The Italian soccer manager at the heart of an escalating row in Britain over his self-acknowledged support for fascism resorted to invoking his Jewish agent and his black soccer star “best friends” in an effort to defuse the dispute Tuesday.
Paolo Di Canio, a former Italian international, was appointed Sunday to coach English Premier League club Sunderland. 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 — have sparked a bitter dispute over the appointment.
British Jewish politician David Miliband resigned as the vice chairman of Sunderland on Sunday, in protest at Di Canio’s hiring.
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.
The dispute has become front-page 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 a press conference on Tuesday morning, 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…
“What do I have to apologise for? 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.”
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.
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