LONDON − The desperate appointment of a new manager to a struggling team in England’s Premier League has caused a surprising controversy combining professional sport, the politics of Britain and Italy, and European history.
Sunderland AFC, a medium-sized soccer team in north-east England fighting for survival in the top flight, fired its manager, Martin O’Neill, on Saturday night following a particularly poor performance at home which ended in a 0-1 loss to league leader Manchester United, capping a run of eight games without victory.
If a team replacing its manager when hovering just a point above the relegation zone with only seven matches to go until the season’s end is commonplace, what surprised almost everyone was the identity of Sunderland’s prospective savior − the club’s secretive owner and Texan billionaire Ellis Short selected a man who has never managed a high-level team, Paolo Di Canio, the mercurial former Italian playmaker whose coaching record includes so far 22 months at League One (the third-tier league in English soccer) Swindon.
If anything, Di Canio is known for one of the most controversial careers of a professional player in the history of the beautiful game, a career spanning 23 years during which he played for Italian, English and Scottish teams but is particularly identified with Lazio, the Rome team notorious for its violent and fascist “ultra” fans, the Irriducibili.
Di Canio was a player of contradictions. Heated confrontations with his managers lead to him being dropped from top Italian sides Juventus and AC Milan and never being included in Italy’s senior national team, despised the prolific striker’s undoubted talent and passion for the game.
His later career at English teams Sheffield United, West Ham United and Charlton Athletic was no less volatile. He is remembered in England both for a 1998 incident in which he pushed a referee to the ground and was subsequently banned for 11 matches, and for scoring a spectacular volley of a goal in 2000, considered by some as one of the finest ever scored on English soil. In 2001, he exhibited a rare sense of sportsmanship when he refrained from scoring a sure goal when the opposing goalkeeper had fallen to a twisted knee, and received the FIFA Fair Play Award.
At each of his teams, he frustrated his managers with his headstrong behavior and was beloved by supporters for his complete devotion to the team.
But what many remember Di Canio for is his politics. On his return home to Lazio in 2004, he repeatedly celebrated goals by saluting fans with the fascist “Roman” salute, for which he was penalized but continued doing to the delight of the Irriducibili.
Over the years, Di Canio, who has a tattoo of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s Latin title, has tried to explain in interviews and his autobiography that he is “a fascist, not a racist,” and it is true that he has never been known to have made a racist comment and has spoken repeatedly against racism in soccer. He wrote that “I am fascinated by Mussolini. I think he was a deeply misunderstood individual. He deceived people. His actions were often vile. But all this was motivated by a higher purpose. He was basically a very principled individual. Yet he turned against his sense of right and wrong. He compromised his ethics.”
Di Canio’s particular brand of fascism, one that he claims emphasizes loyalty and ethics and despises modern Italian politics, has not prevented many British soccer fans and commentators from admiring him − at the rowdy north London club of West Ham he is still particularly revered and at Swindon, where he launched his managerial career in 2011, he is worshiped for having secured league promotion in his first season and for his dedication to players and fans, including the way he worked with 200 volunteers overnight to clear the playing field from snow, allowing a game to be played the following day.
But despite all this, also in Swindon, the star manager ended his tenure prematurely and in acrimony following disputes with both the club’s chairman and league administrators.
But Di Canio remained unemployed for less than two months, Sunderland’s travails affording him a chance to manage a team in the highest-profile soccer league in the world.
It seems that Di Canio’ appointment may have been greeted mainly with amusement and anticipation by the British soccer community, if it wasn’t for the announcement of David Miliband, the former British foreign minister who served for the past two years as Sunderland’s vice chairman, that while he still wished the team “all success in the future,” he felt “that in light of the new manager’s past political statements, I think it right to step down.”
Miliband’s decision has now made this a political issue. Only last week, Miliband, the brother of Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, and the man who was himself seen by many in the past as a future prime minister (until his younger brother surprisingly beat him in the leadership election), announced just last week that he was retiring from British politics and moving to New York to head an international relief organization.
Britain is still in its Easter holiday and the Di Canio-Miliband fracas has yet to cause a major stir, though on Twitter some have lauded the ex-politician for his principled stand with others slating him for mixing politics with sport. It remains to be see whether soccer supporters in Britain or Italy will connect Miliband’s position with his Jewishness and the fact that both his parents were Holocaust refugees.
Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem that Di Canio’s appointment is in jeopardy, though lobby group Football Against Racism in Europe has called upon him to clarify his political beliefs and distance himself from fascism. But the fact that Di Canio is seen as a legitimate candidate to manage at the highest levels of European soccer raises a bigger issue than the ongoing struggle against racism on soccer grounds which despite countless campaigns, still won’t go away.
Di Canio’s appointment comes at a time when fascism in Italy, and across the continent, seems to be making something of a comeback. The success of the Five Stars Movement, which received a quarter of the votes in the Italian election less than two months ago, an anti-politics non-party supported by neo-fascist groups such as Casa Pound and with members who, like Di Canio, openly admire Mussolini, proves that such a message has many believers in a society which has lost all trust in its political class.
Fascism has had little success in Britain, where far-right parties have failed to enter parliament and are largely marginalized. But the tolerance and even affection for the charismatic anti-hero Di Canio, and the speed with which he has made it to the top in soccer, is a troubling indicator that no European country is immune to the anarchic charm of fascism.