Jordan Henderson’s Saudi Arabia U-turn can’t save his ruined reputation

The former Liverpool captain tarnished his legacy when he sacrificed his values for the chance to move to Saudi Arabia – now he is looking for a way out, was it really worth it?

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Wednesday 17 January 2024 12:21 GMT
Related video: Top 10 Highest Earners In The Saudi Pro League

The welcome suggested they were Anfield’s favourite spectators. Fabinho, the ‘lighthouse’ of Jurgen Klopp’s first great Liverpool team, and Roberto Firmino, the spirit animal and tactical fulcrum, were back at their former home for the first time. A filthy night on New Year’s Day presumably offered an indication of what they almost certainly don’t miss – the relentless driving rain – and what they might: an irresistible Liverpool performance and a brilliant, high-tempo game against Newcastle.

Was it like that when Firmino’s Al-Ahli beat Fabinho’s Al-Ittihad in October? Meteorologically, no. The football was probably very different, too, though the chances are that most of us cannot say for certain. The Saudi Pro League lured many of football’s biggest names; Saudi Arabia may become the centre of the footballing world in the future, though it would be instructive to know how many tune in for its matches now. But on New Year’s Day, Anfield felt the place to be.

Jordan Henderson’s departure would be expensive for him and embarrassing for his club (Getty Images)

Perhaps Firmino thinks so; maybe Jordan Henderson, too, though the most eye-catching and controversial of the departures from Liverpool has not yet made his comeback. The former Liverpool – and current Al-Ettifaq – captain has spent his time on the French ski slopes of Val d’Isere instead.

Yet the indications are that, like Firmino but with a very different context, he is eyeing Europe in January for other reasons. For the Brazilian, it has been an undignified decline: he is now on the bench for Al-Ahli. Henderson is a constant in Steven Gerrard’s flatlining team – though he may be concerned precisely how much longer it is Gerrard’s side – but is apparently hankering after a return.

Henderson and Roberto Firmino swapped Liverpool for Saudi Arabia this summer (Getty)

Amid talk of a struggle to settle in a very different country – or two, as Henderson is living in Bahrain, not Saudi Arabia – the football has proved far inferior. It looks inadequate preparation for Euro 2024 which, much as Gareth Southgate has defended Henderson’s recent performances for England, could put his place in doubt; a midfielder who relied on intensity and urgency feels ill-served by playing in a division with lower standards.

Meanwhile, Al-Ettifaq’s average attendance is 7,854; the defeat to Al-Riyadh was witnessed by a crowd of just 696. And Henderson, who had become one of the most admired people in football with his campaigning efforts off the pitch, has suffered self-inflicted reputational damage by moving to a repressive country, serving in an ambassadorial role for it, not least with his social media posts, and yet claiming his values remain intact.

It is almost as if the only reason to go to Saudi Arabia was money and now football’s Faustian pact is unravelling. Henderson has disputed the reports his salary is £700,000 a week; what can be said without fear of contradiction is that it is huge and that he is paid far above his market value. He is not alone in that but when Jurgen Klopp, a manager who finds eloquent ways of celebrating his Liverpool greats, failed to provide reassurances about Henderson’s position in his plans in the summer, it was indicative he felt he was a declining force. Liverpool’s resurgence this season with a younger midfield, with the energy the 33-year-old used to possess, supports that. Which, in turn, means the elite, and the clubs with the biggest budgets, are less likely to want Henderson now.

Henderson’s place in the England team is at risk ahead of the European Championships in June (Getty)

And so, in a country with a dreadful human rights record and a fondness for jailing people, Henderson and his ilk could find themselves prisoners of their contracts, stuck in the gilded cage of the Saudi Pro League. The LGBT+ community now has fewer reasons to launch a campaign to free Jordan Henderson.

Even if they did, it would cost him. Returning to the UK within the tax year would come at vast expense: foreigners’ salaries in Saudi Arabia are reportedly tax free providing they stay for two years, not decamp after six months.

Even if he is willing to make that sacrifice, leaving would require a colossal pay cut – and mid-table Premier League clubs would still pay more than the vast majority of continental European clubs – but also require Al Ettifaq to accede. It was immediately apparent they would never recoup his £12m transfer fee but it would be an embarrassing rejection for them if their marquee signing, the Liverpool captain, their status symbol, were to quit the club within a few months.

For Henderson to retain his current earning power, even if he is willing to pay tax, would need a second favour from a club who, with their wealth, have no particular need to grant it: for Al-Ettifaq to subsidise his departure, for them to pay the vast majority of his wages for him to play for someone else. It goes without saying that Al-Ettifaq can afford it: Henderson, after all, was not recruited to provide value for money. Nor has he.

But he was supposed to be a coup, a sign of Saudi Arabia’s pulling power. A few months on, with his standing diminished and Henderson looking for an exit strategy, it is still clearer the persuasiveness lay only in the pay packet. Now for Henderson and Al-Ettifaq alike, the question is whether it was all worth it.

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