Jordan Henderson’s disastrous move to Saudi Arabia provides valuable lessons

When most players arrive at Ajax, even as opposition, they are usually struck by the profound sense of football history. That might only deepen a sense of regret for Jordan Henderson, who completed his move to Amsterdam on Thursday.

This is what he could have had, without all the damage to his reputation. The contrast with his current football surroundings will make it worse.

While Ajax are steeped in football history, a lot of Saudi Pro League (SPL) facilities looked like they were from another age. The sense, according to a few figures who have been there, was of lower-league clubs setting up for the visit of a Premier League side. It was that makeshift, and one squad had to warm down in a media room. Henderson avoided that.

There was an incongruity to it all, given the money involved – not that the former Liverpool player will now see the figures he was supposed to receive. He’s now sacrificed a lot, in different ways.

There was most of all his reputation, which will make the events of the last few weeks all the more acute and ironic.

With a single decision last summer, Henderson shredded years of goodwill, with a subsequent refusal to say it was about the money almost making it worse. He now won’t even see that money, as he has decided to forego what he is owed to end his contract with Al-Ettifaq early. Henderson will now go from all that to one of the most romantic clubs in the game.

It just won’t have that romance for him because of how everything in between seemed to sum up the worst of the game.

A further irony is that a move from Liverpool to Ajax for a high-profile English player in his thirties just isn’t done any more, mostly due to the way football’s economy has gone. The Dutch club can’t rise to those levels.

Had Henderson gone straight there from Liverpool, it probably would have only amplified his reputation.

Henderson comes up against former Anfield teammate Roberto Firmino while playing in the SPL (Getty)
Henderson comes up against former Anfield teammate Roberto Firmino while playing in the SPL (Getty)

No one is too willing to talk about that aspect now. Henderson went another way.

If the inclination is to chastise the player and almost take an element of schadenfreude from it, there is probably a wider lesson.

The entire episode perhaps speaks to the nature of decision-making in these situations, and – once again – just how governed the game has been by money. When you talk to people within football about sportswashing or related issues, there is generally a vague acceptance of the concern – especially if it has cost them trophies – but also an appeal to “the reality of the game”.

Autocratic states are willing to spend a lot on football and they’ve changed how things are done. That’s perhaps fair and most individuals have to just adapt to the global system. They can’t change it, although that discussion is very different when we are talking about multimillionaire footballers who already have a lot more financial freedom than most people.

Henderson’s decision is a blow to the competition’s profile, especially with the way he has left so quickly

Henderson now evidently had so much financial freedom, he could work for months for free. So much for all the justifications about this being life-changing money he couldn’t turn down.

Along the same lines, many of Henderson’s England teammates were almost queuing up to ask him what the SPL was like, clearly attracted by the figures.

He might give them a different answer now.

This is the reality of the game, one that probably isn’t given enough focus.

In a football world that is supposed to be increasingly conscious of social issues, and where sportswashing is one of the most widely discussed influences, this will now inform the perception of players. They have to be more mindful of it.

As is true of virtually any career choice, it isn’t always the best decision to just follow the most money.

More in football need to think about that. Up to now, Toni Kroos has been one of the few to express such thoughts, for which he received a fair bit of abuse at the recent Spanish Super Cup in Riyadh.

There is also what this says about the SPL, which still has the potential to be one of the most disruptive forces in football.

Henderson’s move to Ajax could protect his place with England for Euro 2024 (The FA/Getty)
Henderson’s move to Ajax could protect his place with England for Euro 2024 (The FA/Getty)

Henderson’s decision is a blow to the competition’s profile, especially with the way he has left so quickly. Given his previous activism, it was almost all the more important to that profile he was there because of what that said about the modern game. His decision now says players should think twice over whether they go.

The official explanation that the SPL has been keen to put out is that his family wouldn’t have been able to settle. The truth is he is one of many players who just wasn’t enjoying the work or the daily life.

That similarly speaks to the scale of the challenge for the country before hosting a World Cup that is just a decade away.

All of this comes amid what almost represents a football culture war between the West and the global South. It was articulated by Fifa president Gianni Infantino in his notorious press conference on the eve of the Qatar World Cup.

For all that a lot of the Gulf autocracies have bristled at Western criticism, though, they also want that acceptance. This is the point of buying clubs and staging tournaments. That means putting on a World Cup that is deemed a success by Western audiences. That, for now, is what goes down in history.

There’s a lot to do. Henderson no doubt wishes there’s a lot he could undo.