Di Canio is a manager who needs to be managed and Sunderland could end up regretting the firebrand option
Perhaps Sunderland owner Ellis Short thought an explosive choice of manager would be needed to blast Sunderland clear of relegation. He will have got that and more by appointing Paolo Di Canio to the manager’s post.
Football Against Racism in Europe director Piara Powar has asked that Di Canio clarify his political views and distance himself from any fascist leanings. The Italian infamously said in 2005 that “I am a fascist, not a racist” and has been fined for making fascist salutes after games, but since then there has been much debate over the true nature of his politics.
For Sunderland, the problem now is that the sideshow has begun before Di Canio has taken charge of his first game. Short will no doubt have been made aware of the baggage he was taking on when he made his choice, but resignations and issues with European pressure groups may not have been on his radar.
Di Canio has been brought in because of his extremely impressive record at Swindon Town. The Italian led the League Two club to promotion in his first season in charge. Despite his resignation after a transfer dispute they are in strong contention to be promoted again. What remains to be seen is whether Di Canio can maintain the balance between success on the pitch and drama away from it in the goldfish bowl of Premiership football.
Swindon chairman Neil Watkins described the 44-year-old Italian as managing by “hand-grenade” and causing “collateral damage” that needed to be repaired. But it has always been like this. As a player, like Eric Cantona or even Mario Balotelli, Di Canio mixed astonishing brilliance on a football pitch with a certain eccentricity away from it. The fascist salutes, Mussolini tattoos and referee-shoving may be his most infamous exploits, but the path of Paolo was rocky even before he started kicking a ball.
Di Canio, like his countryman Balotelli, did not experience the easiest of childhoods. His early years were spent being bullied for his weight and orthopaedic shoes, moving him to respond by exercising as much as possible. “I never hid,” he told the Independent in a revealing interview in 2011. “My response was to exercise, to try to become the person I am.”
Early coaches, names synonymous with discipline and control, couldn’t handle him. His initial spells at Juventus and Milan both featured seismic fallings-out with Giovanni Trappatoni and Fabio Capello, respectively. After moving to Celtic in 1996 his love affair with British football began. The nature of the British game matched his personality. “England is the perfect place to play football,” he said recently. “In Italy, you get a goal, then kill the game. That is the mentality. In England, it’s 90 minutes of battle.”
At West Ham he was a hero and repaid the supporters’ affections by turning down a move to Manchester United in 2001. Despite falling out with then-manager Glenn Roeder and being unable to prevent the Hammers from being relegated he had cemented his status as an Upton Park ‘legend’ – in 2010 the ‘Paolo Di Canio Lounge’ was opened in the club’s West Stand.
As a manager, his dabbles in fascism inevitably became the talking point. David Miliband is not the first to walk away from a club that felt those transgressions should not put them off hiring Di Canio. When Swindon appointed him manager in May 2011, the GMB union withdrew from a £7,000 sponsorship deal.
Former Sunderland chairman Jeremy Wray today described the appointment as a “great move” and criticised Miliband for his resignation. Speaking to the Guardian, Sunderland supporters club member Stan Simpson offered the interesting statement that “there is no way we would entertain fascism at our club. As long as he doesn’t express any political opinions I can cope with it.” Believe what you want, just don’t talk about it.
Contradictory, some might say. But then, perhaps so is Di Canio. Last year he was the subject of an FA investigation after on-loan striker Jonathan Tehue claimed he was racially abused. Di Canio was cleared, but Swindon still felt the need to apologise to the player.
The reality of course is that Ellis Short and many Sunderland supporters care about one thing above all others – keeping the club in the Premiership. At this late stage, if Di Canio can behave himself at the same time as keeping Sunderland up, the club will pat themselves on the back, justifiably. But with Di Canio, the dust never truly settles.