
With so few male players paying anything more than lip service to LGBTQ causes, Henderson was championed as a rare breed of footballer.
That distinction began to deteriorate rapidly earlier this summer when it became clear that he was entertaining the prospect of a move to Al-Ettifaq in the Saudi Pro League, whose clubs were suddenly splashing billions of riyals in fees and wages to lure well-known players.
According to ILGA World, Saudi Arabia is one of only two countries worldwide whose governments not only provide the death penalty for consensual same-sex sexual acts but are thought to still carry out executions (the other is Iran).
When the Henderson deal went through, the player was accused of signing up for a project that was seeking to “sportswash” the Saudi regime’s human rights abuses. It was said his salary would almost quadruple in comparison to what he had been earning at Liverpool.
He denied that was the case when speaking to The Athletic, insisting that money wasn’t the “sole reason” for the switch and that he wanted to “achieve something special” by growing the game in the Gulf state.
Kop Outs! is the Liverpool fans group for LGBTQ people and allies. It is officially recognized by the club and has representation on the Supporters Board.
The group tweeted on Tuesday that “sorry isn’t good enough” and questioned their former hero’s claim that he was motivated more by football than money.
No acceptance by Henderson of his role in sportswashing, trying to disguise the disgusting Saudi human rights record. This sounds more like an attempt to rebuild his "brand", sorry isn't good enough @JHenderson, actions speak louder than words. https://t.co/JGOI5fY55f— Kop Outs! ⚽ ️ ️⚧️ (@LFC_LGBT) September 5, 2023
Putting the questions to Henderson for The Athletic were journalists David Ornstein and Adam Crafton. The latter is an out gay man whose sensitive and insightful reporting on LGBTQ topics in football, such as around the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United and the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, has been widely praised.
After Henderson said “everybody should be respectful of culture and religion” and then added that showing respect for another country’s culture, values and beliefs was “the way it should be”, the Athletic reporter challenged the footballer on his use of language.
“When people describe homosexuality as a culture, I think gay people really struggle with that because you’re basically being told you have to just accept living a life where you’re illegal,” said Crafton.
After a “long pause,” Henderson insisted he had “sympathy” for anyone in such a situation, but that he had “gone above and beyond to help... I’ve worn the laces. I’ve worn the armband.”
He also added that he has “family and friends in the LGBTQ+ community” and that he had spoken to them before deciding to accept the deal on offer from the Saudi club.
Crafton expanded on this exchange in a conversation with Sky Sports News, saying: “My impression of being in the room with Jordan Henderson was that he’s a pretty good guy who’s made a decision that’s very hard to justify in line with the advocacy that he’s previously done.”
Henderson wasn’t the only former Liverpool player to come in for criticism on Tuesday.
Speaking later in the day to BBC local radio, Kop Outs! founder Paul Amann also highlighted how Henderson’s manager at Al-Ettifaq — Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard — played alongside Robbie Rogers during their time together at L.A. Galaxy in Major League Soccer.
Amann said: “I feel that Steven Gerrard has not just let down LGBT+ people in general, in particular he’s let down a former team-mate in Robbie Rogers, one of the world’s only out gay professional players [in men’s soccer].
“That man must be feeling like, ‘Who was that guy that played next to me? He doesn’t give a monkey’s about my life because he’s now gone to a country that wants to kill people like me.’ It’s a real disappointment.”
Three Lions Pride, the England LGBTQ fans group that last week indicated that its members attending games might physically turn their backs on Henderson should he make another appearance, also responded to the Athletic interview on social media.
Responding to the player saying he was “really hurt” by the criticism that had come his way, the group invited him to “imagine the pain of your very existence being criminalised, penalised and the cause of state-sanctioned abuse.”
If criticism “really hurts” you then just imagine the pain of your very existence being criminalised, penalised and the cause of state sanctioned abuse.— 3LIONSPRIDE ⚽️ ️ (@3Lionspride) September 5, 2023
Your hurt over valid criticism does not supersede the reality of your decisions. pic.twitter.com/vkEF7d82Yq
Meanwhile, Pride in Football — the umbrella group for LGBTQ football fan groups in the UK that includes Kop Outs! and Three Lions Pride — said the interview had only led to “more questions” and that Henderson’s words were “an empty gesture”.
We are disappointed that this interview has just made us ask more questions.— Pride in Football ️ ⚽️ (@PrideinFootball) September 5, 2023
We don’t want people who are just showing support because they have been asked to. You made your decision and turned your back on the community by moving to Saudi.
Your words are an empty gesture.
There was also comment from Amnesty International, with one of the organization’s directors Peter Frankental telling Sky Sports: “Having respect for a country’s religion and culture shouldn’t mean turning a blind eye to serious human rights violations like the criminalisation of homosexuality or the jailing of human rights defenders.”
If by doing the interview Henderson had hoped to bring down the number of brickbats being flung in his direction, it appears to have backfired.