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Henderson apologizes to LGBTQ+ community for short-lived Saudi stay after moving to Ajax

AMSTERDAM (AP) — Jordan Henderson apologized Friday to the LGBTQ+ community that fiercely criticized his transfer from Liverpool to Al-Ettifaq, a day after turning his back on his lucrative contract in Saudi Arabia.

“If any people from that community feel let down or hurt, I apologize, as I did six months ago," he told reporters at the Johan Cruyff Arena as he was introduced as Ajax's new midfielder. "That was never my intention.”

Henderson’s decision to play in Saudi sparked a backlash from the LGBTQ+ community in England, where he had demonstrated support for inclusivity by wearing rainbow-colored laces as part of an initiative by LGBTQ+ campaign group Stonewall. Shortly after his move, he was booed by England fans at Wembley when he was substituted during a friendly match against Australia.

He now plays for a club based in Amsterdam, a city long known as a bastion of tolerance for the LGBTQ+ community.

Asked if he regretted moving to the Saudi league, Henderson was evasive.

“In life, you know, you can, if you want to, call them regrets or mistakes. You can call them that," Henderson told reporters in Amsterdam.

“But at the same time, you know, they’re only mistakes if you don’t learn from them,” he added.

The 33-year-old Henderson is the highest-profile recruit to quit the Saudi league. He was among a slew of top players, led by Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, who moved to the kingdom on big-money deals.

Asked if he would advise former Liverpool teammate Mohamed Salah against following in their footsteps, he said: “Definitely not.”

Egypt striker Salah has repeatedly been linked with a possible move to Saudi Arabia.

Henderson was speaking at his first press conference since terminating his contract with Al-Ettifaq and signing a two and a half year-contract with four-time European champion Ajax.

A day earlier, the Saudi league's interim CEO, Saad Allazeez, sought to play down Henderson's departure.

“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,” he said.

There are two things Henderson won't get in Amsterdam — the captain's armband and a shirt with 14 on the back, the number he wore for Liverpool. The 14 shirt was worn by Ajax legend Johan Cruyff and was retired when his playing days ended.

Henderson, who was played 81 times for England, is also hoping that a return to European soccer means his name will be in the mix when coach Gareth Southgate builds a squad for this summer's European Championship in Germany.

“It’s a big, big thing playing for my country, as everybody knows and ... that’s always been the case wherever I’ve played,” he said.

The allure for Ajax is obvious. The young team has had a tumultuous year, slipping to the foot of the Eredivisie after its' worst ever start to the season. When former player John van 't Schip took over from Maurice Steijn, he ushered in a change of fortunes that saw the team rise to fifth in the league.

But any hopes of adding to the club's Dutch record 36 league titles this year appear to be long gone, even with Henderson beefing up the midfield. Runaway leader PSV Eindhoven is 23 points clear of fifth-placed Ajax and holds a perfect record of 17 wins in 17 Eredivisie matches this season.

The move to Amsterdam will mean a big pay cut for Henderson. Salaries at Ajax are lower than in other major European leagues, though the team has raised wages in recent years in a bid to stay competitive with big-spending clubs elsewhere in Europe.

He denied that moving to Ajax was partly motivated by a desire to avoid a large tax bill in England.

“It had nothing to do with anything else other than a football decision,” he said.

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer