Saudi Arabia's soccer dream suffers a setback with high-profile departure

Jordan Henderson acknowledges the gang 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 worldwide Jordan Henderson abruptly ended his taking part in time in Saudi Arabia’s Pro League, dealing a blow to the dominion’s ambitious plans to make its home league a world soccer hub.

Former Liverpool captain Henderson on Thursday signed a two-and-a-half 12 months with Dutch aspect Ajax shortly after the 33-year-old agreed to mutually terminate his contract with Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ettifaq.

Henderson’s U-turn on taking part in within the Saudi Pro League comes six months after his controversial choice to signal with the membership. He had reportedly been sad after failing to settle within the nation.

Henderson’s hasty exit from Saudi Arabia marks the top of “a miserable episode in a previously exemplary career,” in response to BBC Sport’s chief soccer author, and raises questions on each the midfielder’s popularity in addition to the picture of the Saudi Pro League.

“I’m unhappy to say that I might be leaving Al Ettifaq with speedy impact,” Henderson said Thursday by way of social media. “It wasn’t a simple choice however one which I really feel is finest for me and my household.”

He added: “I wish to take this chance to thank the membership & the followers for all of the help throughout my time. I actually felt the love from Day One. I’ll hold watching & hoping to your success. Good luck for the long run.”

In an interview launched by Ajax shortly afterward, Henderson described a “loopy” previous few days as a “whirlwind” however that he was now excited to start a “new chapter” in his profession and life.

Henderson had been one in every of many high-profile gamers to have moved to Saudi Arabia final summer time, with former Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema and ex-Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kante additionally making the swap.

Saudi Arabia has spent an extraordinary amount on recruiting soccer stars to bolster home competitors lately, in addition to making huge investments in sports activities akin to Formula One, golf, tennis and boxing.

Critics have repeatedly accused Riyadh of “sportswashing,” or utilizing sports activities to distract from human rights abuses within the nation. Saudi officers have consistently denied these claims.

Reputational injury

Henderson’s early departure from Saudi Arabia prompted many to invest in regards to the potential reputational injury to the nation’s high home league.

“His exit has additionally damage the picture of the Saudi Pro League to the skin world, one thing it might probably ill-afford so early in its growth and with the nation decided to make use of it because the launchpad for its bid to stage the 2034 World Cup,” said Phil McNulty, chief soccer author at BBC Sport.

In a assertion issued on Henderson’s exit, Saad Allazeez, the vice-chairman and interim chief govt of the Saudi Pro League, stated: “This is all simply a part of soccer, all the world over and life, throughout all careers. Sometimes regardless of finest efforts individuals do not at all times alter or settle and that may affect performances and result in frustrations for all.”

“Jordan is a good man and it is a disgrace that issues did not work out for him, however he’d be the primary to confess that full help was given to him and respect proven. So everybody tried and nobody is in charge,” Allazeez continued, in response to The Associated Press.

Why Saudi Arabia is pumping billions of dollars into pro soccer

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

On transferring to Saudi Arabia final 12 months, some criticized Henderson — who had been an advocate for human rights and a vocal supporter of the LGBTQ+ neighborhood — of “self-inflicted reputational damage” by transferring to a nation the place same-sex sexual exercise is criminalized.

Henderson stated he had been “really hurt” by the backlash to his transfer, including that his intention “has at all times been to assist causes and communities.”

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