MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Jordan Henderson has faced fierce criticism over his decision to join the slew of leading players heading to Saudi Arabia's lucrative soccer league. And an interview this week, in which the former Liverpool captain sought to explain his motives for joining Al-Ettifaq, failed to win round some who feel let down by a player who has been an outspoken supporter of LGBTQ rights.
That backlash didn't persuade England coach Gareth Southgate to drop the experienced midfielder from his latest Three Lions squad. And on Friday Southgate said he expected fans to continue to back Henderson when he represents the national team.
“I understand some of the comments that have been made and I respect the comments that have been made, but what has also been said is they will get behind the team when we play, and I’m sure they will get behind Jordan when the game starts as well,” Southgate said ahead of Saturday's European Championship qualifier against Ukraine in Poland.
Saudi Arabia's spectacular spending power has managed to lure a host of soccer's biggest names to the oil-rich kingdom in recent months.
Among the stars to move to the country are Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Karim Benzema and Sadio Mane.
While Henderson does not share their stature in the game, his move in July arguably sparked the most negative reaction, including anger from members of the LGBTQ community.
Amnesty International cautions that in Saudi Arabia, members of the LGBT community, including foreigners “risk imprisonment and corporal punishment for same-sex relations, expressing their identity or support for LGBT rights.”
Henderson, who had worn rainbow-colored laces and a rainbow armband in support of inclusivity, was told that many found his decision to go to Saudi Arabia “unforgivable.”
His selection for Southgate's latest squad led to fan group “3LIONSPRIDE” suggesting some of its members would turn their backs if he played for England.
In an interview with The Athletic this week, Henderson said he was “really hurt” by the accusation that he had turned his back on the community. But the criticism over his move has continued to come his way.
Southgate said it would have little impact over his decision to select Henderson.
”I don’t pick the team based on external reaction," Southgate said. “He’s a very experienced professional. He’s very mature at handling any situation really. He’s trained well this week, the whole group has, and everyone is available for us which is really pleasing.”
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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James Robson, The Associated Press