England midfielder Jordan Henderson leaves Saudi club Al-Ettifaq after less than six months and joins Dutch club Ajax.
The 33-year-old signed a three-year contract worth a reported £700,000 a week with the Saudi Pro League club after leaving Liverpool in July.
Al-Ettifaq agreed to terminate his contract to facilitate the move.
“I’m sad to say that I will be leaving Al Ettifaq with immediate effect,” Henderson wrote on social media.
“It wasn’t an easy decision but one that I feel is best for me and my family.
“I want to take this opportunity to thank the club and the fans for all the support during my time. I really felt the love from day one.
“I’ll keep watching and hoping for your success. Good luck for the future.”
Ajax host RKC Waalwijk on Sunday but Henderson is unlikely to be able to make his debut in that game as he awaits international clearance.
Henderson called the past few days a “whirlwind” and a “crazy few days” but that he was excited to be starting a “new chapter” in his career and life.
“Putting on that Ajax shirt for the first time will be really special and I can’t wait for that to happen,” he said in an interview released by his new club.
“Once I knew that there was an opportunity [to move here], I was over-excited and just overwhelmed that this opportunity was there for me.
“It was something that I wanted to try to make happen so it is very humbling for me to be here now. It’s a special day.”
Shortly after Henderson’s departure was confirmed, it was announced that ex-Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard had extended his deal as Al-Ettifaq manager until 2027.
‘Everyone tried and no one is to blame’
As a prominent supporter of the LGBTQ+ community during his time at Anfield, Henderson was criticised for making the move to Saudi Arabia, where same-sex sexual activity is illegal.
He said he was “really hurt” by the backlash, adding his intention has always been to “help causes and communities”.
However, recent reports suggested Henderson had failed to settle in Saudi Arabia; he leaves Al-Ettifaq having made just 17 league appearances.
BBC Sport was told the split between the Saudi Pro League and Henderson was amicable, and the financial implications of his departure are said to be “positive” for the Saudis.
Al-Ettifaq president Samer Al Misehal said: “Firstly, the club would like to thank Jordan for his efforts and wish him the best for his future endeavours.
“We are always respectful of our players. The club and Jordan believe this quick decision, without any delay or further distraction, has been made for both the overall good of the club and for Jordan.”
Saad Allazeez, the vice-chairman and interim chief executive of the Saudi Pro League, added: “This is all just part of football, all across the world and life, across all careers.
“Sometimes, despite best efforts, people don’t always adjust or settle and that can impact performances and lead to frustrations for all.
“Jordan is a good guy and it’s a shame that things didn’t work out for him, but he’d be the first to admit that full support was given to him and respect shown. So everyone tried and no one is to blame.”
He continued: “I’m pleased the club acted fast as they have to protect their own interests as well as the player and this instance, this is all for the best.
“Since their financial conditions for cancelling the contract were agreed, they can now make full use of the winter break and transfer window to reset and go again.
“And as a league, we have the strength and depth to move forward.”
Henderson a ‘huge enhancement’ for Ajax
Ajax, who have endured a difficult campaign so far, are 23 points behind leaders PSV Eindhoven in the Eredivisie.
“We wanted an experienced midfielder with leadership qualities,” said Ajax boss John van ‘t Schip.
“Partially due to injuries in the team, we were looking for someone who could step in immediately. Jordan Henderson is that type of player.”
Henderson began his career at hometown club Sunderland before joining Liverpool in 2011 in a deal reported to be worth £20m.
He played 492 times for the Reds, scoring 33 goals and registering 57 assists, and won seven major trophies with the club.
Van ‘t Schip added: “His arrival means a huge enhancement for our squad. Both on and off the pitch, a football player of this calibre is important for our many young players.
“He’s an English international player and has won the Champions League and many other prizes with Liverpool. I am happy he’s here, and I think it’s very good for our club.”
‘It will take time to win back trust of gay community’
Henderson will have to earn back the trust of the LGBTQ+ community, says Sven Kistner, board member of Queer Football Fan Clubs. The organisation, which has around 1,200 members, is a network for European gay and lesbian supporters.
“He could and should have known better before, but he didn’t and now he’s coming back,” Kistner said. “I think he might again play a good role for our community, but it will take some time until the trust in him is back. It will need some effort from his side to get this reputation back.”
Fans may give Henderson a frosty reception when he plays for Ajax.
“I think he will go through some tough times still with the LGBT+ community,” added Kistner. “He was kind of an icon, a role model to many of the community, but then he decided to leave for Saudi Arabia – it is not the US or Japan, or even China. It is Saudi Arabia.
“I think that was not very well received by the community, which is absolutely understandable. When he was there, he noticed quite soon that it is not the best place to be.
“Also from a football point of view, because if in 80% of the cases, you play with a stadium which is only 2% occupied, it’s not really fun for a player as well.”
Dan Roan, BBC sports editor
Some will see Jordan Henderson’s exit after just six months – despite having a hugely lucrative contract ripped up – as a setback for the Saudi Pro League, and ask whether it could signal the start of a number of high-profile departures.
While Al-Ettifaq and league officials are emphasising that the parting of ways was amicable, and can now reinvest the money Henderson would have earned, the club president has also admitted the news was a “disappointing end to the relationship”.
However, Saudi officials also point out that more than 90 players arrived in the summer as part of a £750m spending spree and they always anticipated that not all would work out. With the low attendances at some matches, the adjusting to the climate, and the difficult ethical questions that some players (such as Henderson) have faced over going to Saudi Arabia, it is no surprise if some have had second thoughts.
Henderson is a big name, but there are plenty of other players in Saudi Arabia that league bosses would be more concerned about keeping. Karim Benzema for instance, who is understood to be unhappy with the quality of his Al-Ittihad team amid a difficult first season there.
From the Saudi perspective, the news that Steven Gerrard has extended his stay as head coach at Al-Ettifaq will soften the blow of Henderson’s departure, and provide a timely response to those doubting the Pro League’s pulling power. And with stars such as Ronaldo, Neymar, Ruben Neves and N’Golo Kante appearing to enjoy life in the kingdom, there seems little fear that this could be the start of an exodus as the Pro League tries to establish itself among the top footballing competitions in the world.