The world of Sunderland football club was in a vastly different state on Saturday.
Sunderland’s match on March 30, against Manchester United, was designated as Nelson Mandela Day to celebrate the new partnership between the club and the Nelson Mandela Foundation (this had been organized before the former South African President went into hospital last week). Despite a narrow 1-0 loss to Man U, the side all but assured the English Premier League (EPL) title, Sunderland manager Martin O’Neill remained confident that his charges would escape relegation into a lower league. “I am as buoyant now as – I was nearly going to say as I have always been,” he told the BBC.
(VIDEO: Nelson Mandela’s Life and Leadership)
But Sunderland’s chairman, American Ellis Short, didn’t share O’Neill’s sunny disposition. Soon after this interview, Short dismissed O’Neill. And his choice of replacement has caused considerable friction. The reason? The former Italian soccer player – and most recently, manager of second tier side Swindon Town – Paolo Di Canio, who has taken the reins at the Stadium of Light, has admitted in the past to having fascist leanings. In 2005, he reportedly told the Italian news agency ANSA, “I am a fascist, not a racist,” as an explanation for his straight arm salute while playing for Italian side Lazio (he received a one-match ban and fined $10,600 for the incident, and was also banned for a game following a similar incident that same year). The salute, according to Di Canio, was aimed at “my people” – that has been interpreted as members of Benito Mussolini’s fascist movement – though Di Canio didn’t want his gesture to incite racial hatred and has said he’s been misquoted. That said, the 44-year-old has “Dux,” which is Latin for Il Duce – the name by which Mussolini was known – tattooed on his right bicep. In his 2000 autobiography, Di Canio wrote that he was fascinated by the former Italian dictator, whom he reportedly labelled “a very principled individual” who was “deeply misunderstood” (it should also be pointed out that Di Canio was disgusted by Mussolini’s “vile” traits).
Whether you agree or disagree with Sunderland chief executive Margaret Byrne, who said of Di Canio that, “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,” the fallout has been fierce. Ex-foreign secretary David Miliband, who recently announced that he would be leaving British politics to take up a position in New York as head of the International Rescue Committee, and who served as Sunderland’s vice-chairman and non-executive director, has resigned from the board due to Di Canio’s “past political statements.” And the Durham Miners’ Association has requested that the club return the Wearmouth Miners’ Banner, which is on permanent display in the stadium. “I, like many thousands of miners, have supported Sunderland from infancy and are passionate about football,” said DMA general secretary Dave Hopper. “But there are principles which are much more important.”
(Q&A: Margaret Byrne, CEO of EPL Team Sunderland)
Yet Lord Ouseley, the chairman of Kick It Out, the anti-racism in soccer campaign, said the group doesn’t have an issue with Di Canio. “In a world of free speech and free expression he’s allowed to have political views and to say things,” he said. “As long as they’re not offending and abusing other people, clearly there’s no basis for us to challenge him.” And Sello Hatang, of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, has confirmed meeting with Sunderland’s management on Monday “to discuss the public debates around Sunderland’s new coach” and “Mr Di Canio participated in the meeting.”
But what of Di Canio himself? At his first press conference Tuesday, he was on the defensive (the very antithesis of his career as an attacking player), stating that the controversy surrounding his appointment was “ridiculous and pathetic,” and that “I don’t want to talk about politics. I’m not in the Houses of Parliament, I’m not a political person, I will only talk about football.” A day later, he clarified his comments, noting that “I am not political, I do not affiliate myself to any organisation. I am not a racist. I do not support the ideology of fascism. I respect everyone. I am a football man. This and my family are my focus.” He then added, “Now I will speak only of football.”
Speaking of football, there’s urgent work to be done. With seven games to play, Sunderland is in a precarious position, just one point above the relegation zone (the bottom three teams in the EPL standings go into a lower league and one of those sides currently below Sunderland has eight games left). Di Canio’s first game in charge is on the road this Sunday at Chelsea, which won’t be easy. By the time of his first derby match the following Sunday at local rivals, Newcastle United, both teams could be fighting for survival.
Di Canio says that he’d “bet everything” on his ability to keep Sunderland safe from relegation. “The reality is that we have a fight on our hands,” chairman Short wrote before the defeat to Manchester United. “But right now, it is important for us all to be on the same side and get behind the team. Not being together will not help us to get results, so let’s stand shoulder to shoulder and give the team our full support.” If Sunderland starts picking up points, it will be interesting to see if the team’s fans get behind their man — even if they don’t agree with his politics.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect Paolo Di Canio’s statement on Wednesday