Paolo Di Canio: Accusations of racism against me are 'stupid'

Paolo Di Canio's appointment at Swindon has been marred by discussion of his political views. Photo: PA

Paolo Di Canio has defended himself against criticism of his political beliefs following his appointment as Sunderland manager.

The Italian told Italian news agency ANSA in 2005 "I am a fascist, not a racist", and his appointment yesterday to succeed Martin O'Neill prompted former foreign secretary David Milliband to stand down as Sunderland's vice-chairman and non-executive director.

But in a statement released today by the club, Di Canio said: "I don't have a problem with anyone. I don't know why I have to keep repeating my story, to be defending myself on something that doesn't belong to me every time I change clubs. Talk about racism? That is absolutely stupid, stupid and ridiculous."

Miliband said yesterday on www.davidmiliband.net: "In the light of the new manager's past political statements, I think it right to step down."

But former Swindon chairman Jeremy Wray, who gave Di Canio his first chance in management, today dismissed that stance as a "sad knee-jerk reaction".

And Di Canio said: "What I can say is that if someone is hurt, I am sorry. But this didn't come from me - it came from a big story that people put out in a different way to what it was.

"The people who know me can change that idea quickly. When I was in England my best friends were Trevor Sinclair and Chris Powell, the Charlton manager - they can tell you everything about my character.

"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. I don't want to talk any more about politics - I am not a politics person."

Sunderland's chief executive officer Margaret Byrne added in the same statement: "Sunderland AFC is a traditional football club, with a rich and proud history. It has a strong ethos and ethics and that has not changed in any shape or form.

"Naturally it's been very disappointing to read some of the reaction to Paolo's appointment in the last 24 hours. Anyone who has met Paolo and spoken with him personally, as we did in depth before making this appointment, will know that he 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.

"Paolo has spoken emotively and at length in order to clarify some of the misconceptions that surround him and historical comments and actions attributed to him in the past.

"My role and that of the board is to act in the best interests of this club at all times and in appointing Paolo Di Canio we feel we have done just that. It is disappointing that some people are trying to turn the appointment of a head coach into a political circus.

"We are a football club and now want to allow Paolo and the team to focus on the rest of the season."

Sunderland dismissed O'Neill on Saturday evening following the club's 1-0 home defeat against league leaders Manchester United.

That result left the Black Cats without a win in eight games and just a point clear of the relegation zone.

With seven games remaining, Di Canio faces a fight to keep Sunderland in the top flight, particularly with top scorer Steven Fletcher out for the remainder of the season with an ankle ligament injury.