Sunderland defend appointment of new manager Paolo di Canio
Italian is proud of his fascist beliefs and is an admirer of Benito Mussolini
"I'm not in the Houses of Parliament, I'm not a political person, I will only talk about football," says Di Canio.
Di Canio's views cost his former club Swindon a key sponsorship deal
Condemned for his self-confessed belief in fascist ideals, yet congratulated for acts of admirable sportsmanship.
Revered for feats of amazing skill, but reviled for violent outbursts on the pitch.
Perhaps not surprisingly Italian Paolo di Canio’s rollercoaster career has guaranteed the Italian has occupied the front and back pages of British newspapers since he first came to the United Kingdom.
His appointment as manager of English Premier League strugglers Sunderland has thrust this divisive character back into the spotlight once more, with the north east club scrambling to justify his appointment following its sacking of the Italian’s predecessor Martin O’Neill on Saturday.
The Italian’s arrival at Sunderland has already prompted the resignation of one of the club’s board members – MP David Miliband, who recently decided to stand down as MP to work for New York based charity International Rescue.
“In the light of the new manager’s past political statements, I think it right to step down, ” Miliband, a former British secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs for the traditionally left wing Labour party, wrote on his own website.
Born in Rome and raised through Lazio’s youth ranks, the first half of Di Canio’s career included stints with some of Europe’s most famous clubs – and plenty of rows with some of Italy’s most respected coaches.
The playmaker clashed with Giovanni Trapattoni at Juventus before incurring the ire of Fabio Capello at AC Milan and then heading to Scotland in 1996 where he flourished during one season with Celtic.
If there was fire in his belly it was accompanied by sublime skill.
When he was at Napoli Di Canio scored one breathtaking solo goal against AC Milan, running almost the length of the pitch before firing home.
It was after swapping Scotland for the English Premier League’s Sheffield Wednesday in 1997 that the complexity of Di Canio’s character was laid bare.
The Roman became front page news in September 1998 when he shoved referee Paul Alcock to the ground after being sent off in a match against Arsenal.
An 11-match ban followed, as did his exit from Wednesday with a move to West Ham United just four months later.
During four years at Upton Park, Di Canio left an indelible mark on West Ham and the Premier League.
In March 2000 he scored a stunning volley against Wimbledon – widely regarded as one of the finest goals in Premier League history – but it was his conduct in a game at Everton in December of the same year which drew global admiration.
With Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard lying on the ground injured, Di Canio elected to catch the ball rather than head it into the unguarded net.
His actions were met with immediate applause from fans and a Fair Play award from world football’s governing body FIFA, citing a “special act of good sportsmanship”.
“It was sportsmanship of the highest merit,” Harry Redknapp, West Ham manager at the time, said of Di Canio’s act.
“Paolo thought the goalkeeper might have a broken leg and refused to take advantage.”
Values of civility
But with Di Canio, the good and the bad must be measured against the ugly.
After returning to Lazio in 2004, Di Canio made remarks which he has refused to clarify following his appointment at Sunderland.
“I am a facist, not a racist,” Di Canio once told an Italian news agency.
Since his appointment at Sunderland, Di Canio has insisted that he doesn’ want to talk about politics, though in 2005 he was willing to aim a straight-arm salute at Lazio’s fans which, he claimed, was directed at “my people”. Was that a political or just a sporting gesture?
“I will always salute as I did because it gives me a sense of belonging to my people,” Di Canio told journalist Gabrielle Marcotti in the player’s autobiography.
“I saluted my people with what for me is a sign of belonging to a group that holds true values, values of civility against the standardization that this society imposes upon us.”
Who Di Canio’s people are is the subject of much debate, but in his autobiography he described himself as “fascinated” with Italy’s former fascist leader Benito Mussolini, who enacted anti-Semitic laws and oversaw the deporting of thousands of Italian Jews to concentration and death camps.
Di Canio is not the only Italian footballer or manager to express sympathy with Fascism or flirted with the ideology, notably Daniele De Rossi, Christian Abbiati, Gianluigi Buffon and Alberto Aquilani.
As a club, Lazio has been punished for racism offences four times this season.
A statement issued by Sunderland following Di Canio’s appointment declared that to suggest he held fascist or racist views was to question “the integrity of the club”.
“I’m not in the Houses of Parliament, I’m not a political person, I will only talk about football,” the 44-year-old manager told reporters at his unveiling on Tuesday.
While Di Canio faces scrutiny off the pitch, on it his new team are sinking without a trace.
Sunderland are without a win in their last eight matches, with Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Manchester United – the final act of O’Neill’s managerial reign – leaving the team one point above the relegation zone.
As always, Di Canio plans to meet his latest challenge head on.
“The press call me the mad Italian but I would confidently bet everything I have on Sunderland remaining in the top flight,” declared Di Canio.
Over to you, Paolo…