SYDNEY — Jordan Henderson isn't the first soccer player to follow the money to Saudi Arabia.
Nor is he the biggest name to be lured to the oil-rich kingdom as part of an ambitious recruitment drive that began with the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo last December.
Yet the backlash sparked by his move from Liverpool to Al-Ettifaq on Thursday has been unlike any received by the slew of stars who have headed to the Saudi Pro League.
Advocates of LGBTQ+ rights feel let down by Henderson because he has been an outspoken supporter in the past.
“Your choice to side with our oppressors has seen most of (our) members absolutely shocked and angry," wrote Paul Amann, the founder of Kop Outs, Liverpool’s official LGBT+ Fans Group.
In the open letter published by the Liverpool Echo newspaper, he added: “Many find this choice unforgivable.”
Amnesty International cautions that in Saudi Arabia, members of the LGBT community, including foreigners "risk imprisonment and corporal punishment for same-sex relations, expressing their identity or support for LGBT rights.”
The former Liverpool captain signaled his support for inclusivity last October by wearing rainbow-colored laces as part of an initiative by LGBTQ+ campaign group Stonewall.
“The more we can understand, the more we can learn and the more we can stand together on issues like this, the more we will move towards the kind of inclusive society that is more welcoming of everyone," Henderson wrote at that time in Liverpool's matchday program.
While there is skepticism about Saudi's attempts to buy its way into international sports and the motivations of players to earn enormous salaries, there is nothing new about money talking loudest in soccer.
Henderson, however, had been celebrated for his social consciousness.
He was awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) by the late Queen Elizabeth II for his involvement in setting up a charitable fund for NHS workers during the coronavirus pandemic. He was among Premier League players who took a knee in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
Henderson has earned a reputation as a leader on and off the field for Liverpool and England throughout a trophy-laden career.
While his achievements as a player place him among Liverpool's greats, his decision to go to Saudi Arabia in light of the country's human rights record risks tarnishing his legacy.
“Henderson has a big problem to deal with because of his previous remarks in support of the LGBT+ community,” former Liverpool captain Jamie Carragher wrote in The Telegraph. “I fully understand that criticism and it is justified."
He added that Henderson has “difficult questions to answer."
Henderson will reportedly earn 700,000 pounds ($900,000) per week over the length of his three-year contract. Ronaldo's contract reportedly earns him up to $200 million a year.
As well as soccer, Saudi-funded LIV Golf has shaken up professional golf. However, critics have dismissed the efforts as “sportswashing,” attempting to leverage professional sports to clean up the kingdom’s image.
“With every major signing Saudi Arabia is seemingly ratcheting up its sportswashing effort, with the overall strategy apparently one where (Crown Prince) Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia is increasingly associated with sport and entertainment, not repression and human rights abuse," Amnesty International UK’s Economic Affairs director Peter Frankental told The Associated Press. “Jordan Henderson is of course free to play for whoever he chooses, but we would urge him to examine Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and be prepared to speak out about human rights violations in the country."
Stonewall believes Henderson's move could have a positive effect if he continues to support the LGBTQ+ community.
“As one of the first of this generation to accept a role in a country that is hostile to LGBTQ+ people, he has an opportunity to set a new blueprint for standing up for people’s rights,” Robbie de Santos, Stonewall director of communications and external affairs told The AP. "It is always right to take the lead from LGBTQ+ people in that country on the kind of advocacy that is going to be most effective in their context, so it is vital that he listens to LGBTQ+ people in Saudi Arabia and takes his cues from them.”
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson