Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Paolo Di Canio - Football, Fascism and Forgetfulness

Football and all that surrounds it continues to baffle and confuse. So after much to-ing and fro-ing, Paolo Di Canio has come out and denied he is a fascist. Unless you've been living in a cave for the last few days, you might have heard that the Italian has been appointed as manager of Sunderland. A struggling top flight side replacing their boss as they slip perilously close to the relegation zone would normally only cause some mild speculation as to whether he is capable of doing the job, some praise/scrutiny of his previous role and then everyone would go about their business. That is, until the day he either takes them down or keeps them up – prompting various commentators to tell you that they predicted it would turn out this way.

This time around, things are different. Paolo popping up in the north east has caused uproar and indignation the likes of which is rarely seen in the game. As a player, Di Canio excited crowds with his skill, shocked the world with one of the worst, yet absolutely hilarious, acts of indiscipline ever seen on a football pitch and scored wonderful goals time and time again. Capable of petulance and almost unheard of sportsmanship, for better or for worse, he was someone who knew how to make a headline and It would seem little has changed since swapping the pitch for the dugout. To simply say his 21 month spell in charge of Swindon Town was eventful would be bordering on a criminal understating of matters. Fighting his own players, over-exuberant celebrations and outspokenness were just part of the daily routine at The County Ground. Even after his controversial departure he still managed to cause controversy by going back and raiding the club at the dead of night for his belongings. If anyone ever had the idea to write a sitcom or movie based on a player, a lot of the source material would come from the career of this man.

However, it's not all pushing refs and kicks up the backside. As has been well documented, the former fiery Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham and Charlton hero caused something of a stir back in 2005 while playing from his hometown club Lazio when he was pictured giving straight-arm fascist salute following a match against fierce rivals Roma – the third time he'd done so after returning to Italy. Defending his actions, Di Canio apparently clarified his position when he was quoted by an Italian news agency saying that he was indeed a fascist, “but not a racist”.

It then also emerged that Di Canio made comments which appeared to endorse a certain Benito Mussolini, describing the dictator as ‘principled’ and ‘misunderstood’. He even went so far as to reinforce his admiration for Mussolini by adorning his body with a tattoo reading ‘DUX’ – a Latin translation of the ‘il Duce’ (The Leader) title bestowed onto the late Italian ruler.

Shocking revelations that have understandably caused the heated negative reaction to his installment at Sunderland. Fascism is difficult, if not impossible to define as an ideology with no universal position agreed on what it actually constitutes. In Di Canio’s native Italy, it was seen as a political position leaning very much to the far right and founded on extreme nationalism. The Italian Fascist regime of the early 1900s encompassed a number of different beliefs and ideas including but not exclusive to taking a controversial stance on race and anti-semitism.

In an era where there appears to be an effort to try and rid the game of the discrimination that continues to blight the sport as whole, condemnation has been heaped on both man and club. How can we look to continue the fight against racism, sexism and homophobia when a team will happily take on someone for whom it was believed held such beliefs?

Mussolini’s National Fascist Party also stood shoulder to shoulder with Adolf Hitler’s Nationalist Socialist German Worker’s Party and adopted many of the same Nazi policies ahead of the Second World War. To this end, Paolo's previous attempts trying to divorce fascism from racism would be quite difficult.

For the sake of balance, the pertinent question to ask is whether one can in fact be a fascist without being a racist. On a most basic level, the two can be distinguished from one another. If for no other reason, this controversy might cause one or two people to actually pick up a book and discover that there is actually a difference. Perhaps this distinction is highlighted by a particular extract from Di Canio’s book which has come to light where he discusses immigration in his home country:

“In Italy, too many immigrants come over and act as if they were back in their own countries. They make little effort to fit in and to be fair, we Italians do little to integrate them.

Our government does little for immigrants, so they do things their way. If we’re not careful, in ten years’ time Italy will be a Muslim country. I have nothing against Muslims, but I don’t want my Italian culture to disappear. If immigrants come to Italy and want to be part of Italian culture, want to be Italian, that’s great. I don’t care if they are black, yellow, pink or green. I would love it if an immigrant could come to Italy and after a few years say, ‘This is my country. I am Italian’”

A sensitive issue unquestionably but not necessarily an opinion reserved for The Blackshirts. One is free to make his or her own judgements but it is important to note that these comments aren’t even nearly as extreme as some of the anti-immigration rhetoric printed in the British tabloid press on a daily basis. We also live in a country where the popularity of UKIP is on the rise and the relationship with Muslims, as well as people from Eastern Europe, is hardly the most amicable.

Di Canio and Sunderland have gone to great lengths to defend themselves and attempted to dismiss any accusations of prejudice and political leanings in any direction. Despite these denials, the stance taken by sections of the media and fans alike to criticise him was still a commendable one… if only it wasn’t too little, too late.

Di Canio's comments about Mussolini were made in his autobiography which was published in 2000 – while he was still playing for West Ham and would go on to play in England for four more years. In isolation, a Premier League club hiring a self-confessed fascist today is of course headline news. People have been bending over backwards to have their say since he arrived on Wearside a few days ago but one must ask why people are only vocalising their dissatisfaction some 13 years after his initial admission of his position.

In addition, Paolo Di Canio had already been managing on these shores for nearly two years, in which time he wrote a column on the BBC Sport website and successfully won promotion with Swindon Town from Leagues Two to One just last season. Where were the voices of dissent were while Di Canio was busy plying his trade in Wilshire? Aside from the GMB Union withdrawing its support of the club in protest, Di Canio’s alleged political stance barely made a ripple. Instead, it was his 'wackiness' and eccentricities that dominated the headlines.

The kind of scrutiny and incessant questioning he has faced after it was announced he would be replacing Martin O’Neill at The Stadium of Light seems almost irrelevant. The time for all this was back in 2011 (or earlier!). From a cynical perspective, it's not hard to suspect that the hand-wringing is agenda driven. Simply in place to protect the ‘image’ of English football’s top division rather than any crusade against fascism. Believe what you want and behave as you wish in the lower leagues, just don’t bring it to the Premier League. We have shirts to sell.

Even after this latest not-so-swift denial from the Italian, there's just no escaping the fact that discrimination is still a hot topic after what has been a turbulent couple of years with more high profile racist incidents seeming to take place at alarming regularity. By all means, challenge Di Canio over his perceived beliefs but should he really be the prime target right now? This story, while it lasted, conveniently managed to push aside the continued controversy surrounding Rio Ferdinand. While everybody was focused on events at Sunderland, it almost went unnoticed that in Monday’s FA Cup quarter final, the Manchester United defender once again faced a hostile reception from Chelsea fans at Stamford Bridge as the ongoing saga over John Terry racially abusing brother Anton refuses to die. That's not to say the Chelsea chants were explicitly racist but you'll have to go some way to convincing me that “you know what you are” doesn't have specific implications given the circumstances and events that preceded it.

This comes off the back of England fans chanting similar and being reported by FARE for alleged racism against the same player the previous weekend in San Marino following Ferdinand's controversial withdrawal from the squad.

When incidents like this have taken place on the elsewhere – most recently, in Serbia – pundits and observers were shrieking themselves hoarse that these other countries are somehow 'backward' and need to be banned from football and such like. What is actually more worrying than the fact English football fans have been accused of similar behaviour, is the silence of these same people shouting from the rooftops to condemn others. I'm yet to see one journalist suggest England should be docked points or play matches behind closed doors if found guilty.

Instead, what you get is the oft-trotted out stock claims that “things aren’t as bad as the 70s” and that “we've come a long way since then”. True as this may be, there's no reason to pat ourselves on the back and say everything is ok. It may take place much less often but anyone who would claim we don't still have our own problems is a liar. You only need to look to the anti-Semitic chanting when West Ham traveled to Tottenham earlier this season to name but one example.

Then of course, there was the Terry case which, along with that of Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra, almost felt as though it set race relations back thirty years given the way certain people conducted themselves. The manner in which Liverpool Football Club acted was nothing short of disgraceful while the less said about the behaviour of certain Chelsea fans the better. The way the purported victims, Evra and Anton Ferdinand, ended up being demonised, causes one to wonder if some players would even bother reporting any discrimination now. It hardly seems worth it. Especially given how quick the narrative changes even when players are found guilty. Suarez is currently being talked up as a potential player of the year. The Evra incident is barely even mentioned.

Similarly, in a perverse way, Paolo Di Canio doesn't actually need to worry about the lasting effects to his reputation. His politics were almost a non-issue when he was winning the League Two title and they will be once again if he keeps Sunderland in the Premier League and performs well next season – even without his denial. That is the kind of short termism that exists in football. It's difficult to combat problems when views and opinions change with each passing game. There’s an uncomfortable sense of misguided moralising with the this story in the sense it feels as though we are only discussing it because it's convenient rather than because it's important.

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