- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
"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.