Can someone who has admitted to supporting fascism manage a Premier League team?
That question has engulfed English football since Paolo Di Canio was hired by Sunderland on Sunday.
Within seconds of Sunderland trumpeting Di Canio’s appointment, vice chairman David Miliband - a former British Foreign Secretary - responded by quitting the club in protest at the new manager’s “past political statements.”
The clearest was: “I am a fascist, not a racist.”
There was also the straight-arm salute Di Canio performed in 2005 in front of his Lazio team, which prompted FIFA to rebuke the Italian for performing a gesture adopted by the Italian Fascist regime in the early 20th century.
Di Canio’s arrival into management in the world’s richest football league has revived the controversies that followed him during a colourful playing career largely spent in Britain and Italy.
One his first jobs on Monday was to meet with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a partner of Sunderland, which wanted to discuss the row and seek assurances from the club about its commitment to fighting racism.
While Sunderland chief executive Margaret Byrne said Monday it was “insulting” to accuse Di Canio of “having fascist sympathies,” the manager himself is refusing to distance himself from his past support of fascism.
In a heated media conference on Tuesday — as a Sunderland press officer tried to silence reporters — Di Canio was repeatedly asked if he was a fascist.
Each question was rebuffed by the former striker.
“I don’t have to answer any more this question,” he said, pointing to a statement Monday in which he denied being racist without addressing whether he is a fascist.
“My life speaks for me, so there is no need to speak any more about this situation because it’s ridiculous and pathetic. I can’t every two weeks, every two months, every 10 months answer the same questions that are not really in my area. We are in a football club and not in the House of Parliament. I’m not a political person. I will talk about only football.”
Di Canio was hired a day after Martin O’Neill was fired Saturday following a 1-0 loss to Manchester United, which was designated “Nelson Mandela Day” at Sunderland to mark the new partnership with the hospitalized anti-apartheid leader’s foundation.
Di Canio joined team executives in a meeting Monday with the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory’s Sello Hatang, who confirmed they discussed “the public debates around Sunderland’s new coach.”
“At the heart of the partnership [with Sunderland] is a commitment to our founder’s values with a special focus on human rights and anti-racism,” Hatang said. “At the meeting on Monday, Sunderland reaffirmed its commitment to these values and the ethos of the partnership.
“It must be stressed that the centre’s relationship is with the club, not with any individual in the club. “
English football’s anti-racism group, Kick It Out, was more explicit: asking Di Canio to clarify his political beliefs and warning that its activities can be “compromised by inappropriate statements.”
“Football clubs have a responsibility to ensure that their employees demonstrate a commitment to anti-discrimination and equality of opportunity,” Kick It Out said in a statement. “It may be in the interest of both the club and Mr. Di Canio to acknowledge a full and frank commitment to these policies.”
When Di Canio was given his first managerial job by Swindon in 2011, a leading trade union withdrew its sponsorship of the English club over his past expression of admiration for Italy’s former fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
And union activists in northeast England responded to Di Canio’s arrival at Sunderland by expressing unhappiness at the fascist sympathies of the man who has played for Juventus, Napoli, AC Milan, Celtic and West Ham among other clubs before retiring in 2008.
Durham Miners’ Association General Secretary Dave Hopper, who worked in a colliery where Sunderland’s stadium now stands, said Di Canio’s appointment “is a disgrace and a betrayal of all who fought and died in the fight against fascism.”
“The people who are talking in this way, they don’t understand Paolo Di Canio,” Di Canio responded. “I don’t understand this problem.”
The manager’s task is keeping Sunderland in the Premier League, with the team sitting one point above the relegation zone with seven matches remaining.
Off the pitch, the club is now also fighting to salvage its reputation, with the Financial Times adding to the growing chorus of criticism.
“Struggling Sunderland is clearly gambling that the furor will be outweighed by the commercial benefit should Mr. Di Canio keep the club in the Premier League,” the newspaper said in an editorial published online late Tuesday. “This may be a mistake, but it is one that Sunderland must have the right to make. Its board should recognise, however, that the price tag is higher than it first thought.”
Sunderland’s American owner Ellis Short is yet to address the controversy consuming the 134-year-old club.