Saudi’s soccer dream suffers a setback with star departure

Saudi's soccer dream suffers a setback with star departure

Saudi’s soccer dream suffers a setback with star departure

Jordan Henderson acknowledges the crowd after the Saudi Pro League match between Al-Ettifaq and Damak at Prince Mohamed bin Fahd Stadium on Sept. 2, 2023 in Ad Dammam, Saudi Arabia.

Francois Nel | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

England international Jordan Henderson abruptly ended his playing time in Saudi Arabia’s Pro League, dealing a blow to the kingdom’s ambitious plans to make its domestic league an international soccer hub.

Former Liverpool captain Henderson on Thursday signed a two-and-a-half-year deal with Dutch side Ajax shortly after the 33-year-old agreed to mutually terminate his contract with Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ettifaq.

Henderson’s U-turn on playing in the Saudi Pro League comes six months after his controversial decision to sign with the club. He had reportedly been unhappy after failing to settle in the country.

Henderson’s hasty exit from Saudi Arabia marks the end of “a miserable episode in a previously exemplary career,” according to BBC Sport’s chief soccer writer, and raises questions about both the midfielder’s reputation as well as the image of the Saudi Pro League.

“I’m sad to say that I will be leaving Al Ettifaq with immediate effect,” Henderson said Thursday via social media. “It wasn’t an easy decision but one that I feel is best for me and my family.”

He added: “I want to take this opportunity to thank the club & the fans for all the support during my time. I really felt the love from Day One. I’ll keep watching & hoping for your success. Good luck for the future.”

In an interview released by Ajax shortly afterward, Henderson described a “crazy” last few days as a “whirlwind” but that he was now excited to begin a “new chapter” in his career and life.

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Henderson had been one of many high-profile players to have moved to Saudi Arabia last summer, with former Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema and ex-Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kante also making the switch.

Saudi Arabia has spent an extraordinary amount on recruiting soccer stars to bolster domestic competition in recent years, as well as making massive investments in sports such as Formula One, golf, tennis and boxing.

Critics have repeatedly accused Riyadh of “sportswashing,” or using sports to distract from human rights abuses in the country. Saudi officials have consistently denied these claims.

Reputational damage

Henderson’s early departure from Saudi Arabia prompted many to speculate about the potential reputational damage to the country’s top domestic league.

“His exit has also hurt the image of the Saudi Pro League to the outside world, something it can ill-afford so early in its development and with the country determined to use it as the launchpad for its bid to stage the 2034 World Cup,” said Phil McNulty, chief soccer writer at BBC Sport.

In a statement issued on Henderson’s exit, Saad Allazeez, the vice-chairman and interim chief executive of the Saudi Pro League, said: “This is all just part of football, all across the world and life, across all careers. Sometimes despite best efforts people don’t always adjust or settle and that can impact performances and lead to frustrations for all.”

“Jordan is a good guy and it’s a shame that things didn’t work out for him, but he’d be the first to admit that full support was given to him and respect shown. So everyone tried and no one is to blame,” Allazeez continued, according to The Associated Press.

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Shortly after Henderson’s exit from Al-Ettifaq was confirmed, the club said Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard had signed a two-year contract extension to stay as head coach of Al-Ettifaq until 2027.

On moving to Saudi Arabia last year, some criticized Henderson — who had been an advocate for human rights and a vocal supporter of the LGBTQ+ community — of “self-inflicted reputational damage” by moving to a country where same-sex sexual activity is criminalized.

Henderson said he had been “really hurt” by the backlash to his move, adding that his intention “has always been to help causes and communities.”

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