At the very least there had been a modicum of honesty to Di Canio’s answers at a press conference last Tuesday, when the Italian was introduced as the new manager of Sunderland Football Club. Under the watchful eye of the club’s public relations officer, Di Canio “declined to answer” questions from the assembled media about his sympathies for the far-right. When asked if he was a fascist he said, “I don’t have to answer that question anymore”. And indeed he doesn’t. Because, quite aside from the Nazi salutes and the Mussolini tattoo, he has already openly stated: “I am a fascist”.
The response to Paulo Di Canio’s appointment as Sunderland boss has been quite remarkable. It is not often that I find myself applauding the political integrity of David Miliband, but his decision to resign from the board of Sunderland FC is to be congratulated. The Durham National Union of Mineworkers demanded the return of their banner, on loan at the Stadium of Light, saying, “We are writing to the club asking for the return of the banner unless Di Canio says he is not a fascist. Otherwise his appointment will besmirch the memory of the miners who lost their lives in the fight against fascism in World War II. We do not want our union associated with the club now.” His appointment even made the front page of the red-tops, complete with images of Di Canio sieg heilling. When the Daily Star out you as a piece of racist filth then you know the game is up. UAF released a short, cutting statement, while Hope not Hate detailed some of Di Canio’s previous:
Di Canio was then fined 10,000 Euros and suspended for one game by the Italian football authorities for making the fascist salute against Roma When Lazio played Livorno, a team known for its left-wing following, Di Canio also raised his arm in a fascist salute. Whilst the Livorno fans chanted anti-fascist songs, visiting Lazio “Irriducibili” Ultras held up a swastika banner. Particularly outraged by Di Canio’s salute were various Jewish groups within Italy, including the president of the Italian Maccabi Federation, Vittorio Pavoncello who called on Lazio and the Italian authorities to take action. However, in a display of abject antisemitism, Di Canio replied arrogantly to the criticism declaring: “If we are in the hands of the Jewish community it’s the end”Di Canio has previously attempted to defend himself on the grounds that he is a fascist but not a racist. As though this somehow makes everything okay! I presume that, since Di Canio, as both a player and a manager, has made a living in a multicultural football world, this is a thoroughly self-serving, hypocritical statement designed to reassure potential employers. But it is worth pausing for a moment on this thought. Fascismo was a counter-revolutionary, anti-working class ideology, which never relied upon racism to the same extent as the Nazi’s despicable deployment of anti-Semitism. Perhaps Di Canio was trying to articulate a historical subtlety when he said that he was “a fascist but not a racist”. Perhaps – but not fucking likely. Even if we accept that Di Canio actually believes this then there are two points. Firstly, Mussolini was both a fascist and a racist, as this quote Il Duce demonstrates:
“[When the] city dies, the nation—deprived of the young life-blood of new generations—is now made up of people who are old and degenerate and cannot defend itself against a younger people which launches an attack on the now unguarded frontiers [...] This will happen, and not just to cities and nations, but on an infinitely greater scale: the whole white race, the western race can be submerged by other coloured races which are multiplying at a rate unknown in our race.”Fascism and racism have dove-tailed from the outset – and have remained inseparable bedfellows ever since. Irrespective of whatever Di Canio may believe, and this is the second point, his actions and words as a public figure have a profound effect. Did the racist sections of the Lazio supporters listen when he protested in 2005 that, “With this stiff arm I do not want to incite violence or racial hatred"? When bigots booed Mario Balotelli did they wonder if this was an expression of racist or fascist ideology? When Lazio’s fascist Ultras stabbed a Tottenham fan while shouting “Fucking Yids”, did they appreciate the nuance of Di Canio’s thought? When Di Canio declared that he is a fascist – racist or otherwise – he aligns himself with these people, inspires them and helps to legitimise their obscene beliefs.
Given that these facts have been known for some time it is striking how the sports media seem to have only just cottoned on to the story. In fact far too many journalists have spent the last few seasons singing the Italian’s praises. When managing Swindon, Di Canio had a reputation for playing the game the ‘right’ way – attractive, pass and move football, played at pace and with a premium on control, possession and skill. And he was successful – as he was never shy of pointing out. But it was his off-the-field persona that made Di Canio 'interesting'. In a game of corporatized blandness he stood out as a man who would speak his mind, always providing the expectant horde of hacks with a quote to make the morning papers.
This is no mean feat given the Premiership-obsessed nature of the national media. Yet his popularity (at least for the press) was more than an interesting turn of phrase. Di Canio had previous. As a player he had acquired cult-status at West Ham, been a striker of undoubted flair, and had been responsible for that push of referee Paul Alcock. His image as a bad-boy footballer-cum-manager meant headlines – and headlines meant sales.
As a boss he was cast in the role of quirky anachronism; a throwback to a time when people were unafraid to speak their minds and make bizarre tactical decisions. During one game, in a fit of pique after his side had conceded an early goal, he substituted his goalkeeper. Inevitably comparisons were drawn between Di Canio and Brian Clough. Both were outspoken mavericks, both more than capable of erratic behaviour, perhaps they even share that indefinable quality that too often gets mislabelled as ‘genius’.
Now, Clough was no angel. And, as this post explores, his treatment of the gay footballer Justin Fashanu was unforgiveable. But Brian Clough was no fascist; he never approached the home supporters to give a straight arm salute. He was working class, supported trade unions, gave money to campaigns, and most importantly was one of the original signatories to the Anti-Nazi League. The idea that he and Di Canio can be lumped together in the same breath is quite simply lazy journalism at its very worst.
If Di Canio’s new found political beliefs are to be believed he needs actions as well as a choice phrase or two. He needs to put himself at the heart of the struggle against racism in sport and oppose all forms of bigotry in football. He needs to stand up and be counted without the pressure of a PR department. Following the succession of racist incidents that has blighted the game over the past twelve months the necessity of anti-racist work in the world of football is greater now than at any other time since the early 1980s. Will Paulo's Damascene conversion prompt an engagement with the efforts of anti-racist organisations such as Kick It Out or Show Racism the Red Card?
I for one cannot see it happening. Instead Di Canio has received a character reference from none other than Chelsea captain John Terry. In a seemingly bizarre attempt at satire the racist described the fascist as a "nice guy". Of course he did. Di Canio’s back-peddling is motivated by the express desire to save his own skin, his career and his current managerial contract which is no doubt worth millions of pounds. The Sunderland board have taken an enormous gamble – one which they do not seem to fully understand. They are quite literally banking on Di Canio staving off demotion to the second tier of English football. Employing an avowed fascist is nothing compared to losing their slice of the billions of pounds top-flight clubs will receive in television rights revenue next season. Unsurprisingly all eyes are now on the North East - in the words of the former Swindon Town chairman Jeremy Wray, "Di Canio is box office". But the man charged with ensuring Sunderland’s Premier League survival is doing more damage to the club’s reputation than relegation ever could.