Gareth Southgate has admitted his frustration at the “complex political aspects” of picking an England squad after keeping Jordan Henderson for next month’s Euro 2024 qualifiers versus Ukraine and Scotland.
Raheem Sterling was left out despite making himself available following fitness concerns, while Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah and Chelsea defender Levi Colwill were handed their first call-ups in a 26-man squad revealed on Thursday.
Harry Maguire was also included despite not playing at all for Manchester United this season but the decision to include Henderson may attract the most focus after his controversial move to Saudi Arabia.
Henderson received backlash from the LGBTQ+ community, who he had long supported, after leaving Liverpool in a £12 million ($15.2m) deal for Saudi Pro League side Al Ettifaq.
After spending vast sums to bring in a host of top names including Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante alongside a huge financial investment in professional golf, research group Human Rights Watch has accused Saudi Arabia of “attempting to sportswash its egregious record of human rights violations.”
Asked about Henderson potentially receiving a negative reaction from England supporters, Southgate said: “I don’t really know. We are picking a team for football reasons, there are lots of different ownership models of clubs in England, there are lots of players playing in countries where there are different religious beliefs, I don’t really know why a player would receive an adverse reaction because of where he plays his football.
“That of course is a personal choice. It is really difficult to… I’m a bit lost really with some of the questioning because you walk in to try and talk about a squad announcement based on football decisions and increasingly we are navigating such complex political aspects that I’m not really trained to do.
“Forgive me if I am stumbling a little bit but I find it a really difficult scenario to try and get right. We’ll do the best we can and we try to make decisions for any number of reasons but I have to pick a squad based on the players that I think can get us qualified for a European championship and that’s why we’re picked the players we have.
“We’ve watched every [Saudi Pro League] game [involving Henderson] and the key moving forward will be the physical intensity of the league and whether it will allow him to perform at the level we need.
“It is changing all the time because other teams will have this issue, Portugal and other European football clubs are in this situation. With Hendo, we have to map him against those other players and that is not as easy when you are not playing in Champions League and Premier League games.”
England were forced into backing down from wearing a ‘OneLove’ armband at the 2023 World Cup finals in Qatar, and Southgate responded to criticism that the country’s LGBTQ+ community could not rely on support from the national team in key moments.
“We are supportive of the LGBTQ+ community,” Southgate said. “A large number of the team and staff have either relatives or friends from that community. It is something that we are very conscious of and a situation we are very conscious of.
“We have tried to be very supportive but I also accept members of the community felt let down around the World Cup. You have to live your life as you see fit. I can only talk on a personal level and my feelings of what the team represents.
“I always try to do things with my life that I believe are inclusive, I try to be accepting of all cultures and understanding of everybody’s different positions and there might be a feeling we haven’t done enough in certain situations and if that is the case, then we have to accept that criticism.”
Southgate admitted Sterling was disappointed to be omitted having missed June’s double-header versus Malta and North Macedonia to concentrate on his conditioning.
Sterling, who has amassed 82 caps, started the season in fine form for Chelsea and was available for selection but missed out for the third successive time, with Southgate insisting he wanted to continue with the majority of the squad that defeated Malta and North Macedonia by a combined score of 11-0 in June.
“We were really pleased with the group and to bring Raheem back in, we’ve got to leave somebody else out. On the back of three games, I didn’t think anybody warranted being left out. It is really good to see him start the season so well. He looks hungry, he is an important player for us but in those attacking areas behind the nine we have a lot of competition for places.
“It is a difficult call and Raheem isn’t particularly happy about it but I understand that — I’m convinced he will have a good season at Chelsea, I’ve no doubt about that.”
Nketiah has scored two goals in three Premier League appearances for Arsenal while Colwill has impressed for Chelsea after forming a key part of England’s successful Euro under-21 side earlier this summer. “Eddie is coming in because he’s a young player with really good pedigree,” continued Southgate. “He is a very good finisher and it’s good for him to have some time with us. He’s the record scorer with the 21s as well. He’s not had the chance to work with us up to this point. He’s a player we are really interested in.”