Will Alex Salmond and his opponents seek to gain political capital from the Commonwealth Games? Photo: Getty
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The Commonwealth Games begin: will they be a political spectacle?

The Commonwealth Games will open in Glasgow today, and Alex Salmond has promised not to use them for political purposes. Will he keep his word?

The torches are lit, lurid lycra is being donned, Rod Stewart and Lulu are doing some vocally-beneficial gargling and some poor soul is dressing up as a larger-than-life cartoon thistle called Clyde. The 20th Commonwealth Games begin later in Glasgow’s Celtic Park.

But big sports events are never uncomplicated, and we can be sure to see some politics playing out in this year’s spectacle, not least because of its location. Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond will no doubt be considering how useful the Games could be for his Scottish independence cause, what with the referendum coming up in September.

He’s already bemused Andy Murray and family, as well as all Wimbledon viewers, by waving the saltire in the Royal Box at Centre Court when Murray won Wimbledon last year. He also controversially urged Scots to get behind the “Scolympians” in the Olympic Games in 2012, a name he came up with to describe Scottish competitors rather than “Team GB”.

The BBC’s Today programme this morning asked whether the Games would be a “politics-free” zone, and explored this question with Jim Naughtie visiting the 1990 City of Culture (now it’s known officially just as a “City of Culture”) and asserting that the Games are bound to be about “national feelings” and “questions of identity”. He said the Games would be a significant “backdrop” to the debate the Scots have been having about their role in the UK and the world.

Yesterday, the Independent’s Chris Green asked whether the Scottish referendum would be the “elephant in the stadium”, writing how both sides of the debate will probably be planning how to play their part in the Games with political shrewdness:

For the next fortnight, leaders on either side of the Scottish independence debate will desperately try to avoid being seen to make political capital out of the sporting spectacle unfolding in Glasgow – while privately hoping that their attendance at the Commonwealth Games will do just that.

While Nick Clegg has commented that, “the less politics, particularly politics relating to the referendum campaign, the better. Let’s celebrate the sport, not the politics, at the Commonwealth Games”. And the government’s Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael has warned Salmond not to pull another stunt like he did at Wimbledon, saying it would be “exceptionally foolish” and an “enormous mistake and a misjudgement of the mood, especially in Glasgow…

“People in Scotland will react badly to anybody who tries to make political capital from the endeavour of sportsmen and women.”

Salmond himself has promised not to use the Commonwealth Games for political capital, announcing his “self-denying ordnance” over referendum campaigning for the ten-day duration of the event:

I’ve taken a kind of self-denying ordinance to concentrate on the Games over the next 10 days and I think that’s what the people of Scotland want.

However, as the Telegraph pointed out yesterday, Salmond has already gone back on his promise criticising the Chancellor George Osborne for being based in London and arguing that Scottish athletes would “flourish” in an independent Scotland, during a Games press conference.

So, aside from the 6,500 athletes and 17 different sports, a spectacle worth watching will be both sides of the referendum debate trying to gain traction for their causes in the final lap of campaigning.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit