An LGBTQ+ Saudi activist has slammed Jordan Henderson over his lukewarm apology to queer fans and called on the footballer to “pay reparations” to the community.
Speaking exclusively with the i, Wajeeh Lion – who describes himself as the first openly queer Saudi – said: “If he actually wants to fix his image, he needs to pay reparations. He needs to pay reparations for the Saudi LGBT community that he committed to advocating for.”
The former Liverpool captain and England midfielder has been embroiled in controversy since July 2023, after he left Liverpool to sign with Saudi Arabia Pro League side Al-Ettifaq in a deal thought to be worth about £12 million ($15 million).
Henderson – who made 492 appearances for Liverpool during his 12 years with the club – was hit with a barrage of backlash by LGBTQ+ football fans over the move.
In Saudi Arabia it is illegal to be LGBTQ+ and the Gulf nation has a long and bloody history of anti-queer violence and human rights abuses, with many pointing out that the country is using sportswashing tactics – such as hosting the 2034 World Cup – to sanitise its image.
Saudi Arabia’s poor record on LGBTQ+ rights stands in direct contrast with Henderson’s years of proud allyship and support of inclusion in football, such as promoting Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign.
Jordan Henderson of Al-Ettifaq looks on during the Saudi Pro League match between Al-Ettifaq and Damak at Prince Mohamed bin Fahd Stadium on 2 September 2023 in Ad Dammam, Saudi Arabia. (Francois Nel/Getty Images)
The flames of controversy were further fanned when Henderson defended the move in an interview with The Athletic, saying it was not for money and even suggesting he could bring positive change to Saudi Arabia – which many people viewed as deeply naive.
Queer activist Lion’s comments come after Henderson quit the Dammam-based side after just six months and has now moved to Dutch club Ajax on a two and a half year deal.
In a press conference addressing the criticism from the LGBTQ+ community, Henderson said: “If anyone was offended or feels I have upset them, that’s on me, that was my decision, and I apologise for that. That was never my intention. I just want to look forward now and be the best player I can be for Ajax.”
“Listen, I said six months ago, if I offended anybody or let them down then I apologise for that. I will apologise again,” he added. “But my beliefs have never changed and never will. Again, I can only apologise if people feel let down, but I have not changed as a person and never have.”
Hitting out at the footballer, Lion said he wants to see “actions” from Henderson, not just words.
“I want you to put the money where your mouth is. You said you’re going to go into Saudi Arabia and help the LGBT community. You went to Saudi Arabia and you got out. How about you create a fund for the LGBT community?”
“I think he has a lot of work to do in order to fix his public image,” Lion added, explaining that he wants Henderson to admit he went to Saudi Arabia for “personal gains and was not to improve social justice” in country.
Lion told the i: “He did not provide any service. When you tell me you’re going to Saudi Arabia to improve our rights, when in reality you’re just there to pick a ball and make some money? I’m going to call you out on it.
“Someone going [to Saudi Arabia] to make a change would have created a fund, an educational website, would have connected himself with an international LGBT human rights organisation to deliver some messages.
“But none of that happened. He has not said a single thing about the LGBT community in Saudi Arabia, and not a single advocacy to change a single law in Saudi Arabia, because he was there to get paid by the Saudi government. They were literally his bosses.”
Henderson was not the first top flight player to make the move to Saudi Arabia, and a raft of other big names have joined the Saudi Pro League for mega money deals.
Lion added: “He makes it look like other players could also just say: ‘I’m gonna go and make some changes in Saudi Arabia.’ That’s what you tell people.
“You go there, you say that, you copy and paste the Saudi rhetoric.”