Saudi football ‘sportswashing’ and using multi-million-pound deals to distract from human rights issues

Jordan Henderson

If you have kept even half an eye on recent transfer deals in football, you’ll have noticed a growing trend: more and more top players are moving to clubs in Saudi Arabia – much to the disappointment of LGBTQ+ activists and fans. 

Players from across the game have taken eye-watering amounts of money to join the Saudi Pro League, moves which have been criticised as supporting “sportswashing”. 

In December, Cristiano Ronaldo joined Riyadh-based club Al-Nassr on a free transfer after leaving Manchester United, reportedly bagging the biggest salary in football history, at more than £173 million (close to $222 million) a year, including image rights. 

That was followed by Ballon d’Or winner and free agent Karim Benzema signing a two-year contract, with the option of a further year, at Al-Ittihad. He is expected to earn much the same as his former Real Madrid teammate.

And that was just the start of it.

Ruben Neves joined Al-Hilal on a three-year deal and is expected to earn in the region of £300,000 ($385,000) a week, following his £47.2 million ($60.5 million) transfer from Wolverhampton Wanderers, while N’Golo Kanté moved from Chelsea to Al-Ittihad on a free transfer for a reported salary of up to £86 million ($110 million) per year, and fellow Blues centre back Kalidou Koulibaly left for Al-Hilal for a transfer fee of £17 million ($21.8 million).

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More recently, Al-Hilal have set their sights on superstar Kylian Mbappé, with an astronomical £259 million ($332.4 million) bid being talked about for the Paris Saint-Germain player who will be out of contract next year. The 24-year-old French forward, however, is reportedly “less than interested” in the move. 

Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al Nassr last year, kick-starting a round of mega-money deals. (Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

Just yesterday (27 July), Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson officially joined Al-Ettifaq, where he will reunite with former Reds captain Steven Gerrard – now the Saudi team’s manager – for a fee in the region of £13 million ($16.7 million).

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Reports suggest the England international will bag £350,000 ($450,000) a week until 2026. 

As rumours circulated in recent weeks about the 33-year-old midfielder’s move, LGBTQ+ football fans across the game expressed dismay that a player who has been a strong ally of the community would move to a nation where being LGBTQ+ can get you killed. 

During his 12-year career at Liverpool, Henderson was an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Nominated as a football ally at the LGBT+ Awards in 2021, he proudly backed Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign and wider inclusion in football, commenting in 2022 that he was “proud” to support the initiative and “football is for everyone”. 

Saudi Arabia, however, is a nation which is openly hostile to LGBTQ+ people and has a poor human rights record. Homosexuality and being trans are illegal, with the death penalty a possibility for those found to be engaging in same-sex acts. LGBTQ+ people are also pretty much silenced by the state, have no legal protections from discrimination or so-called conversion therapy. 

Weighing in on the move, Pride in Football, a network of UK queer fan groups, said: “When you see someone who has been an ally so publically transfer to a club in a country where LGBT+ people are attacked and imprisoned, it is disappointing.” 

The network wished Henderson luck but added he had “lost the respect of so many people who valued and trusted [him].” 

Jordan Henderson, who has moved to Saudi Arabia, wore a rainbow armband during a Premier League match last year. (Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Paul Amann, the founder of Kop Outs, Liverpool’s LGBTQ+ fan group, told PinkNews there is one reason for the current trend: “Sportswashing”. 

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Amann pointed out that “money is no objective for the Saudis” as the country looks to diversify its economy and secure its future beyond the finite resource that is oil.

“They’re thinking, ‘Oh, how can we present ourselves to the world as a little bit more attractive, but without changing a thing? Oh, let’s throw some money at one of the West’s popular things: sport‘,” he said.

“They’re doing this for football. They’re doing this for golf, they’re doing it for motor sport.”

Amann’s view was shared by football coach Cristian Colás, formerly of non-league team Biggleswade United.

Colás, who previously called the men’s World Cup in Qatar a “disgrace” due to the human rights abuses in the country, told PinkNews what is happening in Saudi Arabia is a “massive example” of sportswashing.

A member of the LGBTQ+ Professionals in Football Collective, Colás said, as an openly gay man, he would not feel safe in Saudi Arabia. For all the country’s plans to bring the best players to its league and open itself up to the world, “LGBTQ rights will not change”, he predicted.

“Will people forget about that? Probably.

“A lot of people will want to keep watching Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema and Henderson when they are playing. They will forget what is happening every day in [Saudi Arabia] for a lot of people who are not part of this – shall we call it – experiment.”

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch, in reference to the merger of the Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour and LIV Golf – a breakaway owned by Saudi Arabia’s $620 billion (£482.5 billion) sovereign wealth Public Investment Fund – said sportswashing is a “strategy of whitewashing countries’ authoritarian reputations by buying the halo of global sports competitions”. 

In one example, Amann cited a case where a gay Saudi man was given a prison sentence and 450 lashes for using social media to meet and date other men.

“If anyone’s under any illusion that somebody can go over there and help change things, they’re very naive and mistaken,” Amann added. 

“It feels like player after player, manager after manager, has just rolled over and said: ‘Oh, give me the money, please’. It’s really disappointing.” 

Colás, however, thinks fans should give Henderson a chance to prove himself as an ally, and see if he can “change minds or perceptions”, while playing for Al-Ettifaq.

“It’s really comfortable to be an ally in a country or region where there are no issues, like in England or even Europe, so I would ask for some patience,” the coach said.

“[Henderson] just signed the contract today. So, let’s wait. If nothing happens, if he doesn’t show rainbow laces there [or try] to change little things, then I will agree with everyone today who is quite annoyed about his signing.”

In a message directly to any players moving to Saudi Arabia, Amann asked: “Are you genuine in supporting dignity and human rights and decency for other people? Or are you wanting to just get richer than you already are?”

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