The joke between Newcastle United supporters is we never realised for so many years we lived next door to thousands of Amnesty International activists with special interests in human rights abuses committed in Saudi Arabia. That those committed and energetic campaigners happened to support Sunderland and their activism did not extend beyond typing outraged missives on a message-board preserved for anonymous rolling-eyed maniacs is entirely co-incidental. Ahem.
That’s my poor attempt at sarcasm. Obviously the hollow nonsense from nearby can become tiresome and so the decision of Jordan Henderson, a boyhood Sunderland fan who graduated from their academy and gained a move to Liverpool where he has won every honour in the game , to sign for a club in the Saudi Premier League provides us with an opportunity to throw accusations of hypocrisy and double-standards back in their direction.
After all, Sunderland fans have basked in Henderson’s status within the game as captain of a Premier League and Champions League winning Liverpool side. Henderson has also been an England captain and key part of Gareth Southgate’s side going back a number of years. He is a local hero, though happily his glories were achieved far away from the Wearside favela he grew up in.
Henderson has had a fantastic career and I’ll confess to never imagining he’d achieve what he has in the game when he turned out for them and looked a rather gauche, awkward looking colt. Fair play to him and yes, fanzine gob-shites know even less about football than you thought.
Off the park, Henderson has been a strong advocate for LGBT+ rights and a leading member of the rainbow laces campaign which encourages acceptance of those from within those communities. Additionally, Henderson has been forthright on players taking the knee as a symbol of solidarity with black colleagues as a gesture of support for those within the game who have suffered racial abuse.
Hell, despite the club Henderson was brought up to support and eventually played for, he seems like a thoroughly nice lad. I’ve heard him speak several times, feature in various documentaries and from what we see of him within the media, he’s a credit to himself, his background and the clubs he has represented. He’s a model professional and well, a good egg it appears. He’s an impressive person.
However, for some in the media, because he has decided to accept the vast riches on offer playing for Saudi Arabia all of his previous good work now means nothing or is at least compromised.
Henderson is now to be regarded as a grasping shill for Saudi Sports-washing (c) and has sold out his principles to the dismay of a certain kind of football journalist who imagine the game we love means much more than it really does (spoiler alert: football in the grand scheme of things is pretty unimportant).
Let’s be honest, Jordan Henderson is doing nothing more than any footballer has ever done since the game became professionalised.
He is moving to a club and a league where he will earn a huge sum of money, which is exactly what has motivated many of his team-mates in the dressing rooms at Sunderland and Liverpool over many years.
The same applies to Newcastle United – the players who have relocated from Italy, Brazil, Sweden, Spain, France, Switzerland and God knows where else are all here because they have judged it great for their careers and bank balances. I doubt any paused to check the human rights situation of the UK before signing on the dotted line.
Rafa Benitez didn’t pause to check out the human rights position in China (which executes far more people than any other country in the world) and nor have any of the players, coaches and managers who have traversed the globe pursuing their careers.
It is simply not for footballers to act in judgement of other states and decide where they should and shouldn’t practice their trade on that basis. The hypocrisy comes from journalists who will happily trot off to Qatar to cover the World Cup (tick-box obligatory but ultimately meaningless hand-wringing article published notwithstanding). Henderson is no different in moving to Saudi Arabia to practice his trade. Neither are any of the British nationals, likely in their thousands who work in Saudi Arabia (or do business with the kingdom) and provide for their families by doing so. Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally of the UK whether anyone likes that or not. That is a fact.
Indeed Henderson is doing no different to his fellow Wearsider and prominent football writer Jonathan Wilson (The Guardian, The Blizzard), did when in the pay of Arab News (based in Saudi Arabia), which is de-facto a state run publication. I guess the only real differences between the two Wearside men is the amounts they collect up in fees.
The temptation for us as Newcastle United supporters to point to Henderson and goad Wearsiders into ethical gymnastics is almost irresistible – but we should pass up that opportunity for mischief because it’s not right.
Jordan Henderson hasn’t stopped being a good lad just because he has become infinitely richer by playing in Saudi Arabia. He isn’t a hypocrite or any of those things because Jordan Henderson is a footballer, just like Eddie Howe is a football coach. Their responsibilities don’t extend to foreign diplomacy and they aren’t accountable for the human rights abuses of those with any links to the club that employs them or the game they serve. Those that argue they do can explain the differences between them and the wider gig which takes millions as a result of the TV deal with the Qatari broadcaster BeIN – which isn’t so much whataboutery as exactlythesamery.
I seriously doubt Henderson’s personal views about LGBT+ rights have changed because he’s away to play in Saudi and I don’t suppose his views on the treatment of migrant workers was improved by him representing England last winter in the Qatar World Cup. Henderson or indeed Howe has little power to force real change. That has to come in other ways, and those who expect footballers or managers to effect real change have a rather inflated and distorted view of the influence of the game and the responsibilities of those who we pay to represent us and govern the country.
There is no co-ordinated, political campaign against Saudi involvement in football or any other sport. It isn’t a situation comparable to anti-apartheid campaigns of the 70s when sport’s governing bodies declined to participate in competition with their South African peers.
Should they? Would they? What would that mean? Do we have the balls to campaign for that?
Let’s have that debate separately and understand what the objectives would be and the financial pain we’d accept to attain a higher moral plane.
For the game itself let’s expand the discussion to talk about football club ownership and governance more generally and avoid picking on a limited number of clubs in what is transparently at times motivated by petty football tribalism.
However, I will say this until I’m blue in the face but Saudi and indeed other Middle Eastern involvement in sport shouldn’t be seen exclusively as an exercise in sports-washing. It is bizarre some football journalists persist in this view to the neglect of others.
There is far more in play (as others within this fanzine have bothered to research and present to us) but the futility of this carousel of tedious opinion could not have been more starkly underlined last week when it was announced Prince Mohammed Bin Salman had been invited by the UK government for a state visit at some time in the near future.
Just pause for a moment and understand what has happened here. The de-facto head of state in Saudi Arabia, who presides over all of the horrors of that brutal regime has been invited here by our own political representatives.
That will be a full state visit. If history is repeated MBS will get the full treatment – red carpets, an ornate gold carriage up Pall Mall, lavish dinners in his honour and every conceivable amount of bowing and scraping you can imagine will accompany MBS’s visit to the UK.
There will be no higher level of state visit than the one that will greet MBS. Prepare yourself for the UK’s own Head of State, King Charles and all the rest of the royal family, bowing, curtseying and fuck knows what else in front of MBS. You don’t need me to tell you the toadying our politicians will give to MBS, named by the CIA as the man who instructed the horrific murder of journalist Jamaal Khashoggi.
And well there might be obsequiousness on an epic scale. The UK shifts £Bns in ordnance to Saudi Arabia (some of it manufactured in Sunderland) and keeps thousands of British workers in well-paid, skilled jobs. UK PLC will do back-flips to welcome any Saudi investment into the country and let’s be honest with ourselves we want it, desperately need anything we can get. Bring what you’ve got to Tyneside, please.
The UK has long-standing security relations with the Saudi intelligence services and despite our liberal and justified disdain for their treatment of women, LGBT+ and political dissidents those who operate within the tinderbox of the Middle East contribute to our safety. Some bad people help keep us safe. It was ever thus.
I don’t need to refer to our own energy security and if any of you believe the UK can go it alone by taking a moral stand by cutting off economic, diplomatic and security ties with Saudi Arabia, the most powerful country in that part of the world, then consider how that position would baffle the USA and our other allies. The UK will do its utmost to maintain that Saudi division with Iran and bend over backwards to keep Saudi wealth and resources away from Putin.
These conundrums of balancing western liberal sensibilities with real world considerations of security and prosperity are not questions for Jordan Henderson to answer. He is a footballer but it says much for the inflated sense of importance those in the media believe the game has they imagine what Jordan does next matters. It doesn’t. Not in the slightest. Only to himself.
I’ve had this discussion innumerable times with people who follow our club, many of whom I share similar political views. We’ve had those debates about the rights and wrongs of our beloved club being owned by a regime we heartily disapprove. We’ll disagree because I will always want to contextualise Newcastle United’s ownership within a broader sweep and they will point to the horrors of Saudi executions etc. Then we’ll drink up and all do the same thing, click through the turnstiles and support Newcastle United. Nothing in the world has changed despite those passionate exchanges even in the most minute of ways and I’ll enrage pals by suggesting the whole exercise is self-indulgent, pointless tokenism. It’s nothing like shining a light on anything as some journalists might claim. It is meaningless, ego-driven chatter.
If Jordan Henderson was to delight hand-wringing, earnest writers in the football media by not going to play football in Saudi Arabia, it would make not one ha’pporth of difference. Football doesn’t really matter that much. Its absolutely does not, sorry.
Likewise (in the highly improbable event) of the Public Investment Fund deciding they didn’t believe owning Newcastle United was worth the flak they receive in pithy football blogs written by The Guardian, The Independent, The Athletic etc no-one in Saudi Arabia would bat an eye-lid. It would make fuck all difference to anyone’s life there for good or ill. Not in the real world of women’s or LGBT rights or for dissent and opposition to the government. It is a petty, silly concern in the terms of human rights and the lives of real people.
And yet there has been far more column inches written and words spoken about Jordan Henderson going to Saudi Arabia than there has been of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, head of one of the cruellest and most despotic regimes in the world being invited to the UK for the full enchilada of state receptions – banquets, speeches in honour, everything we’ve got.
That position in our public life speaks eloquently of the infantile and preposterous nature of how the media operates in this country – largely at the behest of foreign billionaires who pay no tax and poison public discourse.
The media has a vital role in highlighting the evils of states such as Saudi Arabia – but going after Jordan Henderson or Eddie Howe achieves nothing for the people of those countries. It is wholly facile and trivial.
Jordan Henderson is still a canny lad from down the road and he’s about to get considerably richer taking lots of money from people who want to watch him play football and enjoy it. Good luck to him and them.
Keep On, Keepin’ On …
Michael Martin, @TFMick1892