The football manager Paolo Di Canio, who once described himself as a fascist, has attempted to quell a growing row over his appointment to coach Sunderland FC in the North East of England, by insisting that he is not a racist and that some of his best friends are black.
Following a wave of concern from fans, anti-racism campaigners and the local authority of Sunderland at the 44-year old's previous political statements and record of raising straight arm salutes, Di Canio rubbished suggestions he is racist as “absolutely stupid and ridiculous”.
‘I am a fascist, not a racist’
In 2005, the Italian twice gave straight-arm salutes to fans of Lazio, the Rome club where he was playing, and reportedly declared afterwards: “I am a fascist, not a racist.”
He has “Dux”, the Latin for Il Duce, the name by which the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was known, tattooed on his right biceps and he wrote in his autobiography that he was fascinated by Mussolini whom he described as “a very principled individual”.
In a statement issued by Sunderland FC “regarding the inaccurate portrayal of his beliefs and values from some quarters” Di Canio said: “When I was in England my best friends were Trevor Sinclair and Chris Powell, the Charlton manager [both former black players] – 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.”
Sunderland's chief executive, Margaret Byrne, also mounted a thinly veiled attack on former foreign secretary David Miliband, who resigned as the club's vice-chairman on Sunday in protest at Di Canio's politics. Byrne rebuked those “trying to turn the appointment of a head coach into a political circus”.
‘We have a sacred obligation’
On Monday night the Durham Miners' Association said it was writing to Sunderland to demand the return of the Wearmouth miners' banner, which is on permanent display at the Stadium of Light, in protest at the decision to appoint Di Canio.
“Our banner represents the Durham miners' long struggle for the rights of the working class, rights which were annihilated by fascism in Germany, Italy, Spain and Chile,” said Dave Hopper, general secretary of the Durham Miners' Association, who worked for 27 years as a miner at Wearmouth Colliery, the site on which the Stadium of Light stands.
We have a sacred obligation to the millions who were wiped out by Hitler, Mussolini and Franco to oppose fascism wherever and in whatever context this evil creed raises its head, particularly at a time when working people are again being forced to pay for capitalism's crisis as they were in Europe in the 1920s and 30s.
“The appointment of Di Canio is a disgrace and a betrayal of all who fought and died in the fight against fascism.
“Everyone must speak out and oppose this outrage and call on Ellis Short and the Sunderland Board to reverse their decision.”
Byrne said of Di Canio: “[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.”
‘Massive reaction from fans’
“There has been a massive reaction from fans,” said Martyn McFadden, editor of A Love Supreme, a leading Sunderland fanzine. “Some are saying why bring politics into it, but others, including people whose parents and grandparents fought and died in the second world war disagree strongly with that.
“It has been an unbelievable few days for many. On Saturday there were African drummers on the pitch at half time and the whole match presentation was themed around the club's new association with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the next day they employ a manager who has described himself as a fascist.”
Sunderland council leader Paul Watson said: “We hope there is a commitment from the club that this won't conflict with the anti-fascist work we are supporting.” He said the council would debate the implications of Di Canio's appointment if it is not satisfied with the club's response to concern about the Italian's past affiliations with fascism.
In 2011, when Di Canio was appointed as manager of Swindon Town, the GMB union withdrew its sponsorship of the club, saying: “We could not be seen to have a financial relationship with a club that has fascist manager.”
Piara Powar, Executive Director of the FARE network, said the appointment could encourage the far-right. “There is no question that to have a manager who calls himself a fascist at a high profile Premier League club will encourage those movements,” he said. “I think there is no place in a sport which seeks to make a positive impact on social relations and its community to have someone who says 'I am a fascist and I admire Mussolini'.”