Paolo Di Canio - when sport and politics collide

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Paolo Di Canio's appointment at Sunderland has caused a media storm.
Paolo Di Canio's appointment at Sunderland has caused a media storm. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Yesterday's press conference at Sunderland's Academy of Light training base was illuminating in every way but one.

For a start, it was a masterclass in botched media management. A press officer warned reporters with a wag of her finger that "football" was the only f-word up for discussion.

Then she led Paolo Di Canio into the cramped media room and let him sit, alone, in front of the cameras.

He is a genuinely charismatic, engaging figure. He smiles, he jokes, he's charming. This should be fine.

Hang on… they're asking him about his politics… WHAT?... WHY?

Well, for the benefit of those and there are many who don't seem to get it, I'll explain.

Di Canio holds a Sunderland scarf for the cameras.
Di Canio holds a Sunderland scarf for the cameras. Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

You see, Di Canio has declared himself to be a fascist. It's not a label he's been saddled with, he put it there himself. In ink, under his skin.

On his impressive right bicep there's a tattoo, it bears the letters DVX, the Latin symbol for "Duce". It is a tribute to Mussolini. He's been photographed delivering a salute with that same right arm, to right wing hooligan fans. Eyes narrowed, teeth gritted, veins bulging. There was no ambiguity, this was a message, "I'm one of you", he was telling them. And he's said as much.

Now he finds himself in charge of a major football club, in the world's biggest league. He's working in a country, in a culture where we find it difficult to understand how symbolism like that can be lost in translation. He needs to explain.

Sunderland issued a wooly, written statement on Di Canio's background in the hours after he was hired. It suggested he'd been misquoted in the past, that football was his focus and it was time to move on.

Er, no it's not.

Di Canio dodges ITV News' question on fascist beliefs yesterday:

To the people of Wearside, Sunderland is not just the local team. The club, and its values, are at the heart of the community.

Their ground is built on an old coal pit. It's name, the Stadium of Light, is a tribute to the miners who worked beneath its foundations. A Davy lamp monument stands at its entrance. The club's links to the pits go back generations. Back beyond the days, in 1936, when the local miners' association sent men to fight against fascists in the Spanish civil war.

Di Canio may have the passion and the drive to help Sunderland avoid relegation, but for this club, more than virtually any other, he seems to be a bad fit.

But, you might ask, isn't he allowed to believe what he wants? Isn't that the very core of the democracy those miners went to fight for?

Well, yes. But here's the next problem; what exactly does Paolo Di Canio believe?

Di Canio during his days as manager of Swindon Town.
Di Canio during his days as manager of Swindon Town. Credit: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

He's told journalists in the past that he's "a fascist but not a racist". Using history as a guide, it's difficult to see where the distinction lies.

The universally respected journalist, Gabrielle Marcotti, helped us with an explanation yesterday. He ghost-wrote Di Canio's autobiography. He knows the man as well as anyone, perhaps.

"When he said what he said it was in Italian, it has a certain context and it is perhaps viewed differently than it is here because it is a different country and it has a different history. Fascism in the UK brings to mind Hitler. In Italy it brings to mind other things, some good some bad", he said.

"Fascists have been part of the ruling coalition since the 1990s, they sit in the European parliament.

"Of course there are extremists neo nazis but that's not him".

Then we spoke to Alfonso Dessi, the historian of Di Canio's beloved Lazio in Rome. Time constraints meant we couldn't use his interview in our reports yesterday, but here's what he said:

It's possible, perhaps probable, that they're both right. That Paolo Di Canio, the maverick hero of the Lazio hooligans, believes in a form of fascism that's misunderstood outside Italy.

So tell us, Paolo, please. Because we're not just being intrusive, people here genuinely want to know.

There's a nasty undercurrent swirling in parts of Sunderland at the moment. The English Defence League have been on the streets, ant-fascist groups have gone out to confront them. These have not been minor skirmishes, but protests involving hundreds. Police have struggled, batons drawn, to keep order. Rocks and bottles have been thrown. Like it or not, Di Canio will be popular among the EDL. They'll lap up the image that he's saddled with just now. And they're the very type of people English football is working hard to shake off.

So, Paolo, your politics can't be a private matter any more. Your new job carries huge responsibility. People believe they have a right to know what kind of fascist you are. Yesterday's press conference was unpleasant for all of us - but until we get answers, we'll keep asking.

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