Those readers with no interest in Premier League football may be in ignorance of the controversy surrounding the sudden appointment of Italian Paolo Di Canio as manager of Sunderland. The team’s owners hope that with 7 games to go, he can save them from relegation (they are currently 1 point above the danger zone).
The furore over Di Canio has nothing to do with his qualifications as a manager, but with his politics.
His playing career started with the club he supported as a boy, Lazio of Rome, whose supporters, especially their ‘ultras’, are notorious for their hard-core far-right views. Di Canio himself has declared that he is a fascist (but more recently claimed that this is the non-racist variety, which is a new one on me – did Hitler know of this option?).
He idolizes the ‘sadly misunderstood’ Benito Mussolini to the point of having the word ‘DUX’ tattooed on his arm (and another tattoo of ‘West Ham United’ on the other; I only hope he keeps both covered up on match days).
And he has a penchant for bared-teeth, straining-sinews, bulging-eyes, full-frontal fascist salutes (which he calls ‘Roman salutes’). He has done this especially at games against teams with left wing supporters (not that any Premier League team springs to mind here), and has received bans and fines for his trouble.
He is also a nutter. He once responded to being sent off by pushing the referee to the ground (11 match ban and a £10,000 fine). He also won a fair play award for catching the ball rather than scoring in an open net when the opposing goalkeeper was lying injured.
Now one crucial qualification of football managers these days is ‘man-management’. The roll-call of managers who found Di Canio simply unmanageable is long and distinguished. Giovanni Trappatoni, now the manager of the Irish national team, Fabio Capello, who now manages Russia and before that England, and Glenn Roeder at West Ham all had blazing public rows with the man and either sold him or dropped him.
As manager of Swindon, his immediately previous job, he promptly cost the club money in the form of a sponsorship with a trade union which was quickly cancelled. And his arrival at Sunderland provoked the departure as club vice-chairman of David Miliband, a former Foreign Secretary whose Dad came to England in 1940 to escape the Nazis, and an anguished letter from lifelong Sunderland supporter the Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, whose day job is Dean of Durham Cathedral, and who is another child of a wartime Jewish refugee from fascism.
The owners of Sunderland, as is normal these days, are American and remote, and appear to be have been totally sideswiped by the hullabaloo that their unguarded appointment of Di Canio has generated. Di Canio himself has retreated behind a wall of statements that he only wants to answer questions about football and denials that he is an ‘ideological fascist’ (is there any other kind?).
If the American owners are unused to controversies over fascism (they may be having trouble distinguishing fascists from Republicans), these are meat and drink to the Italian football press. Their take has in some cases turned a bit weird, claiming that it is the actions of Miliband and Sadgrove that are fascist in attempting to deny poor Signor Di Canio a job.
And there has been a predictable there-there now-now chorus from the don’t-bring-politics-into-sport myopics, the same people who think the fall of apartheid had nothing to do with the sports boycott of South Africa. Well, perhaps, but who is the guilty party here? Not the guy who carries politics onto the field in the form of a tattoo on his arm?
Not that it could happen here, of course. Not with the funny-looking geezer shouting the odds from the touchline whenever Buriram United FC are playing and the canvassers double as cheerleaders.