Cookie consent

We use cookies to improve your experience on this website. By continuing to browse our site you agree to our use of cookies. Tell me more | Cookie preferences

'Fascist' Di Canio's appointment prompts MP to quit soccer club

Story highlights

  • Former British politician quits soccer club in protest at controversial appointment
  • David Miliband leaves Sunderland after Paolo Di Canio is named as manager
  • Italian is proud of his fascist beliefs and is an admirer of Benito Mussolini
  • Di Canio's views cost his former club Swindon a key sponsorship deal

It was announced a few hours before April Fool's Day, but the appointment of one of the most controversial characters in European football is no laughing matter for one English Premier League soccer club.

Sunderland's American owner Ellis Short hopes Paolo Di Canio can keep the struggling team in the top flight, but his vice-chairman -- British MP David Miliband -- has already resigned his role in protest.

"In the light of the new manager's past political statements, I think it right to step down," the ex-foreign secretary said on his website following Sunday's news that Di Canio will replace the sacked Martin O'Neill on a two-and-a-half-year contract.

Miliband, who had intended to retain his role at Sunderland despite taking a new job with an international humanitarian organization based in New York which will see him give up his South Shields constituency, was referring to the Italian's right-wing leanings.

"I am a fascist, not a racist," Di Canio infamously told Italian news agency ANSA after making a straight-arm salute to the fans of his hometown club Lazio during a match against Rome rival Lazio in 2005.

    Just Watched

    Is Premier League manager a fascist?

Is Premier League manager a fascist? 03:04
PLAY VIDEO

    Just Watched

    Boateng: Racism in football must end

Boateng: Racism in football must end 04:09
PLAY VIDEO

    Just Watched

    Ginola on why PSG are worth it

Ginola on why PSG are worth it 02:45
PLAY VIDEO

Read: Mandela's legacy - How EPL team fell for Africa

    He was later fined and suspended for one match by Italian football authorities after another so-called "Roman salute" during a match against Livorno.

    A ex-member of Lazio's notorious hardcore fan group the "Irriducibili," Di Canio admitted in his autobiography that he is "fascinated" by Italy's former dictator Benito Mussolini, who enacted anti-Semitic laws and oversaw the deporting of thousands of Italian Jews to concentration and death camps.

    Lazio has this season been charged four times with racist behavior by its fans.

    Di Canio's politics seem to come in stark conflict with Sunderland's recent attempts to establish itself in the African market.

    Saturday's home match against Manchester United, a 1-0 defeat that proved to be O'Neill's last in charge, marked the start of a collaboration with the foundation of Nelson Mandela.

    Read: Greek player banned for fascist salute

    The former South African leader's messages of peace and equality will be promoted for the next three years, Sunderland's marketing director Mike Farnan told CNN on Friday. Miliband had a key role in the club's African push, Farnan said.

    Di Canio is not a man who has a history of peace -- as a player he was banned for 11 matches for pushing over a referee while at English club Sheffield Wednesday in 1998.

    His only previous managerial job, at English third division club Swindon, ended in February when the 44-year-old quit due to the club's financial problems.

      Just Watched

      CNN FC: Countdown to quarterfinals

    CNN FC: Countdown to quarterfinals 23:18
    PLAY VIDEO

      Just Watched

      Is Juventus 'unsinkable'?

    Is Juventus 'unsinkable'? 01:42
    PLAY VIDEO

    His arrival at Swindon in May 2011 prompted one of the club's main sponsors -- the GMB trade union -- to withdraw its backing due to his political views.

    Read: Meet Italy's proud football racists

    Di Canio did lead Swindon out of England's bottom division, and after he quit said he was ready for a top job in a country where he was widely recognized as one of the most talented players of his era during spells with West Ham and Sheffield Wednesday.

    "Paolo is hugely enthused by the challenge that lies ahead of him," Short said on Sunderland's website. "He is passionate, driven and raring to get started.

    "The sole focus of everyone for the next seven games will be to ensure we gain enough points to maintain our top-flight status. I think that the chances of that are greatly increased with Paolo joining us."

    Read: Contrasting fortunes for EPL's American club owners

    Di Canio issued a statement through the club on Monday insisting that his personal politics had nothing to do with his job, and that past media reports had blown his comments out of proportion.

    "I expressed an opinion in an interview many years ago. Some pieces were taken for media convenience. They took my expression in a very, very negative way -- but it was a long conversation and a long interview. It was not fair," he said.

    "Talk about racism? That is absolutely stupid, stupid and ridiculous. The people who know me can change that idea quickly," he added, saying that former teammates Trevor Sinclair and Chris Powell -- who are black -- were his best friends when he was playing in England.

      Just Watched

      Football helps champion street kids

    Football helps champion street kids 02:30
    PLAY VIDEO

      Just Watched

      Spain coach Del Bosque: I've been lucky

    Spain coach Del Bosque: I've been lucky 02:33
    PLAY VIDEO

    "I don't want to talk about politics because it's not my area. We are not in the Houses of Parliament, we are in a football club. I want to talk about sport. I want to talk about football, my players, the board and the fans."

    Sunderland CEO Margaret Byrne added that the club "has a strong ethos and ethics and that has not changed in any shape or form."

    "Paolo is an honest man, a man of principle and a driven, determined and passionate individual. To accuse him now, as some have done, of being a racist or having fascist sympathies, is insulting not only to him but to the integrity of this football club," she said.

    "It is disappointing that some people are trying to turn the appointment of a head coach into a political circus."

    Despite his controversies on and off the pitch, the charismatic Di Canio was popular with many fans of the clubs he played for.

    In 2001 he was given FIFA's Fair Play Award for a "special act of good sportsmanship" while playing for West Ham, when he picked the ball up and refused to score as an opposing goalkeeper lay injured.

    Having started his career with Lazio in 1985, he went on to play for top Serie A clubs Juventus, Napoli and AC Milan before a successful season in Scotland with Celtic earned him a move to England.

        Football Focus

      • After 20 years, more than 300 goals and a host of major honors, Thierry Henry has called time on his glittering football career.
      • He might be struggling to score goals for Liverpool, but Mario Balotelli's cheeky tweet about the British monarch hit the spot during the World Cup.
      • bpr south african soccor senzo meyiwa death _00000402.jpg

        Football world mourns South African captain Senzo Meyiwa who was shot and killed during a botched robbery in a township near Johannesburg.
      • German alleged jihadist Kreshnik B (R) listens to his lawyer Mutlu Guenal (L) as he arrives at the higher regional court in Frankfurt. His face is pixelated for legal reasons.

        Once part of Germany's largest Jewish sports club, now he's the first ISIS suspect to stand trial in a country left shocked by his alleged radicalization.
      • One goal in eight matches for new club Liverpool, and dumped by the Italian national team -- Mario Balotelli has yet to shine on his English return.
      • Ched Evans smiles during the Wales training session ahead of their UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier against England on March 25, 2011 in Cardiff, Wales.

        Should a convicted rapist, who has served their time in prison, be allowed to resume their old job? What if that job was as a high-profile football player?
      • Norwegian 15-year-old Martin Odegaard is the youngest player ever to feature in a European Championships qualifying match.