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Henderson joins Ajax after controversial Saudi Arabia move

England and former Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson has joined Dutch giants Ajax, the club said Thursday, only six months after his move to Saudi Arabia sparked controversy over gay rights. 

The 33-year-old, who played nearly 500 games for Liverpool, transferred to Al-Ettifaq in July in a deal with reported wages of up to £700,000 ($887,000) per week.

“We wanted an experienced midfielder with leadership qualities… Jordan Henderson is that type of player,” said Ajax coach John van ‘t Schip in a statement.

“His arrival means a huge enhancement for our squad. Both on and off the pitch, a football player of this calibre is important for our many young players,” he added.

Saudi club Al-Ettifaq is coached by Anfield legend Steven Gerrard, whom Henderson replaced as Liverpool captain in 2015.

Saad Allazeez, Vice Chairman and interim CEO of the SPL said the deal suited everyone to resolve ths situation.

“Sometimes despite best efforts people don’t always adjust or settle,” said Allazeez.

“Everyone tried and no one is to blame,” he added.

But the move to Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is illegal, sparked accusations of hypocrisy given Henderson’s outspoken support for the LGBT+ community.

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

“Good luck in Saudi Arabia Jordan, but you have lost the respect of so many people who valued you and trusted you.”

Former Aston Villa and Stuttgart midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, who came out as gay in 2014, also criticised the move.

“I did believe for a while that his support for the community would be genuine. Silly me…” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Henderson himself said he was hurt by the criticism and apologised if the gay community felt he was turning his back on them.

He said his presence in Saudi Arabia, given his well-publicised views, “is only a positive thing.”

He also said reports about his salary were over-inflated and that he was not motivated by the money.

Rather, he complained he had not felt “wanted” by Liverpool, who have overhauled their midfield, and was attracted by a new challenge.

‘Sportswashing’

Saudi Arabia’s lavish spending on sport is often criticised as “sportswashing” — an attempt to shift the focus from its record on human rights.

Henderson, who has won 81 caps for England, was one of a phalanx of footballing superstars lured to the Saudi league, which offers eye-watering salaries to players and coaches.

French striker Karim Benzema, Brazilian forward Neymar, and Senegal’s Sadio Mane are among those who have followed in the footsteps of Cristiano Ronaldo to play for Saudi clubs.

The world’s biggest oil exporter has thrown hundreds of millions at sports deals including Formula One in Jeddah and the lucrative LIV Golf tour, drawing frequent claims it is “sportswashing” its human rights record.

In football, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has said the Saudi league has “completely changed the market” and he expects more high-profile players to move there.

For the Dutch side, Henderson will be a valuable asset as they seek to recover from the worst start in their history that left them briefly bottom of the Eredivisie.

Ajax have endured a horror show of a season that culminated in December in a shock 3-2 loss to amateur club Hercules in the cup.

Fabian Nagtzaam, director of the club’s supporters association, described the Hercules loss as “the greatest debacle in the history of Ajax”, the home of legends like Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp.

Founded in 1900, Ajax are far and away the most successful club in the Netherlands, with 36 league titles and 20 KNVB Cups as well as four European championships.

Maurice Steijn was sacked as coach in October, paying the price for the team’s shocking run of form, with van ‘t Schip brought in as interim boss.

They have fought back to fifth, but still stand a humiliating 23 points behind runaway leaders and bitter rivals PSV Eindhoven.

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