Paolo Di Canio, a former self-styled fascist who was controversially appointed to manage top English soccer club Sunderland six months ago, was fired on Sunday night, just five games into the new soccer season, with Sunderland in the bottom slot of the elite Premier League.
“Sunderland AFC confirms that it has parted company with head coach Paolo Di Canio this evening,” the club stated. “The club would like to place on record its thanks to Paolo and his staff and wishes them well for the future.”
The Italian manager, an abrasive, outspoken figure, had presided over four defeats and a single tie in the team’s opening five matches, to the mounting dismay of fans, players and the club management. He was the first Premier League manager to lose his job this season.
Canio, appointed to the post at the end of the previous soccer season, said in a 2005 interview that “I am a fascist, not a racist.” His history of political controversy also included giving a Nazi-style straight-arm salute to fans when he played for Rome club Lazio in 1995, and publishing expressions of empathy for Benito Mussolini in his autobiography.
His politics became front-page news when he was appointed to the high-profile Sunderland post. Only after a local British church leader had urged him to renounce right-wing extremism did he declare in early April that he is not a racist and does not “support the ideology of fascism.”
In a statement published on Sunderland’s website at the time, Di Canio wrote: “I am an honest man, my values and principles come from my family and my upbringing. I feel that I should not have to continually justify myself to people who do not understand this, however I will say one thing only – I am not the man that some people like to portray. I am not political, I do not affiliate myself to any organisation, I am not a racist and I do not support the ideology of fascism. I respect everyone. I am a football man and this and my family are my focus. Now I will speak only of football.”
That statement followed four days of relentless controversy after his appointment, which culminated in an open letter to the former Italian soccer international written by a leading local cleric. The dean of Durham, the Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, who comes from a German Jewish refugee family, urged Di Canio to publicly renounce his support for fascism. He said he was dismayed that Di Canio had not yet chosen to do so, and that he did not see how he could go on supporting Sunderland football club unless he did.
“You say that you are not a racist, but it needs great sophistication to understand how fascism and racism are ultimately different,” Sadgrove wrote. “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.”
The UK’s Daily Mail 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.”
At an initial press conference after taking the job, Di Canio had tried not to answer questions about his political beliefs. “The fans have to think that my life speaks for me,’ he said. “Call Trevor Sinclair, call Chris Powell (black former soccer players). Call (agent) Phil Spencer, he’s Jewish. Call them…”
David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary and brother of Britain’s Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband, quit as a vice chairman and a director of Sunderland on the day Di Canio was appointed.
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.