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Jordan Henderson's explanation for Saudi Arabia move is unlikely to persuade anyone but himself

Jordan Henderson opened up to The Athletic about his reasons for joining Al Ettifaq in the Saudi Pro League. The explanation felt unsatisfactory and will do little to alleviate the sense of betrayal among the LGBTQ+ community, writes Adam Bate

Jordan Henderson of Al-Ettifaq looks on during the Saudi Pro League match between Al-Ettifaq and Damak at Prince Mohamed bin Fahd Stadium on September 02, 2023 in Ad Dammam, Saudi Arabia.
Image: Jordan Henderson left Liverpool to sign for Saudi Pro League side Al Ettifaq in July

If people were waiting for Jordan Henderson’s explanation for his move to Saudi Arabia in the hope that there would be an argument in there to persuade them, they will have been disappointed. The quotes were new but the arguments were old.

He began his interview with The Athletic by stressing that all this fuss could have been avoided had Liverpool only made more of an effort to keep him. "If one of those people said to me, 'Now we want you to stay', then we wouldn't be having this conversation."

He attempts to frame his reluctance to move to another Premier League club as an example of his loyalty. The determination to play more regularly as proof of his passion for playing for his country. "England is a big thing for me. You have got the Euros coming up."

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England train at St George's Park ahead of their European qualifier against Ukraine

It fails to convince.

Anyone who had followed the cringeworthy attempts of the golfers who signed up with LIV to justify their decision with claims of 'growing the game' would be familiar with the flimsy arguments that followed. Money, he insists, was not discussed until later.

"It was all about what we could do together to achieve something special and build a club and build the league," he says of his conversation with Al Ettifaq head coach Steven Gerrard. Forced to leave Liverpool, there was simply nothing else in Europe to excite.

That dreaded word 'project' makes an appearance, of course.

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But most desperate of all are Henderson's comments regarding the LGBTQ+ community who came to believe that the Liverpool captain, England's most senior midfielder, had been their vocal supporter. They now feel betrayed. "I am sorry that they feel like that."

Credit to David Ornstein and, in particular, Adam Crafton, journalists with The Athletic, for pushing Henderson on the subject. But much like the golfers, the arguments soon evaporate. "I am not a politician," he reminds us. "I am not an expert," he later offers.

The appeal to ignorance over an issue he claims to have agonised over is his last refuge and it is when the nonsense arguments are stripped away that the most candid statement comes. "Basically I had to make the decision on what was best for me and my family."

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Sky Sports News chief reporter Kaveh Solhekol explains Jordan Henderson's comments

Had he said no more than that, it might have been more palatable. Henderson is no villain. It may well feel unfair to him that his previous status as a high-profile ally of a marginalised community has brought more criticism than had he stayed silent all along.

But the mental gymnastics at play here, the attempts to obfuscate the obvious, are infuriating and risk smoothing the path for others in ways very different to those that he claims to envisage. He is a pioneer, alright, just not the one he believes himself to be.

Henderson, in his own mind and apparently the minds of those who advise him, is the true visionary here, the intrepid soul venturing out into the world in a bid to change it for the better. Those unwilling to take the exorbitant offers, they are the ignorant ones.

"We can all bury our heads in the sand and criticise different cultures and different countries from afar. But then nothing is going to happen. Nothing is going to change," he claims. "Having someone with those views and values in Saudi Arabia is only a positive thing."

How does this ally of the LGBTQ+ community plan to make a stand? What powerful message will begin to show his new paymasters that there is another way? "If I wear the rainbow armband, if that disrespects their religion, then that is not right either." Oh.

The impression left is of a man who cannot be accused of lying to anyone, except perhaps himself. If change is to come in Saudi Arabia, whether that be in five years or 50, he would doubtless like to see his move as the precursor to that shift, a blazer of trails.

One suspects the reality is rather different. The more immediate change is that he has normalised the act of a senior England international making the move to Saudi Arabia. He is the first but unlikely to be the last. That, one fears, is his true legacy here.

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