Is criticism of Jordan Henderson's summer move to Saudi Arabia valid?

Published on 17 October 2023 at 13:00

The former Liverpool midfielder was booed off the field during his substitution, in England's 1-0 friendly win over Australia on Friday evening. He has received public backlash and media scrutiny since his £12m transfer to Al Ettifaq in the Saudi Arabian Pro League, but England manager Gareth Southgate has remained faithful to Henderson, condemning the booing as "defying logic". Is this the right action from Gareth Southgate or should the 53 year old be more considerate of the political implications of Henderson's surprise move to the Middle East?


In a unprecedented summer transfer window, which saw a pilgrimage of high profile stars switch elite European football for the riches of Saudi Arabia it was most shocking to see Jordan Henderson included. The 33 year old has been a dependant workhorse in Liverpool's midfield since 2011, making 492 appearances and captaining his team to their first Premier League title in 31 years. However, it has been a transitional summer for Jurgen Klopp who has lead a complete midfield overhaul, leading to a mass exodus of stars including Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chainbelin, James Milner, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson himself.


He decided to re-unite with former Liverpool teammate and recently announced Al Ettifaq manager Steven Gerrard in Dammam at Al Ettifaq. The England international signed an intial two year deal, where he will be paid a staggering £700,000 a week to become the highest paid English footballer. 

This has sparked an aggressive outburst of criticism from a wide audience of people regarding the former Sunderland youth product's England future and his political standpoint.


LGBTQ + advocator :

Henderson has been a vocal supporter for the LGBTQ + community within sport, promoting greater "inclusivity" within the game and joined the rainbow lace campaign. However, his move to a country where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death, has severely damaged his reputation as an ambassador and ally for LGBTQ + groups.

LGBTQ group 3LionsPride stated after his transfer to Saudi Arabia:

"Beyond disappointed. A sell out like Becks. Looks like we're back to one banner."

For these LGBTQ and human rights groups Jordan Henderson being given the captaincy against Australia by Gareth Southgate, while representing a team whose country follows abhorrent and medieval laws is offensive and immoral. In joining Saudi Arabia, it appears as if the footballer has turned his back on these prejudiced groups and he can no longer be a role model that represents "everyone".

Henderson expressed his understanding towards people booing him:

"no I haven't been surprised by that [booing] I can understand the reasons in what they're saying"

"I'm playing football in a different country in Saudi Arabia, where I want to improve the game on and off the pitch but also things off the pitch"

The Champions League winner has always insisted since joining Al Ettifaq that he is committed to creating change in Saudi Arabia and has expressed his determination to raise awareness for marginalised groups. He hoped that his move could be a positive step where his "values" could open up conversation and consideration.

However, the roar of boos in his first home game since the move on the 63 minute when he was substituted imply that England fans feel betrayed by the number 10, where they question his morale's. 

It seems he has only damaged this relationship further when he showed his support and endorsement for a World Cup being held in Saudi Arabia in 2034.

He stated in the post match new conference on Friday;

"It is exciting times for them [Saudi Arabia] as a country"

While, Henderson insists the motivations behind his move where purely "football" reasoning rather than financial it is easy to see why the controversial move can be seen as insensitive and ill-timed.


Joining an inferior league :

England have arguably never had a stronger squad, which is brimming with a depth of quality across the pitch. This high level of competition and incessant desire from England fans to win a trophy has intensified scrutiny around managerial selection and player form. Harry Maguire and Kalvin Phillips are two examples of players who have played a combined 186 minutes of football and yet are still included by Southgate based on merit alone. 

Read more: Will Kalvin Phillips come good at City?

Henderson's decision to join Saudi Arabia, almost single-handily saw his abandonment of playing elite football and was interpreted by many as a act of surrender playing competitive football. And yet the midfielder has been called up for both of England's international breaks in September and October since his summer move.

This has been at the expense of players such as in form West Ham midfielder James Ward-Prowse who has five goals and assists since his £30m move from Southampton this summer.

In fairness to Henderson, he has four assists in eight games for his new club and he been a long-serving, consistent performer for England helping the Three Lions reach the final of Euro 2020 and the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup. However, it's becoming more and more difficult to defend his position for Gareth Southgate, while the Saudi Pro League still garnishes the reputation as a flashy retirement home.

Read more: England Squad Announcement: Is there any case for Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson, Kalvin Phillips and Jordan Pickford to keep making the team

Ultimately, it is understandable to see why the England fans booed the 33 year old given the political implications of his transfer to Saudi Arabia represents. Although, it is unfair to single out the midfielder when a cohort of high profile individuals like Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Neymar all endorse the Gulf country. What is known is that while Gareth Southgate is the England manager for Euro 2024, Henderson has a chance of being in the squad given the manager's beliefs in loyalty and merit over form. Southgate's defiant defence of his player epitomises his personality as a supportive and honest man, but it is a risk from the England manager who in the past has been very vocal on political matters such as Black Lives Matters and racism. Does he appear hypocritical prioritising the welfare of Henderson over sensitive political issues regarding Saudi Arabia or he is simply dethatching the two subjects and trying to dissolve the situation.


Written by Lewis Eadie

Twitter - @The_BeautGame1

Instagram - @the_beautgame1

Add comment


There are no comments yet.