Another day, another big name transfer to the newest ‘must visit’ destination for footballers who are either seeking a final payday in the sunset and are open about it, or are seeking a final payday in the sunset whilst attempting to mask their true motives behind the facade of ‘embracing a new challenge’.
Some recent moves to Saudi Arabia have been fairly predictable and in the pipeline for a while. Others have been less so, but the latest is one hell of a shock, to put it mildly.
It’s obvious the Saudi money has been too great a temptation to resist for a player who had established himself as one of the foremost voices when it comes to promoting openness, tolerance and equality within the sport that we all love.
As recently as 2022, Jordan Henderson was voicing enthusiastic support for the much-heralded ‘Rainbow Laces’ campaign, using his role as Liverpool captain and England international as a platform from which to effect positive change and ensure that football was truly a game for all.
However, now that Henderson has succumbed to the Saudi dollars and all but secured a move to a league that’s luring top quality footballers at an alarming rate, the picture has changed and to say that it feels like a misstep from the midfielder is something of an understatement.
He’ll be joining up with former Liverpool teammate Steven Gerrard at Al Ettifaq, and when formally unveiled, you suspect there’ll be plenty of the usual platitudes about ‘the appeal of this league’, and how it’s a ‘wonderful chance to experience a different culture’.
Whether one of his new paymasters will be standing just off camera offering tips on what to say is unconfirmed, but it’s sure to be as fascinating as it’ll be depressing.
So, how does this whole thing bear in relation to what came before it?
For one thing, it brings an end to any lingering hopes we might’ve had of him coming back to Wearside, slotting into our midfield and leading us to Premier League promotion (not that it was ever a realistic possibility, in my view).
However, the fact that such a respected and esteemed player who captained Liverpool to domestic and European glory has joined the other big names in the Middle East shifts the goalposts, without a doubt.
It’s obvious that casting a pall over world football under the guise of showing a positive and progressive vision of their brutally oppressive regime is now a growing obsession for the Saudis.
Following hot on the heels of LIV Golf, major injections of petrodollars into boxing and F1, and of course their takeover of Newcastle United, they’re now trying to build their own domestic league into a superpower, throwing seemingly limitless sums of money at any player they choose.
After twelve years at Liverpool, eight of them as captain, surely Henderson is financially secure. He’ll doubtless have made a substantial amount via endorsements and wages, and one would assume that this is merely topping up what’s almost certain to be a sizeable bank balance.
Make no mistake: Henderson still has plenty to give on the pitch, and it feels as though he’s making an extremely premature exit from the elite level.
In addition, to the counter argument of, ‘For that kind of money, anyone would sell their morals and bid their principles goodbye’, you could respond- is that really true?
Lionel Messi could’ve written his own paycheques had he opted for a Saudi switch after leaving PSG; Tottenham forward Son Heung Min has also slapped down any rumours of a move to that league, and there’ll doubtless be others who reject the overtures, keen to play their prime years in leagues of higher quality and with European competition to sweeten the deal.
One would assume that this also throws Henderson’s international career into major doubt, not least because of the potentially awkward PR fallout Gareth Southgate would encounter by selecting a player from that division.
The England boss has done sterling work of his own in helping to promote the positive values of football, and having one of your key midfielders plying his trade in a country where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment or even execution is probably a bridge too far, meaning Henderson’s England career is likely to end in low key fashion.
The final point I’d make concerns the eternal dilemma of whether athletes should be simply admired for their prowess in their chosen sport, or whether the way they live their lives should serve as an example to follow for fans of all ages, creeds and backgrounds.
In the early 1990s, the notoriously confrontational NBA star Charles Barkley filmed a Nike commercial in which he proclaimed that athletes shouldn’t be considered as role models, a stance for which he was lambasted at the time.
Fast forward thirty years, however, and Barkley’s words, in the context of this Saudi propaganda campaign disguised as elite sport, have an added weight. Henderson is respected and loved by vast swathes of football fans across the country, and rightly so, such have been his achievements on the field and his successes off it.
That he’d seemingly turn his back on the principles that have elevated him to such a status is sad, but it’s also proof of why, despite admiring footballers, we should never, ever use them as templates for how we live our own lives.
Morals and values, no matter how strong, can be influenced if the cheque is big enough. It’s a sad indictment of modern football, but the genie is out of the bottle and things may never be the same again.