Former Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson spoke out this week for the first time since he opted to leave for Saudi Arabia club Al Ettifaq, a move that has led to significant criticism, especially from the LGBTQ community.
Henderson has been a vocal advocate for the LGBTQ community throughout his career. Yet since he joined the Saudi Pro League on a reported $16.3 million deal this summer, he has been hit with backlash due to the country’s horrific human rights record — when it comes to the LGBTQ community and otherwise.
Henderson is back in England this month with the national team, and a fan group is already planning to protest his move should he appear in games against Ukraine or Scotland, per ESPN.
While he understands why he’s being criticized and apologized for his move Henderson also tried to defend his jump.
“All I’ve ever tried to do is help,” Henderson told The Athletic. “And when I’ve been asked for help, I’ve gone above and beyond to help. I’ve worn the laces. I’ve worn the armband. I’ve spoken to people in that community to try to use my profile to help them. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do.
“I’m not going to sit here saying, ‘Why are they criticizing me?’ I understand it. These are all the things I was thinking about, and I do care. When I hear stuff like, ‘You’ve turned your back on us,’ that hurts me. I do care. I have family and friends in the LGBTQ+ community … I’m comfortable knowing exactly what I am and exactly what I stand for. But I get and I can accept not everyone’s going to get that. So that’s why I can only apologize to those people if they feel like that.”
Henderson was involved with the “Rainbow Laces” campaign while at Liverpool, where he spent 12 seasons dating to 2011, and he frequently wore a rainbow armband while playing.
Yet when he joined Al Ettifaq, the club photoshopped an image of Henderson for their introduction posts to hide that rainbow armband.
“I didn’t know anything about it until it was out,” Henderson said of the photo, via The Athletic. “And it’s hard for me to know and understand everything because it is part of the religion. So if I wear the rainbow armband, if that disrespects their religion, then that’s not right either. Everybody should be respectful of religion and culture. That’s what I think we’re all trying to fight for here in terms of inclusion and everything.
“You know, years ago, for instance, women or kids probably couldn’t play football, but now I’m over there and there’s loads of women and girls playing football, so slowly things can change. I can’t promise anything, but what I can do is sit here and say I have my values and beliefs. And I strongly believe that me playing in Saudi Arabia is a positive thing.”
LGBTQ rights have been front and center in soccer over the past year, especially at last year’s World Cup in Qatar — where, like in Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is criminalized. Several European teams had plans to wear rainbow-colored anti-discrimination captain’s armbands at the tournament, though they bailed at the last second after FIFA threatened them with sanctions. FIFA reportedly forced Belgium to remove the word “love” from the collar of their jerseys, too. A Los Angeles Times journalist was told by police that he couldn’t wear a rainbow-colored mask while covering the U.S. men’s national team in Qatar, and longtime soccer journalist Grant Wahl — who died at the tournament of a ruptured aortic aneurysm — said he was detained over a rainbow shirt at the World Cup.
Henderson denied claims that he left for Saudi Arabia only for the money and that he could have stayed at Liverpool. Instead, he said, it was the chance to play under former teammate Steven Gerrard in a developing league that drew him in.
And even though he’s receiving criticism for making the jump, Henderson insists he isn't going to ignore the issues like some — including soccer players, some LIV Golf members and more — have done.
Hopefully, he said, he can help push the country forward.
“I’m not a politician. I never have been and never wanted to be,” he said, via The Athletic. “I have never tried to change laws or rules in England, never mind in a different country where I’m not from. So I’m not saying that I’m going there to do that. But what I’m saying is people know what my values are and the people who know me know what my values are. And my values don’t change because I’m going to a different country where the laws of the country might be different.
“Now, I see that as a positive thing. I see that because, from [the Saudi] side, they knew that before signing it. So they knew what my beliefs were. They knew what causes and campaigns I’ve done in the past, and not once was it brought up. Not once have they said, ‘You can do this. You can’t do this.’ And I think it can only be a positive thing to try to open up like around Qatar. In the end, around Qatar, having a World Cup there shined a light on certain issues, where I think in the end, I might be wrong, but they changed some rules and regulations to be able to host the World Cup, and I think that’s positive. That’s the way you try to create positive change.”