Paolo di Canio: a worthy spokesperson

Paolo Di Canio: Explicable politics of extremism

Opponents of Paolo Di Canio’s appointment as Sunderland manager have been voicing a set of highly blinkered ideas and strategies, argues Lawrence Parker

Paolo Di Canio was recently appointed as manager of Sunderland AFC, a football team in the English Premier League. And then all hell broke loose in regards to Di Canio’s apparent espousal of fascism.

First, former Labour foreign secretary David Miliband (soon to be buggering off from these shores in any case) resigned from the club’s board in protest at Di Canio’s ideological sympathies. Second, and perhaps more damagingly for Sunderland AFC, the Durham Miners Association demanded the return of a banner that had stood in the club’s home, the Stadium of Light, since the late 1990s, implying that the decision to appoint Di Canio was an insult to those from the area that had given their lives to fighting fascism in World War II.

It is difficult not to have some sympathy with the Durham Miners Association and the club’s supporters, given that the appointment seems to have been particularly thoughtless on this score. It does not even appear to have too much logic in narrower football terms, given that Di Canio has no management record in the top flight and that Sunderland had just parted company with a highly experienced manager in the shape of Martin O’Neill, although the team is struggling at the foot of the table and is under threat of relegation.

It is actually positive that some sections of Sunderland’s supporters feel that their club is part of the community, part of them, and that they feel its decisions should at least reflect their feelings. However, we can question the decision to remove the miners’ banner; if Di Canio’s influence is really going to be that baleful to the club and its traditions, why remove traces of its previous identity? I would be tempted to send in more banners. Similarly, why would people want to boycott the club (as some have threatened)? Isn’t that just ceding the terrain to a supposed enemy?

Having said all that, there is something incredibly artificial and phoney about this debate. Di Canio has previously been a manager in the English lower leagues with Swindon. Although there were incidents such as the local GMB trade union pulling £4,000 of sponsorship because of Di Canio’s political views, this was not exactly at the current level of scandal and national outrage. The reality is (sorry, Swindon fans) that Swindon is a backwater in football terms, while Sunderland is a job with a much higher profile. All of which shows you how manufactured the news agenda is. If editors, and the great and the good, were that bothered by the spectre of fascism, then surely Di Canio’s political allegiances should have been an issue period.

It is worthwhile asking the question as to how deep Di Canio’s fascist allegiances are. Of course, following the hue and cry over his appointment, he released a statement saying: “I am not a racist and I do not support the ideology of fascism.” Sensible chap. In 2005, he said that he was a “fascist, not a racist” and there does not appear to be evidence of racism during his playing or management career. He has praised Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini and gained notoriety when playing for his home-town team, Lazio, for performing a fascist salute for the club’s rightwing supporters on a number of occasions. Clearly, this bloke has got something of a problem.

But his explanation for this saluting is interesting and worthy of some exploration. He said: “I will always salute as I did, because it gives me a sense of belonging to my people ... I saluted my people with what for me is a sign of belonging to a group that holds true values, values of civility against the standardisation that this society imposes upon us.” So, it would appear from this, as has been hinted in the past, that Di Canio is not much of an ideological fascist; his ‘belief’ (if it can be called that) is rather a point of identity with sections of the Lazio support. This logic is a reflection of the intense partisanship that football generates, which is designed to exclude any alternatives, even though the overall narrative spun around a team may be ridiculous (as it clearly is in Lazio’s case), precisely because rejection of this enshrined narrative may mean sympathy for the other lot of ‘wankers’ down the road.

Another example of the way this partisanship can infect player behaviour is Paul Gascoigne, who, when playing for Rangers in the 1990s, was reprimanded for mimed ‘flute playing’, a loyalist symbol meant to endear him to Rangers’ hard-core supporters. On similar lines, Wayne Rooney has attempted to incite Everton fans by kissing the Manchester United badge on his shirt. The strange thing about this is that Rooney was formerly an Everton player and supporter, so watching him do this was a bit like watching someone erasing their own history. Now, not every footballer behaves likes this, but, for some, partisanship, in the pressure cooker of professional football, can effect a seductive logic all of its own. This does not make Di Canio’s behaviour laudable, but it does make it explicable.

Some of the comments from labour movement figures have been absolutely ridiculous. For example, Kevin Rowan, regional secretary of the northern TUC, said: “There is a particular set of issues in Sunderland, in that there has been a lot of EDL activity over the last few months and we are a bit concerned about the reaction to Di Canio’s appointment - that it may be pouring more fuel on to that particular fire. It is quite a tense atmosphere already.”1 Let us just stop and think about the ideas implied by this statement. The English Defence League is active; Di Canio is a fascist; and his appointment means that the EDL will be likely to grow its base in the football club and the city. This is nonsense.

First, the EDL is not a fascist organisation; it is a rightwing, populist group that is very unlikely to be harbouring a Benito Mussolini fan club. Second, Di Canio’s ‘fascism’ is a product of his time with Lazio and his identification with its support. Given that he is not stupid, I am almost certain that there will be no attempt to artificially implant his beliefs in Sunderland. What would he have to gain from giving the salute or espousing fascist ideas at the Stadium of Light? A court appearance? The sack? How would fascism take shape, with the football authorities ready to jump on the merest hint of Nazi salutes and all the rest? But the worse thing about the above statement is the way it views football supporters as susceptible to be taken in by any old rubbish espoused by a ‘leader’ figure. I am sure that most Sunderland supporters are quite capable of seeing Di Canio’s ‘outlook’ for what it is: a pile of half-digested crap, which is the product of a very particular time and place.

A statement released by Unite Against Fascism on April 4 said: “Di Canio should resign and if not Sunderland AFC should rescind his contract.”2 This is dangerous territory. It effectively amounts to a demand that someone should be removed for extreme political beliefs. It also plays into the disabling idea held by society at large that politics and sport do not mix. Thus, for example, Shaka Hislop, a former playing colleague of Di Canio’s, said: “I don’t believe Paolo Di Canio is a racist. But there’s no place for extreme politics in football. They infringe on the rights of others and that’s where you have to draw the line.”3

Unfortunately, statements such as these reflect a particularly parochial disease. There is obviously a place for ‘extreme’ politics in football: that is precisely what Di Canio is a product of in Italy. And where does the call to remove ‘extremists’ leave us? There is a section of British society that, for example, views any kind of trade unionism as a base for ‘extremism’, but presumably we do not want to be arguing that trade unions have no place in football.

This idea that politics and football do not mix is structured around a partial and potentially healthy idea that football stadiums (even in their current rather anaemic guise) can offer a set of magic resolutions that are set apart from society. For example, I am well aware that my behaviour and language watching a professional football match is incomparably more offensive and aggressive than it is in any other sphere of my life. And there is no sanction on me in the stadium, provided I observe some basic sense of caution. I can return home unscathed, albeit with challenged vocal chords. This was not offered up on a plate; it is the outcome of generations of supporters who physically and vocally stood and fought for their right to dominate the support of their team. If the footballing authorities could choose a culture to accompany their commodity, you can guarantee that it would not be the rather brutal one on display at football grounds. But this can breed its own seductive delusion: the idea that football and spectator football is unconnected with society, and that society and its conflicts can be left behind.

In fact, English football is saturated with politics, extreme in the form that there has been a consistent move over the past 20 years to fleece, regiment and disenfranchise what is still largely a working class supporter base. To defeat this by challenging and removing the owners, bureaucracies and mass media that currently prey on the game needs politics that would undoubtedly be viewed as ‘extreme’ by some.


1. The Guardian April 5.

2. http://uaf.org.uk/2013/04/statement-on-paolo-di-canio.

3. www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/22056779.