Monday, April 01, 2013

Only a fascist? Well that's OK then.

There's a touch of irony to me being in Italy on the weekend that Sunderland Football Club prematurely launches the first April Fool's Day joke and sacks Martin O'Neill and brings in Paolo Di Canio.

If ever there was a European nation still struggling to rid itself of institutional racism, it's Italy. Not that I'm suggesting that Di Canio is a racist. Oh no. He's said it himself in 2005: "I am a fascist, not a racist."

Well that's alright then. Glad we could clear that up. With Di Canio now managing a first team featuring six black players, plus an Egyptian and a Korean, you would hate there to be any misunderstanding as to where the new boss stood.

Because facism - and forgive me if I've got this wrong - is the belief in a totalitarian nationalist state, that opposes any form of liberalism or socialist principles, regards war and imperialism as the right way to go, and believes in racial superiority for strong nations. Clearly, nothing to be worried about there, then.

Di Canio's appointment is something of a gamble on all fronts by Sunderland. While there's no denying he's done a decent job at Swindon, leading them into the First Division (that's the Third Division, if you're still counting in old money) and to a Championship playoff place, being handed a struggling Premier League team in April is a very big ask indeed, especially when it is only your second managerial role.

And that's before you call into question the temperament of a fiery Roman who snubbed his Celtic summer training camp in 1996 and picked up an 11-match ban for pushing over the lightweight referee Paul Alcock.

"People think they know what to expect," writes respected Italian football journalist Gabriele Marcotti in today's Times. "Workhaholic passion? Yes. Volatility and temper? Maybe." Marcotti, who was Di Canio's biographer, argues that there's a thin line between a Sir Alex Ferguson Hairdryer and Di Canio going off like Vesuvius, saying that when Fergie goes into one we giggle, and "...when Di Canio does it, he's a volatile nut job".

Fair points. But I come back to the two basic questions: 1) Is Di Canio the right man for a club hovering above the Championship trapdoor? And 2) Is Di Canio the right man for a high profile Premier League club at a time when racism is creeping back into the game?

It would be impossible to give definitive answers to either, but to the first question, only time will tell, although it strikes me as being a massive gamble.

Not so, says Jeremy Wray, the former Swindon Town chairman who appointed Di Canio to his previous - and first ever - managerial role. "At the end of our games it was pure box office. It is a great appointment for him and a fantastic appointment for Sunderland."

Wray told BBC Radio 5 Live that Di Canio will strengthen the struggling Wearsiders. "He is passionate; he eats, sleeps and drinks it. He is full on 24 hours a day and will be focused on the last seven games of the season. If you are looking for a catalyst for change he is absolutely the right man."

And to the second question, no one is suggesting that Di Canio is a racist, but his public support for a political doctrine associated with some of the worst abuses of human rights on European soil, makes his appointment at a time when racial issues are once more placing ugly stains on football highly questionable to say the least.

Wray thinks Di Canio's politics should be a non-issue. Others think differently, including David Miliband, who resigned his non-exective directorship of Sunderland to distance himself from Di Canio's supposed political association. "It is a sad knee-jerk response," Wray told the BBC. "I doubt David Miliband knows Paolo. I knew him for two years but we never spoke about politics."

Well it's unlikely that Di Canio would have told him: "Well boss, my intention is to take over Europe," and if he did, I'm sure Wray would have put such a statement down to footballing ambition.

However, if a fascist falls down in the forest and there's no one there to hear him spout off about nationalism, does he make a sound?

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