Ex-Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson leaves Al-Ettifaq for Ajax: Is trouble looming for Saudi Pro League?

After the annus mirabilis that was 2023 for the Saudi Arabian Pro League, could the 12 months ahead offer a striking reminder that their boundless money cannot buy them everything they want? The early signs are emerging of a worrying year in the kingdom with the first high-profile exit from one of their big name clubs fast approaching.

Having terminated his contract with Al-Ettifaq, Jordan Henderson has made a surprise move to Dutch giants Ajax, where he has signed a two and a half year deal. Six months after he walked out of Liverpool with ambitions to “build a club and build the league”, the England international will return to Europe with his reputation for LGBTQ+ allyship in tatters and his bank balance not remotely as swelled as he might have expected.

He has hardly been welcomed with open arms in the Netherlands either, where De Telegraaf labelled him “no savior”. His shirt might be the fastest selling in club history, according to the Ajax Supporters Association, but the lofty expectations placed on him by supporters will have to be delivered upon. At least it cannot go as badly as his last transfer.

A $15 million switch that had always seemed confusing through any prism, other than a financial one, never really worked out for Henderson, who had traded the high stakes Premier League and Champions League battles of Anfield for the quiet life. Al-Ettifaq attract less than 8,000 spectators on average. After a bright start to the season, Steven Gerrard’s side have stalled out and find themselves resolutely in midtable, and with assistant manager Ian Foster having left last month, the idea of an exodus for a want-away player wasn’t unthinkable. 

Henderson was in limbo, a salary understood to be around half of the near $900,000 a week that was initially reported evidently not soothing his regrets. Much of that money will be lost to him now anyway. Saudi Arabia might have generous tax free provisions but those necessitate a two year stay in the kingdom. Instead what earnings he has will be subject to a flat 20 percent rate.

At Ajax, Henderson will hardly be building a club, but he will find himself involved in the essential repairs of a faltering giant, albeit one that has recovered somewhat from a disastrous start to the Eredivisie season. “It has been a difficult year for Ajax, on and off the field,” he said. “That has also been the case for me over the past six months. Hopefully we can help each other to move forward together and be as successful as possible in the future.” Getting the Netherlands’ biggest side back on a more stable footing could well be a more invigorating tale for the 33-year-old, who still has a place in Gareth Southgate’s Euro 2024 squad to fight for.

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, Henderson’s departure comes amid the first murmurings that all is not as was hoped for among last summer’s expensive recruits. Al-Ahli would be ready to sanction a loan exit for another former Liverpool star who has struggled to settle, Roberto Firmino having made no secret of his readiness to return to Europe. Karim Benzema’s unhappiness has already put paid to one manager at Al-Ittihad, Nuno Espirito Santo lasting only a few weeks when it was apparent he had lost the Ballon d’Or winner, but the presence of Marcelo Gallardo seems to have done little to assuage the Frenchman.

Unlike Firmino, he is not available and would have to push for a move if he wanted to depart the Saudi champions. Given the frequency with which it has been suggested he is unhappy in Jeddah, such a scenario does not seem unimaginable, especially with reports emerging that the French star has been banned from Al-Ittihad’s preseason tour after failing to report to camp without permission. Seven months after his ostentatious arrival in the Middle East in front of tens of thousands of supporters, a swift exit out of the back door would constitute a significant blow to the project.

Set against that should be the numerous players who are thriving in the Pro League. The man who kicked it all off, Cristiano Ronaldo, continues to break records of tenuous merit. Aleksandar Mitrovic and Ruben Neves have both been publicly glowing in their praise of life at Al-Hilal, so has Riyad Mahrez over Al-Ahli. The fact that Henderson could not settle in they city of Dammam will hardly quell the Public Investment Fund’s (PIF) ambitious plans for this summer when a string of world football’s biggest names are on their wish list.

Indeed, one might even argue that getting a big name out from one of Al-Ettifaq’s eight international spots — that number will increase to 10 next season — will serve the wider Pro League project well in the weeks ahead. So much of the project has been governed by a desire to generate eyeballs across the world; the harsh reality of the sport in 2024 is that any transfer window does that better than most on field contests. Space for international talent is at a premium this month — a spot only emerged for Renan Lodi to go from Marseille to Al-Hilal because of Neymar’s season-ending injury — and now there will be all sorts of wild talk as to who Al-Ettifaq will turn to to plug the Henderson-shaped hole in their side. Gerrard’s side might not have the wealth of the PIF quartet but they are not short on ambition.

That is what Henderson will tell you took him east in the first place. The concern for those at Al-Ettifaq and beyond is that anyone who asks the England international whether they should follow in his footsteps will not get the most glowing of answers. 

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