A local British church leader who comes from a German Jewish refugee family urged the Italian soccer manager at the heart of an escalating racism row in the UK to publicly renounce his support for fascism. The dean of Durham, the Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, said he was dismayed that Paolo Di Canio had not yet chosen to distance himself from fascism, and that he did not see how he could go on supporting Sunderland football club, where Di Canio was appointed manager on Sunday.

Paolo Di Canio (photo credit: CC-BY-SA-3.0/Hilton Teper)

Paolo Di Canio (photo credit: CC-BY-SA-3.0/Hilton Teper)

Di Canio, a former Italian international, was appointed Sunday to coach the English Premier League club. But a history of controversy — which included giving a Nazi-style straight-arm salute to fans when he played for Rome club Lazio in 1995, his declaration in an interview 10 years later that “I am a fascist, not a racist,” and his expressions of empathy for Benito Mussolini — has sparked a bitter dispute over the appointment.

The UK’s Daily Mail on Wednesday published photographs of Di Canio attending the 2010 funeral of Paolo Signorelli, who it described as “a senior member of the Italian Socialist movement which grew out of the collapse of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist party,” and who “spent eight years in jail on remand after a bomb was set off killing 85 people at Bologna railway station in 1980.”

Sadgrove, a longtime supporter of Sunderland, said he was unsure whether he could go on backing the club with Di Canio as its coach. In an open letter to Di Canio, Sadgrove noted that he himself has Jewish origins — both his parents were Jewish — an issue he discussed at greater length at a Holocaust memorial ceremony just two months ago.

Michael Sadgrove (photo credit: Courtesy)

Michael Sadgrove (photo credit: Courtesy)

He wrote to Di Canio, “I am the child of a Jewish war refugee who got out of Germany and came to Britain just in time. Some of [my mother's] family and friends perished in the Nazi death camps. So I find your self-confessed fascism deeply troubling. Fascism was nearly the undoing of the world.”

Noting that Di Canio has expressed empathy for Mussolini, Sadgrove pointed out that the Italian wartime leader “openly colluded” with the Nazis.

“You say that you are not a racist, but it needs great sophistication to understand how fascism and racism are ultimately different,” Sadgrove continued. “I can promise you that this distinction will be lost on the people of the North East where the [far-right] British National Party is finding fertile ground in which to sow the seeds of its pernicious and poisonous doctrine.

“You did not necessarily know this before you came. But I believe that unless you clearly renounce fascism in all its manifestations, you will be associated with these toxic far-right tendencies we have seen too much of in this region.

“At your press conference… you had the chance to do this, to say in so many words that you have been misunderstood (just as you say Mussolini was). You were asked where you stood on fascism, but declined to give an unambiguous response. One sentence is all that it would have taken. I’m genuinely perplexed as to why you didn’t take the opportunity that was handed to you… Don’t you see that it is no answer to plead that this press call was about football, not politics. Where a Premier League club is concerned, you can’t ever separate the two. Politics and high-profile sport, like religion, are about the whole of life. Football is deeply political. To say otherwise may be convenient, but it’s naïve.”

The dean noted that “Premier League players and managers are big role-models for the young. Is fascism what you or Sunderland FC want our children and teenagers to admire and emulate? And if this doesn’t trouble you personally,” he asked, “should it not trouble those who appointed you?”

Sadrove concluded his letter by asking, “Please tell me how to go on supporting” Sunderland “with a good conscience, even from the sofa, because believe me, I want to. Please tell me that I have misunderstood, or missed some fundamental issue here. I am simply telling you with a heavy heart that it feels hard at the moment to stay loyal.”

Piara Power, the director of the activist group “Football Against Racism in Europe,” said Monday that Di Canio’s appointment risked boosting the European far right, adding, “There is no place in a sport which seeks to draw out positive impacts on social relations and community to have someone who says ‘I am a fascist and I admire Mussolini’.”

And the head of the local Durham Miners’ Association — whose former Wearmouth Colliery is now the site of Sunderland’s stadium — called the appointment of Di Canio “a disgrace and a betrayal of all who fought and died in the fight against fascism” and demanded that the club reverse it.

Daily Star, April 2, 2013

Daily Star, April 2, 2013

The dispute has become headline news in the UK. The tabloid Daily Star on Tuesday splashed a picture of Di Canio giving his fascist salute in 1995 on its front page, with the headline, “Di Canio: I am not a racist (So how do you explain this salute?)”

At the Tuesday morning press conference mentioned by Sadgrove, Di Canio, 44, tried not to answer questions about his political beliefs, and suggested that his fascism and racism comments in the 2005 Italian interview were “twisted.”

“The fans have to think that my life speaks for me,’ he said, according to Britain’s Press Association. “Call Trevor Sinclair, call Chris Powell (black former soccer players). Call (agent) Phil Spencer, he’s Jewish. Call them…” Powell, interviewed subsequently by British journalists, said nothing definitive about Di Canio’s politics or worldview, merely noting dryly that his appointment by Sunderland was a “bold” move.

“What do I have to apologise for?” Di Canio asked on Tuesday. “I never made a statement. It’s the media who have twisted a long interview… I don’t have to answer this question any more… 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.”

Britain's then-foreign secretary David Miliband visits the Max Rayne school for bilingual education in Jerusalem,  in November 2008. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon / FLASH90.)

Britain’s then-foreign secretary David Miliband visits the Max Rayne school for bilingual education in Jerusalem, in November 2008. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/FLASH90)

David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary, said Sunday he could not continue as a vice chairman and a director of Sunderland with Di Canio at the club. “I wish Sunderland AFC all success in the future,” Miliband stated. “However, in the light of the new manager’s past political statements, I think it right to step down.”

Miliband joined the board of the club two years ago, after narrowly losing a race to lead Britain’s opposition Labor party to his younger brother Ed. The Miliband brothers are the children of Polish Jewish immigrants.

Di Canio was named Sunday to take over at Sunderland, after the club sacked its well-regarded coach Martin O’Neill as it battles to avoid relegation from English soccer’s top Premier League.

A former Italian international, Di Canio was a controversial player with an explosive temper, who gave the Nazi salute when playing for Lazio at a game in Rome in 1995 (and was banned for a game and fined as a result) and declared in a 2005 interview that, “I am a fascist, not a racist.” In an autobiography, he wrote of Mussolini, “His actions were often vile. But all this was motivated by a higher purpose. He was basically a very principled individual.” Di Canio has a tattoo reading “DUX” — referencing Mussolini, “Il Duce” — on his right arm.

Di Canio, whose first match in charge is at Chelsea on Sunday, scored more than 100 goals in over 500 appearances as a player with Lazio, Juventus, Napoli, AC Milan, Celtic and West Ham among other clubs before retiring in 2008.

In his previous managerial stint in the UK, at Swindon, he led the team up a division into the third tier but courted controversy by criticizing some of his players in public. He quit in February, citing a number of off-field issues with the club’s hierarchy.

AP contributed to this report.