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Paolo Di Canio's past resurfaces

FOX Soccer News: Paolo Di Canio responds to growing controversy at Sunderland.
FOX Soccer News: Paolo Di Canio responds to growing controversy at Sunderland.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

LONDON, ENGLAND

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Until Saturday, Sunderland had seemed to be drifting inexorably towards relegation, fans battered by repeated failures almost too exhausted to rage against the fading of the Premier League light. And then, suddenly, shockingly, Martin O’Neill was sacked as manager.

O’Neill, 61, perhaps seemed as weary as the club, lacking the brio that made him once fizz around his technical area. There had been no campaign against him and little indication that the board was losing patience. But as shocks go, that was as nothing to what followed on Sunday when his replacement was revealed: Paolo Di Canio.

The newly appointed Sunderland boss renounced his links to fascism on Wednesday following an outcry over his previous comments and actions regarding his political beliefs. Di Canio has had to deal with three days of intense scrutiny since his hiring by Sunderland on Sunday, with detractors having picked up on a comment in 2005 in which the Italian is reported to have said ''I am a fascist'' as well straight-arm salutes he once performed to fans of his former club Lazio.

''I am not political, I do not affiliate myself to any organization, I am not a racist and I do not support the ideology of fascism,'' Di Canio said in a statement released by Sunderland. ''I respect everyone.''

As a player, Di Canio was brilliant but volatile. His volley for West Ham against Wimbledon in 2000, hanging in the air for what seemed like an eternity before striking the ball cleanly with the outside of his right foot was a masterpiece of technique, vision and self-confidence. That same year, in a game against Everton, he shunned a goalscoring opportunity by catching the ball and stopping the game having seen that the goalkeeper Paul Gerrard had gone down with an injury.

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That was the good, but there was also the bad.

Most notable: When playing for Sheffield Wednesday in 1998, he pushed over referee Paul Alcock in a game against Arsenal to earn an 11-match ban. Di Canio was charismatic, passionate, always prone to bulging-eyed imprecations and, at West Ham in particular, he became a cult figure.

The 44-year-old’s only managerial experience came at Swindon. He was successful, taking the club from League Two to second place in League One, but his time there was so fraught with controversy that former chief executive Nick Watkins described his style as “management by hand-grenade.”

He rowed with players on the pitch, substituted goalkeeper Wes Foderingham 21 minutes into a game at Preston, sacked captain Paul Caddis a few months after promotion, and at one point apparently worked his players for three months without a day off. In the end, he walked out in a dispute over money. The volatility remains.

None of that, however, has occupied the headlines since Sunday. All of the talk so far has been of fascism. When playing for Lazio, Di Canio three times greeted the club’s ultras with a straight-armed Roman salute. This is not a straightforward issue, not least as it features the liberal mob in full rant, delighting in feeling superior. Nor has some of the outrage been entirely fair: A line has been cited from Di Canio’s autobiography in which he seems to express admiration for Benito Mussolini; read in context, the comment is part of a much more nuanced examination of the dictator.

There is a linguistic problem in that, while there is a clear distinction in English between “communism” and “Stalinism” and it’s entirely possible to be communist without having necessarily supported the purges and the gulags, “fascist” is used as a coverall term and to identify with it is to identify with the theories of racial supremacy Di Canio has explicitly rejected. The whole furor, as so often happens when the British media is in finger-wagging mode, has the stench of ganging up on an easy foreign target. Why is a 2005 interview being dragged up now? Why was this not an issue when Di Canio was writing a column for BBC online six months ago?

The resignation of former foreign secretary David Miliband as Sunderland’s vice-chairman over the issue similarly smacks of expediency. Might he not at least have asked Di Canio to explain his views before condemning him on the basis of something he said eight years ago? Or was he just looking for a way out before quitting as a member of Parliament and moving to New York?

And that’s really the problem. It may be that Di Canio holds reasonable views or it may be that he holds loathsome views: Such is the hysteria — and Sunderland’s inept handling of the affair — that we’ll probably never know. Certainly the views expressed in his autobiography are far from extreme, but the term “fascist” is so strong and has such connotations that it does require explanation. After all, Sunderland historically has been a proudly left-wing city but, with unemployment and poverty rising and a growing immigrant community, it has been targeted recently by extreme right-wing groups. There is need for the football club and Di Canio to be aware of the wider context.

Instead, his first news conference ended in farce. “I expressed an opinion in an interview many years ago," he said, before offering as evidence that he is not racist by referencing his friendship with various black players. "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.

“Sometimes it suits their purpose to put big headlines and a big story. When I was in England [as a player], my best friends were Trevor Sinclair and Chris Powell, the Charlton manager — they can tell you everything about my character. Talk about racism? That is absolutely stupid, stupid and ridiculous. It doesn't represent Paolo Di Canio so I'm not worried."

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As questions about politics continued, Di Canio stormed out. “I can't every two weeks, every two months, every 10 months answer the same questions that are not really in my area," he said. "We are in a football club and not in the House of Parliament. I'm not a political person. I will talk about only football."

Yet sport and politics are intertwined and, unseemly as some of the cheap and less-informed points-scoring has been, somebody who has declared himself “fascist” — even years ago — must be prepared to answer questions about it.

And somewhere beyond the political storm, there is a club to save from relegation. He begins at Chelsea on Sunday.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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