How bad must it have been? How awful must Jordan Henderson have found life in Saudi Arabia’s Pro League to make it worth this? He went there boldly, portraying himself as a pioneer off to develop Saudi football, naively insisting he had to find out the truth about LGBTQ+ rights in Saudi Arabia; he is poised to return to Europe with Ajax after six months, looking ridiculous and facing an enormous tax bill.

Henderson had a reputation as one of the brighter, more engaged footballers. He led a campaign to raise funds for NHS staff during the pandemic and spoke out on issues of homophobia. As he put it plaintively in his notorious interview in the Athletic: “I’ve worn the laces. I’ve worn the armband.” But when it came to it, he took the cash: he says not quite the £700,000 a week that was reported, but “good money” nonetheless. Everybody has principles until they get offered £30m a year.

That salary would have been tax free had Henderson stayed for two years. As it is, he will become subject to Saudi income tax at 20%. At the very least, he is losing £3m in tax by leaving now. But there’s also the fact that he will be tax resident in either the UK or the Netherlands for this tax year. In the UK, there’s effectively a 47% tax rate, including national insurance, on income at his level. In the Netherlands it’s 49.5%. And that means a substantial additional bill.

What was it that was so grim about playing for Al-Ettifaq that has made him take the financial hit? Would pride not have made him stay out there? Given the furore and accusations of hypocrisy around his departure, would he not have wanted to stay on for at least a full season, so he could say that actually, you know what, it’s not that bad?

Al-Ettifaq have not won any of their last nine games. Their average home gate this season is up 31% on last year, so in that sense Henderson has done his job. But it is still only 7,854, which in a 35,000-capacity stadium must be dispiriting. They’re losing, the ground is barely a fifth full, it’s hot, perhaps Steven Gerrard turned out not to be the inspirational coach Henderson had believed. But is any of that worth the opprobrium?

“We can all bury our heads in the sand and criticise different cultures and different countries from afar,” Henderson said of the LGBTQ+ issue. “But then nothing’s going to happen. Nothing’s going to change.” Perhaps having inspected the sand from above the surface, he’s realised just how preposterous his position was, how there’s no way to reconcile wearing a rainbow armband while Liverpool captain with taking money from a club that greys out that armband in publicity shots.

Jordan Henderson wore a rainbow captain’s armband while at Liverpool; Al-Ettifaq greyed it out. Photograph: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC/Getty Images

Henderson lived in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, a 75-minute drive from training. It’s possible his family couldn’t settle, which at least would make the decision to return explicable. And perhaps, ludicrous as he has been made to seem, unpalatable as his hypocrisy may be, Henderson is due some credit for being prepared to make himself look silly to end the misery.

The sadness is that, had Henderson joined Ajax in the summer, it would have seemed an intriguing move. Gareth Southgate has kept picking Henderson throughout his time in Saudi Arabia but it may be that the 33-year-old feels the Eredivisie will serve as better preparation for the Euros this summer. Ajax may not be what they were, but a lustre remains about their name. Playing in front of 53,000 at the Amsterdam Arena is doubtless a more appealing prospect than a fifth-full Prince Mohammed bin Fahd Stadium.

Very few English players have played for Ajax in the professional era. For a long time there was only Ray Clarke, a former Tottenham trainee who scored 26 goals while winning the Dutch double in 1978-79 having joined via Swindon, Mansfield and Sparta Rotterdam. Chuba Akpom, who signed from Middlesbrough last summer, is the only other first-teamer, although Ajax do have on their books the 19-year-old goalkeeper Charlie Setford, who was born in Haarlem but has played for England at youth level. In that sense Henderson might have seemed a genuine pioneer, somebody prepared to take the road less travelled.

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The example of Dusan Tadic shows what can be achieved in the Netherlands by ageing Premier League players, even if there will be a weird sense of Henderson living his career in reverse: the classic model would be to emerge as a young hopeful at Ajax, move to Liverpool and enjoy European success and then, when the legs start to go, join Sunderland.

But if the move is promising for Henderson, it is very bad for the Pro League. It’s not just Henderson. Karim Benzema has made public his unhappiness. There are rumblings from others. Renan Lodi is the only player to join a Saudi club from Europe so far in this transfer window. If even £30m a year can’t retain the interest of a 33-year-old, perhaps no sum can.

The assumption had been that the Saudi league was different from China, Qatar and the other upstart competitions because there was so much money available. It may be this is just a blip, that it does eventually succeed. But Henderson, in turning his back on a move that supposedly so excited him, has damaged not just his own reputation but that of the entire project.

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