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Jordan Henderson quitting Saudi soccer doesn’t surprise me — I sat in empty stadiums in 40C heat and was bored to tears

DRENCHED with sweat, Jordan Henderson looked utterly exhausted as he trudged to the touchline to grab yet another swig from a water bottle.

The England international and former Liverpool captain seemed out on his feet after giving his all as he has done countless times for club and country.

Jordan Henderson seemed out of his feet playing for Saudi minnows Al-Ettifaq

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Jordan Henderson seemed out of his feet playing for Saudi minnows Al-EttifaqCredit: Getty
The Sun's Chief Foreign Correspondent Nick Parker shares his thoughts on why Saudi football is so off-putting

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The Sun’s Chief Foreign Correspondent Nick Parker shares his thoughts on why Saudi football is so off-puttingCredit: Ian Whittaker – Commissioned by The Sun

But this was not a World Cup epic watched by millions — rather the harsh reality of Henderson’s debut, in 35C heat, for Saudi Arabian Pro League minnows Al-Ettifaq.

It was not yet half time when Henderson — who with Liverpool won the Champions League in 2019, the Premier League the next year and the FA Cup in 2022 — took his fourth water break in a ramshackle, half-full stadium unfit for even an English League One tie.

The midfielder was playing in front of just 13,000 fans, under new club coach and fellow former Liverpool and England star Steven Gerrard last August — and even then the writing was on the wall for all to see.

Now, with Henderson tonight signing off a move to Dutch giants Ajax, after just six months in Saudi, he is the first of a host of crazy-money signings from the Premier League and other European top-flights who are expected to quit the desert kingdom.

A source told me: “Jordan knows he has made a terrible mistake and stands to lose a lot of money.

“But he can’t face another day in Saudi. He has found the heat intolerable and the quality of the football is, frankly, beneath his talents and won’t keep him in the England reckoning.”

I feel his pain. Watching his debut in Saudi was one of the weirdest experiences of my 35 years covering football games for The Sun.

Ahead of the 9pm kick-off, daytime temperatures had topped 40C but the real killer was stifling 60 per cent humidity.

I was soaked in sweat two minutes after stepping out of my taxi — and I was just a spectator.

Even locals accustomed to the heat were tearing up cardboard boxes to create makeshift fans as play began.

Having experienced the World Cup glitz in neighbouring Qatar just months earlier, my arrival at the new Saudi home of two Liverpool legends was a shock.

The Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd Stadium was built in 1973 and needs more than a lick of paint — it needs air-con.

It seats 26,000 but was only half full, despite the pre-match promise of Cristiano Ronaldo and former Liverpool striker Sadio Mane lining up for the opponents Al-Nassr.

The drabness of Al-Ettifaq’s laboured 2-1 victory, and former Manchester United favourite Ronaldo failing to show for the game, was only made worse by the multi-use stadium’s running track keeping fans remote from the action.

The star signings on show must have been baffled by the tiny Saudi fan base.

Women in burkas, men in Arab robes and others in jeans and T-shirts watched from the sweltering stands, where swathes of faded blue plastic seats lay empty.

A repeat of this when Saudi Arabia hosts the 2034 World Cup would be a disaster — fear of which could lead to a temporary lifting of the Gulf state’s booze ban, to woo more fans.

But it is not just the heat, and tiny crowds, triggering the footballers’ exodus from Saudi.

The Islamic kingdom’s strict cultural code is also to blame for this.

Boozing is banned and punishable by flogging, while players’ Wags are not legally allowed out in public alone — and women in Saudi have only been allowed to drive since 2018.

Henderson, 33, more than tripled his Liverpool salary, to a reported £700,000 a week, when he moved to Saudi last summer in the twilight of his career.

Gerrard, 43, landed a £15.2million-a-year deal — after he was axed as Aston Villa boss then ignored by even Championship clubs.

But the fanfare around the pair’s unveiling at the Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd Stadium looked staged, fake and doomed.

The sweltering heat, as well as extremely strict cultural codes, have left Saudi stadiums full of empty seats during games

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The sweltering heat, as well as extremely strict cultural codes, have left Saudi stadiums full of empty seats during gamesCredit: Ian Whittaker – Commissioned by The Sun
The fanfare around Steven Gerrard's £15.2m deal with Al-Ettifaq looked staged, fake and doomed

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The fanfare around Steven Gerrard’s £15.2m deal with Al-Ettifaq looked staged, fake and doomedCredit: Reuters

Within weeks, Henderson — used to playing before 50,000-strong crowds at Anfield and on glittering World Cup stages — turned out in front of just 610 fans for one Al-Ettifaq game.

The unhappy playmaker is now bailing out to Ajax.

He was so desperate quit joyless Saudi that he has reportedly agreed to a 75 per cent pay cut to move to Amsterdam.

He played just 19 times for former Reds team-mate Gerrard and has now torn up his three-year contract with the club and walked out of an Al-Ettifaq training camp in Dubai.

His Saudi wages would have been tax-free had he stayed for two years.

But he faces a £7million tax bill if he returns to the UK, thanks to HMRC rules and having spent less than a year working abroad.

He is far from alone in wanting out, though.

My source added: “A lot of top players brought in at huge expense from the Premier League and Europe feel the same — and Jordan won’t be the first to leave.”

Al-Nassr signing Cristiano Ronaldo, 38, was the first megastar to move to Saudi two years ago on a ridiculous £3.4million a week.

He was followed by Brazil showman Neymar, 31, who joined Al-Hilal on £2.5million a week, from French club PSG.

Cristiano Ronaldo was the first megastar to move to Saudi, on a ridiculous £3.4m a week

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Cristiano Ronaldo was the first megastar to move to Saudi, on a ridiculous £3.4m a weekCredit: Instagram @cristiano
Ronaldo was soon followed by Brazilian showman Neymar

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Ronaldo was soon followed by Brazilian showman NeymarCredit: Getty

The preening ex-Barcelona striker also demanded three supercars for himself, four Mercedes G Wagons for his entourage, a Mercedes van with a driver on 24-hour standby, and an army of staff.

Other imports have included Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino, Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez, Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitro-vic, Wolves’ Ruben Neves and former Celtic winger Jota.

But with the January transfer window now open, many are fed up and desperate to turn tail.

Firmino is being linked to Fulham, Jota to Tottenham and Benzema to Chelsea.

Meanwhile legendary Liverpool goal machine Robbie Fowler’s spell as boss of a Saudi second-tier club has ended after four months, following an apparent spat with management.

Ex-England ace Fowler, 48, was inexplicably axed despite the club being on a winning run.

He is believed to have received a large severance payout and has not spoken about his exit, which came weeks before Henderson blew the whistle on Al-Ettifaq.

Henderson’s game in front of 610 fans was the fifth-lowest attendance of the flop Pro League this season, the tiniest being 257, and comes despite the billions invested by the Saudi government in a brazen bid to “sportswash” its appalling human rights record.

But the sheikhs lavishing oil wealth on the lacklustre league are unlikely to be put off after greedy Fifa chiefs gifted them the 2034 World Cup.

A Saudi soccer source said: “Players will come and go but Saudi Arabians love football and we are in for the long haul.

“We have the resources and will do what it takes to make our league and World Cup a great success.”

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