Former Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson has made a non-apology apology to the LGBTQ+ community following his move to Saudi Arabia this summer.
The 33-year-old brought to an end a 12-year stay at Anfield in which he won every major trophy by finalising a three-year deal with reported wages of up to £700,000 a week.
Liverpool received an initial £12million for the England international from Al-Ettifaq, who has been reunited with his former team-mate Steven Gerrard, the manager of the Saudi Pro League club.
Henderson’s move has attracted criticism due to his long-time support of LGBTQ+ issues and the Premier League’s Rainbow Laces campaign.
Homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, while the state stands accused of a host of other abuses including placing harsh restrictions on women’s rights and the right to political protest.
Asked by The Athletic whether he’d just gone to Al-Ettifaq for the money, Henderson replied: “That was the hardest thing. People will see this club come with loads of money and he’s just gone, ‘Yeah, I’m going.’ When in reality that just wasn’t the case at all. People can believe me or not, but in my life and my career, money has never been a motivation. Ever.
“Don’t get me wrong, when you move, the business deal has to be tight. You have to have financials, you have to feel wanted, you have to feel valued. And money is a part of that. But that wasn’t the sole reason. And these possibilities came up before money was even mentioned.”
On rumours he’s earning £700k a week in Saudi Arabia, the former Liverpool midfielder added: “No. I wish it was (laughs). No, honestly, the numbers just aren’t true. But again, it had to work out for us financially as well. I’m not saying that it didn’t and I’m not saying, ‘Oh, I’m not on good money’ because it’s good money and it was a good deal but it wasn’t the numbers that were reported. No.
“Stevie never mentioned money. Everything I spoke to Stevie about was football and the project. And he actually said he didn’t want to get involved in any of the money stuff. It was all about what we could do together to achieve something special and build a club and build the league.”
On whether he’d had second thoughts on moving to Al-Ettifaq over the backlash from LGBTQ+ groups, responded: “Every day. It was a difficult time, definitely. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. It was just difficult to make that decision.
“I’d been at a club for so long, a club that I love and have a lot of respect for the fans, the owners, the manager, my team-mates — to leave my team-mates was a big thing. But in the end, I felt as though it was the right thing for them as well.
“But from the outside and people who don’t know me, then it’s a lot more challenging to understand. There can be a lot of criticism, a lot of negativity around me as a person. And that was difficult to take.
“But I just feel as though, because I do care about different causes that I’ve been involved in, and different communities… I do care. And for people to criticise and say that I’d turned my back on them really, really hurt me.”
Questioned on what his second thoughts were about, Henderson continued: “Everything. About the situation with the LGBTQ+ community and with everything that is being reported in Saudi, my family, footballing decisions, team-mates.
“And again, I’m not just saying this for people to think, ‘Oh yeah…’ I’m just trying to give you some insight into what it was like. I spoke to so many different people that I trust, who know me, who will challenge me.”
On what persuaded him to go through with the move, Henderson expanded: “I think there was always going to be criticism regardless of what I did, whether I stayed, whether I went. So basically I had to make the decision on what was best for me and my family.
“So the football is the football side. So do I go somewhere to try something new, to grow the game that I love in another country, and grow the league into one of the best in the world? That excites me because I want to grow the sport all over the world. And that got me going, really.
“And obviously the LGBTQ+ community. I can understand the frustration. I can understand the anger. I get it. All I can say around that is that I’m sorry that they feel like that. My intention was never, ever to hurt anyone.
“My intention has always been to help causes and communities where I felt like they have asked for my help. Now, when I was making the decision, the way that I tried to look at it was I felt as though, by myself not going, we can all bury our heads in the sand and criticise different cultures and different countries from afar. But then nothing’s going to happen. Nothing’s going to change.”
On whether he hopes to bring about positive change in Saudi Arabia, Henderson said: “I think people know what my views and values were before I left and still do now. And I think having someone with those views and values in Saudi Arabia is only a positive thing.”
When asked if he’d actually seen or heard any evidence of change since the World Cup was held in the Middle East, Henderson replied: “Firstly, I’m not a politician. I never have been and never wanted to be. 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 their (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. And I’m not saying that I can do that. I’m one person.”
Joe White, the co-chair of Pride in Football and founder of Three Lions Pride, believes Henderson will not receive a hostile reception when he plays for England in the international break but warned that his presence on the pitch could be greeted with a symbolic gesture “in the same way he turned his back on us”.
When asked about the possibility of England fans turning their back on him, Henderson said: “It hurts to hear that. I do care. I’m not one of these people who goes home, forgets about everything and is just like, ‘I’m fine, my family is fine, just crack on.’ I do think about things a lot.
“But at the same time, I knew people can look at it like that and they’re entitled to their opinion, they’re entitled to feel like that. All I can say is that I apologise, I’m sorry that I’ve made them feel that way. But I haven’t changed as a person.”