Ex-Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson wants to leave Saudi Arabia - and he isn't alone in his regrets
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What next for Jordan Henderson? Just months after his controversial move to Al-Ettifaq last summer, reports suggest that the former Liverpool captain wants to return to Europe having grown disillusioned with his decision to head to Saudi Arabia. If those reports are true, it all seems like a monumental waste – of money, of a portion of his career, and of all the credit he banked for his allyship of the LGBTQ+ community before he blew that all up.
When he left Liverpool, he told The Athletic that he “wanted something would excite me… something I felt as though I could add value in.” He also insisted that, rather than simply turning his back on LGBTQ+ fans, whose fundamental rights he had supported before moving to a country in which homosexual activity is illegal, he felt that his presence in Saudi Arabia could lead to positive change. Just six months and several social media posts which praised the Pro League and the Kingdom itself later, and he seems to have had a change of heart.
If he does return to England, or move to most other countries in Western Europe, he would also lose a monumental amount of money – a return to the UK, for instance, would force him to pay income tax here which he would not have been eligible for in Saudi Arabia. Estimates put that tax bill as high as £8m, although that appears to be based on an alleged weekly wage of £700,000, which Henderson claimed was not an accurate figure. Either way, just half a year after he told Channel 4 that he had “no regrets,” he appears to have acquired some.
Henderson’s first game for Al-Ettifaq saw him play in front of a crowd of over 12,000, against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr. Attendances have plunged since, however, and while the club’s average gate is still around 2,000 higher than it was last year (before most of the Pro League’s big signings happened) he has also played in front of some small crowds, and Al-Ettifaq’s average attendance of 7,854 is comparable to Bristol Rovers and Port Vale in League One.
Results have gone south, too. They started brightly under Steven Gerrard but have since won just one of their past 13 matches and sit in eighth place in the table, eight points clear of the relegation zone but a hefty 21 points short of automatic qualification for the AFC Champions League. With his place in the England squad for Euro 2024 under scrutiny, it would be understandable if Henderson was concerned about remaining in Gareth Southgate’s plans.
Henderson is not the only player who took the Saudi money who is reported to be regretting their decision. Few of the clubs get to play in front of substantial crowds, and those that do have not always found them especially generous. Karim Benzema, for instance, has scored 12 goals in 20 matches for Al-Ittihad, but has drawn the ire of his own supporters for supposedly below-par performances, and the former Real Madrid forward deleted his Instagram in late December after receiving online abuse.
The Saudi media has not been kind to the Frenchman, either. Sports journalist Walid Al-Faraj said of the 36-year-old that “the gap between Benzema and the public is growing day by day. He never managed to make a difference. And above all, he doesn't make any effort... Benzema has offered nothing." The French media have since speculated that he regrets his decision to move to the Kingdom and could be looking for a return to Europe.
Likewise, Neymar has had an unhappy time at Al-Hilal. Before he was sidelined by a cruciate ligament injury, the Brazilian was reported to have fallen out with manager Jorge Jesus just a few games into his contract in Saudi Arabia, supposedly demanding that the club fire the former Benfica head coach after Jesus reprimanded him for a particularly poor performance against Uzbek side Navbahor Namangan in the Champions League. Neymar didn’t get his way.
Elsewhere, Jota was dropped from Al-Ittihad’s Pro League squad after allegedly falling out with his club within weeks of his £25m move from Celtic and has been linked with a return to Europe, as have former Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder Rúben Neves and ex-Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino, who was initially named as Al-Ahli’s club captain but has been benched for seven consecutive league games after failing to score a single goal after a debut hat-trick against Al-Hazem, the league’s bottom side.
Most players linked with a move away from Saudi Arabia are toeing the party line in public and saying positive things, but between the largely indifferent attendances, the demanding and occasionally hostile crowds, the fractious internal politics at some clubs and the culture shock of moving to a country that is wildly different from Europe, it’s clear that a few players are learning that money can’t always buy happiness, especially when you already have plenty of it.
A few malcontents won’t be enough to scupper the entire project, of course, and Henderson’s potential departure from a club outside of the state-funded ‘big four’ won’t cause too many ripples. But if players like Benzema and Neymar end up leaving under acrimonious circumstances, it would send a very negative message to players considering a lucrative move to the Pro League in the future, and would paint both the league and the Kingdom in a poor light when they are keen to make sure that their sporting projects project a very positive image. Still, the money will continue to tempt overseas players into trying their hand at life in the Middle East. The ‘look’ will not be poor enough to puncture the Pro League’s upward trajectory on its own.
As for Henderson himself, if he does return to England, it will be with his tail tucked between his legs and his reputation as a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community in shreds. Few will forget the social media post which announced his transfer, an image of him wearing the rainbow armband with the armband greyed out. He will have to live with that – and a potentially punitive tax bill. It may make life harder for him given that few teams have an obvious need for a player in his position. The only major club linked with his signing has been Chelsea, who may want someone to cover Conor Gallagher if the midfielder is forced out of the club, but the link has been tenuous at best.
Perhaps a club further down the table would value his experience, but while his departure might be a bad look for the Pro League, it would be substantially worse for Henderson. The Pro League project will rumble on, but his own image will be tarnished for good by a move which has benefited nobody whatsoever.