Over the rainbow? Will Jordan Henderson really sell his soul for Saudi Arabia gold?

Jordan Henderson wearing rainbow armband
Jordan Henderson wearing rainbow armband

Thankfully the honour ultimately went to Conor Coady so the British LGBT+ awards committee will not have to bang on Jordan Henderson’s door to reclaim the Football Ally prize for which he was nominated in 2021. They would be well-advised not to follow him to Saudi Arabia, where same-sex relationships are illegal and can be punishable by death.

As Henderson ponders a move to the Middle East for a four-fold rise in his salary, we would offer more than a penny for the thoughts of Keith Spooner, the gay Liverpool fan who was told by Henderson that ‘if wearing the #RainbowLaces armband helps even just one person then it’s progress. Everyone is welcome at Liverpool Football Club’. Or non-binary England fan Joe White, who was ensured by Henderson that ‘no one should be afraid to go and support their club or country because football is for everyone no matter what’.

That sounds rather a lot like bollocks now as Henderson is ‘wrestling with the dilemma’ of whether to join Steven Gerrard in Saudi Arabia for a massive pile of money.

Not wrestling with his conscience, it seems, but ‘weighing up the immediate benefits of a lucrative deal in the Saudi league – where he would join former team-mate Roberto Firmino and a host of other big names – against the wrench of walking out of Liverpool right now’ (Telegraph) and ‘worrying about his England place with the Euro ’24 finals coming up at the end of the season’ (MailOnline).

Henderson would become the first England international to make the switch and that would be a Rubicon moment for the Saudi League, which has so far proved attractive largely to Muslim players, has-beens and Ruben Neves. And Henderson is no ordinary England international but an outspoken, eloquent man who has been an ally not just of the LGBT+ community but also women’s football, as well as earning himself an MBE for his NHS fund-raising efforts during Covid. In short, he is/was one of the good guys.

Of course, Henderson may yet turn down the chance to move to Al-Ettifaq and this very public deliberation may yet be a ploy to coax assurances from Jurgen Klopp, but the fact that the idea has not been dismissed out of hand is galling. How many thousands of pounds a week buys acceptance of a culture and legal system that goes against everything you supposedly stand against? 300? 500?

To quote the Human Dignity Trust on this new powerful football nation:

‘Saudi Arabia criminalises same-sex sexual activity between men and between women. The gender expression of trans people is also criminalised. Sentences include a maximum penalty of death. There is evidence of the law being enforced in recent years, and LGBT people are regularly subjected to discrimination and violence.’

It’s one thing playing in Qatar with England – though backing down on the One Love armband still rankles – but entirely another to take the Saudi Arabian coin and play in a country with such an appalling human rights record. That would be reprehensible.

“You’ve got to be satisfied in your own mind and know what you’re doing you think is right and go with that,” said Henderson when quizzed ahead of the World Cup following the Australian squad’s outspoken video criticising the host nation.

Indeed. And if Henderson comes to the conclusion that £560,000 a week is the price of being ‘satisfied’ then his ‘ally’ status should absolutely be revoked. And Keith Spooner and Joe White will be among the many entitled to an explanation.