AMSTERDAM (AP) — The lucrative Saudi soccer league lost one of its high-profile players on Thursday when England midfielder Jordan Henderson quit Al-Ettifaq to sign for struggling Dutch powerhouse Ajax.
Henderson, a former Liverpool captain, lasted just six months in Saudi Arabia after joining the influx of top players, led by Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, moving to the kingdom on big-money deals.
That wasn’t enough for the 33-year-old Henderson, who reportedly hasn’t settled in the Middle East and saw a return to European soccer as important in consolidating his place in England’s squad ahead of the summer’s European Championship.
“This is all just part of football, all across the world and life, across all careers. Sometimes despite best efforts people don’t always adjust or settle and that can impact performances and lead to frustrations for all,” said Saad Allazeez, the vice chairmand and interim CEO of the Saudi league.
“Jordan is a good guy and it’s a shame that things didn’t work out for him, but he’d be the first to admit that full support was given to him and respect shown. So everyone tried and no one is to blame,” Allazeez added.
It is a big signing for Ajax, whose young team is in need of an experienced midfield controller as it recovers from a disastrous start to the season.
“We really wanted an experienced midfielder with leadership qualities. Because of injuries, we also wanted somebody who could start immediately. Jordan Henderson is such a player,” coach John van ‘t Schip said in a written statement when Ajax confirmed the deal Thursday night. Henderson signed a contract through June 30, 2026, with the Amsterdam club. Financial details were not released.
In moving to Al-Ettifaq in July, Henderson joined another former Liverpool captain in Steven Gerrard, who manages the team. The move sparked a fierce backlash from the LGBTQ+ community in England and damaged his reputation to many.
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.”
“Your choice to side with our oppressors has seen most of (our) members absolutely shocked and angry,” Paul Amann, the founder of Kop Outs, Liverpool’s official LGBT+ Fans Group, wrote in an open letter after Henderson’s move to Al-Ettifaq was announced.
Henderson had previously signaled his support for inclusivity by wearing rainbow-colored laces as part of an initiative by LGBTQ+ campaign group Stonewall.
Henderson, who has made 81 appearances for England, struggled to lift his team in Saudi Arabia. Al-Ettifaq currently is in eighth place in the Saudi Pro League.
Al-Ettifaq said in a statement that the club and Henderson “mutually agreed to terminate the player’s contract with the club with immediate effect.”
“The club and Jordan believe this quick decision, without any delay or further distraction, has been made for both the overall good of the club and for Jordan,” the statement said.
His move to Amsterdam will mean a big pay cut for Henderson, whose three-year contract in Saudi Arabia reportedly banked him 700,000 pounds ($900,000) per week. Salaries are much lower than that at Ajax, though the team has raised wages in recent years in a bid to stay competitive with big-spending clubs elsewhere in Europe.
The four-time European champion has struggled this season just to remain competitive domestically. Ajax is heading back toward the upper reaches of the Dutch top flight Eredivisie after a disastrous start to the season that saw the club part company with coach Maurice Steijn after just winning just one of its first seven games of the season.
Since appointing former player Van ’t Schip as its new coach, Ajax has made steady progress up the table and now sits in fifth place. But it is still a whopping 23 points behind runaway leader PSV Eindhoven, which has won all 17 of its league matches so far this season and appears to have the title and a Champions League place all but locked up halfway through the Dutch domestic season.
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