Paolo Di Canio and Fascism: Why It Matters

April 2, 2013 in Premier League

Here’s the thing. Last night I got into a wee spat with some people about Paolo Di Canio’s appointment as the new manager of Sunderland AFC. I was angry and said some things I kinda regret. Also, I implicitly claimed authority on an issue that, quite frankly, I didn’t know enough about. But today I’ve done some more research, taken a big step back and breathed a loud sigh. So here goes nothing…

If you didn’t know, Sunderland Association Football Club are a Premier League team who have spiralled down the league table over the past few years. In their appointment of manager Martin O’Neill, back in 2011, they saw someone with a proven record of achievement. His work with Aston Villa was really quite good, leading them to a 6th place finish for three seasons running. But now, his inability to change SAFC’s downturn in form has cost him his job. O’Neill’s last match was a 1-0 loss to Manchester United.

SAFC have acted quickly to replace O’Neill. Keen to show forethought and a collective strength, they’ve already instated a new manager. This man is Paolo Di Canio, who had left Swindon Town after claiming he was mistreated by the Board of Directors. Now, here’s where it gets a bit tricky. Di Canio isn’t your average football manager. In fact, he seems to have a whole chunk of personality. He is driven, disciplined and passionate, evidenced by the fact that Swindon were promoted in his debut managerial season. Nevertheless, in the past, he has openly stated that he is a fascist. He admires Mussolini and has a tattoo on his bicep that reads DVX (a Latinate term meaning “leader” that Mussolini used to represent his reign).

Of course, of course, of course, this is very problematic. In response to the appointment, David Miliband MP has stepped down from the SAFC board. In a statement, he said: “I wish Sunderland AFC all success in the future. It is a great institution that does a huge amount for the North East and I wish the team very well over the next vital seven games. However, in the light of the new manager’s past political statements, I think it right to step down.” I think we have to take DM’s words with a teeny bit of scepticism here.[1] And some will doubtless say that this decision to step down was an easy one to make – after all, he is about to step down as an MP and move to New York. But be aware of this from Michael Crick:

“What was odd was that, until Di Canio, David Miliband planned to remain Sunderland director, despite quitting as S Shields MP + move to NYC”

Anyway, so what are Di Canio’s “past political statements”, as Miliband outlined? Well, there’s the fact that in 2005 he was reprimanded for (repeatedly!) offering a Nazi-like salute to the Lazio fans. On the incident, Di Canio originally said “I’m a fascist, not a racist”, as if that somehow lets him off the hook. To cut a long story short, there is an ongoing debate over whether Di Canio’s salute (pictured below) is a neo-fascist gesture or not. Writing on this subject, the Independent’s Robert Chalmers interview with Di Canio makes for interesting reading:

“Di Canio’s ultimate allegiance has always been to Lazio; so much so that, one day in January 2005, while celebrating a goal in front of their disconcertingly right-wing fans, he was moved to the point that he raised his right arm to join them in their trademark Roman salute. The gesture was an ancient historical practice, Di Canio claimed, even if, to the untrained eye, it was indistinguishable from a more recent, Germanic sign of allegiance. He repeated the salute twice more in Lazio colours, and as a result has been branded by some as an ideologically committed, fully fledged fascist activist.

When Swindon Town chairman Jeremy Wray showed the initiative (and, it has to be said, the courage) to appoint Di Canio, one of the club’s sponsors, the GMB union, withdrew its support, reluctant to be associated with a man some still perceive, mistakenly, as a neo-Nazi.”

The tone of the passage – and the rest of the interview, for that matter – feels like Chalmers was, well, charmed by Di Canio. And that’s fine. He does seem like a personable man. But I’m not quite sure whether the reference to “the untrained eye” is ironic or not. Moreover, the word “mistakenly” is incredibly bold. We’re treading in pretty murky territories here.

My problem with Di Canio’s appointment isn’t necessarily that he appears to house fascist tendencies. People should be forgiven for things they’ve done in the past, and PDC claims to not be racist or whatever. But in an official statement for SAFC, published on their website today, Paolo says that:

“I don’t have a problem with anyone. I haven’t had a problem in the past and 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. 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. My first priority is my family and my daughters, that’s obvious, and secondly to have the responsibility for thousands of people. This is my priority and I want to be focused on this aspect. I don’t want to talk any more about politics – I am not a politics person.”

It’s understandable that PDC is exasperated with the scenario he is in, having to always justify and prove himself. However, the above statement does not directly address his previous assertion that he is “a fascist, not a racist.” In fact, it skirts round it quite conveniently. One unavoidable problem is that, more often that not, fascism involves systemic racism. There’s little denying that.

Anyway, if we allow PDC his claim that “I don’t have a problem with anyone [and] I haven’t had a problem in the past”, then in my eyes, his situation becomes comparable to an age-old moral struggle: how do we divorce someone’s abhorrent political beliefs from their quite splendid art? It’s like buying the latest album from Chris Brown (not that you would want to). Or, maybe it’s similar to James Brown, who was also charged with assaulting his partner. More fittingly, the likeness is there between PDC and Danish film director Lars Von Trier. LVT said some bat-shit crazy things at a press conference in Cannes, prompting international outcry.

In these kinds of situations, you (forcedly) postpone your politics and engage in their work, or art. And football is most definitely art. The way Di Canio executed that scissor-kick volley. You know the one. This one. That was art, not fascism. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t like that goal. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy LVT’s film Melancholia.

But here lies my major concern: what sort of message does this appointment send out? Football is already a disgustingly prejudiced institution. Every single level oozes with racism, sexism, fascism, homophobia, etc. Just look at Robbie Rogers, the former Leeds winger, who is arguably football’s first out homosexual.[2] In an enlightening interview with the Guardian, Rogers talked about how difficult coming out was, as well as his reasons for retiring at the early age of 25. We’ve had the John Terry/Anton Ferdinand case, etc.

Charities and organisations who work to make football a more inclusive place (such as Kick It Out, for example) surely will not welcome the news. This is a decision that could realistically backfire. People on Twitter have been very quick to criticise opponents of PDC’s appointment as jumping on a “bandwagon.” Vocal Twitter persona and football-lover Stan Collymore, to merely pick out one from a plethora of names, said:

“Faux outrage as always on twitter . No Italian ex footballer every called me Nigger. Just plenty from the wonderful UK shires.”

First of all, let me just say that anti-fascism isn’t a bandwagon. This is serious. And by the way, it’s just as easy to shout “bandwagon” as it is to jump on one. That aside, Collymore also asked critics where they were when PDC took charge of Swindon, or where were they when he was still playing football? One answer is that a lot of people on Twitter are too young to have known about this in the 90s. I was a kid when he scored that goal, as were 40% of Twitter’s users. And also, believe it or not, not everybody knew that he was the manager of Swindon Town. Some people don’t keep up-to-date with League One. I’m sorry but it’s true. But the reason people know about it now is that by being given the managerial position of such a club, a global club with millions of supporters, the issue has been raised to a higher populous of people.

Now, I’m not saying that PDC should have been shown the door by the Sunderland board when he had his interview, but what I am saying is that it hardly sends out the right message if a high-profile football club gets behind someone who has pretty shady political opinions. Anti-fascism doesn’t exist to destroy fascists, but to destroy fascism. By proxy of their choice, Sunderland are granting his politics legitimacy and normalising them. Football clubs are multicultural hotbeds of collective spirit. They are supposed to lead the lines in targeting racism. But what of SAFC’s partnership with Invest In Africa? What of their cooperation with Kick Racism Out Of Football?

By postponing ethics in favour of short-term success, Sunderland have granted a platform to fascism. Sure, he won’t use his post-match interviews to reveal his neo-fascist plans for world purification, but this is an incredibly dodgy appointment. Watch this space.

[1] Miliband is a brilliant public speaker who articulates his opinions well, but nevertheless there always has been the sweet smell of champagne socialism hanging round his politics. I mean, like, he voted for the war in Iraq. That sort of stuff.

[2] how the hell are we living in a world where this has happened as late as 2013? Football sucks.