England midfielder Jordan Henderson says he was “really hurt” after being criticised for joining Al-Ettifaq.
His move has been criticised by some LGBTQ+ campaigners, as same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Saudi Arabia.
“My intention was never, ever to hurt anyone. My intention has always been to help causes and communities,” Henderson told the Athletic.
“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.
“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.”
The 33-year-old wrote a long piece for the Liverpool matchday programme in November 2021, expressing support for Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign.
With his Saudi switch, Henderson has reunited with former Liverpool team-mate Steven Gerrard, who was appointed manager of Al-Ettifaq in July.
Henderson said: “I’ve gone above and beyond to help [the LGBTQ+ community]. I’ve worn the laces. I’ve worn the armband. I’ve spoken to people in that community to try to use my profile to help them. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do.
“When I hear stuff like, ‘You’ve turned your back on us’, that hurts me. I do care. I have family and friends in the LGBTQ+ community.”
Henderson said he would not rule out wearing rainbow laces in Saudi Arabia, insisting the gesture aligns with his values, but does not want to be disrespectful.
When his switch to Al-Ettifaq was announced, the club released a welcome video on social media with a montage of Henderson’s career, but it appeared that his rainbow armband had been greyed out.
“I didn’t know anything about it until it was out,” Henderson said. “It’s hard for me to know and understand everything because it is part of the religion.
“So if I wear the rainbow armband, if that disrespects their religion, then that’s not right either. Everybody should be respectful of religion and culture.”
Talking about what persuaded him to head to Saudi Arabia, Henderson said he was attracted by the prospect of trying to grow the game he loves in another country and said nothing would change by criticising another country from afar while burying “our heads in the sand”.
Henderson added: “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.”
‘I did not feel wanted’
Henderson joined Liverpool from his boyhood club Sunderland in 2011 and went on to make 492 appearances, becoming captain and winning seven major titles, including the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and EFL Cup.
His position at the club came under the spotlight after failing to secure a regular starting role under Jurgen Klopp in the 2022-23 campaign.
The arrivals of Dominik Szoboszlai and Alexis Mac Allister early in the summer transfer window suggested the skipper’s game time would continue to be limited this season, and he no longer felt secure in his position at the club.
Henderson said: “If one of those people [at Liverpool] said to me, ‘Now we want you to stay’, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
“Now, that’s not to say that they forced me out of the club or they were saying they wanted me to leave but at no point did I feel wanted by the club or anyone to stay.”
‘Money not the motivation’
Henderson has joined some of football’s biggest names by moving to Saudi Arabia.
Five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo was the first notable figure to make the switch when he left Manchester United for Al Nassr in December 2022.
Al-Ittihad boast a star-studded squad with former Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema and France World Cup winner N’Golo Kante among their ranks, while they are still hoping to snap up Liverpool star Mohamed Salah.
Roberto Firmino, who left Liverpool after his contract expired, plays alongside Senegal goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and former Manchester winger Riyad Mahrez with Al-Ahli.
Meanwhile, Brazil international Neymar, former Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves and ex-Chelsea defender Kalidou Koulibaly turn out for Al-Hilal, although they failed to secure the services of Paris St-Germain striker Kylian Mbappe after lodging a world record £259m bid.
Reports suggested Henderson was being paid £700,000-per-week – four times what he was earning at Liverpool – but he denied those claims.
“People can believe me or not, but in my life and my career, money has never been a motivation. Ever,” he said.
England ambition remains the same
Since moving to Al-Ettifaq Henderson has featured four times, winning three games and drawing one with his new club, but his focus this week has turned to international football after being named in Gareth Southgate’s England squad for fixtures against Ukraine and Scotland.
The Three Lions face Ukraine in Poland on Saturday in a Euro 2024 qualifier and take on Scotland in a friendly at Hampden Park on 12 September.
Henderson has made 77 appearances for England and felt staying at Liverpool without regular football may have impacted his hopes of staying in Southgate’s plans, especially with next summer’s European Championship in mind.
“I spoke to the manager, who was very good. It wasn’t so much to check because I knew I didn’t really want to put him in the position where he would guarantee that I’d be playing for England. He couldn’t do that,” Henderson said.