Saudi football boss issues weak defence of Jordan Henderson LGBTQ+ support: ‘It is what it is’

England footballer Jordan Henderson wearing a white and blue strip during a match

Saudi football boss Michael Emenalo has claimed that Jordan Henderson’s legacy of LGBTQ+ allyship has “not changed” since being signed to a Saudi Arabian club, despite criticism from queer fans.  

The 33-year-old Liverpool captain, who has demonstrated years of support for the LGBTQ+ community, completed his transfer to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ettifaq FC in July.

Homosexuality is punishable by death in the Middle-Eastern country, with queer people afforded no protections against discrimination. 

Emenalo, the Saudi Pro League’s director of football, insisted that Henderson’s history of LGBTQ+ allyship has not been damaged by the move, comparing homosexuality being illegal in Saudi Arabia to cultures where drinking alcohol is prohibited.

“I find it hard to understand why coming here would damage his legacy … I don’t get why that would be the case,” The Athletic reported Emenalo as saying. 

“I think he remains pro gay rights, I don’t think it changes anything. I’m pro having a little bit of fun every once in a while but I’m also much more pro respecting the cultures of every country.

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“There’s always something different. In some countries, you can drink publicly but it (the bottle or can) has to be in a brown paper bag – and in others you can do this inside your home or not at all.”

Emenalo added that “it is what it is” and as a professional footballer, being in Saudi Arabia is an “opportunity for [Henderson] to see, just like me, that this is a place where you can live with your family and have fun and have a certain level of growth and pursue your career and do the things that you love and do it every day without any concerns”.

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Liverpool player Jordan Henderson wearing a rainbow captain armband
England star Jordan Henderson is facing criticism from fan groups over a potential move from Liverpool to Saudi Arabia (Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

LGBTQ+ football fans criticised Henderson’s move to Saudi Arabia despite his previous support of inclusive measures – such as Stonewall’s annual Rainbow Laces campaign, with some saying his previous allyship now feels “meaningless”.

Following Henderson’s move, LGBTQ+ fan network Pride in Football told PinkNews: “A few years ago, Jordan Henderson said that you should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the community if you feel something is wrong, and now he is transferring to the other side of the world to play in a country where those very people he defended are attacked and imprisoned for being who they are.

“All the campaigns he has been a part of now feel meaningless, and I’m sure his original intentions were good, but he’s throwing away everything he’s said, and hurting a community of people who trusted him. 

“It’s disappointing that someone we as a community trusted has all but turned his back on everything he has said and done, but another example of how maybe footballers are being over-praised for simply being supportive.”

After the transfer was announced, a survey found that a majority (52 per cent) of Britons surveyed do not consider a sportsperson who moves to Saudi Arabia to be an ally of the LGBTQ+ community.

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