Paolo Di Canio: let’s salute freedom of conscience

So what if the new Sunderland manager has a weird attitude to fascism? It’s his ability to do his job that counts.

Duleep Allirajah

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So, Paolo Di Canio is an admirer of Benito Mussolini? He’s got a tattoo of the Italian fascist leader on his back? To be honest, I really don’t really care what he believes in; whether it’s fascism, alien abduction, reincarnation, witchcraft or tooth fairies. Personal beliefs should have no bearing on whether he is the right man to keep Sunderland in the Premier League.

Ever since the controversial former Swindon boss was installed at the Stadium of Light, a bizarre public row has been raging over his supposed fascist sympathies. Former UK foreign secretary David Miliband announced his resignation from the Sunderland board because of Di Canio’s ‘past political statements’. The Durham Miners’ Association described his appointment as ‘a disgrace and a betrayal of all who fought and died in the fight against fascism’.

There’s more than a whiff of the Inquisition about the whole affair. Fascism is not regarded as a political ideology to be challenged or debated, but as an evil. This was perfectly illustrated by the Dean of Durham’s open letter to Di Canio imploring him to ‘clearly renounce fascism in all its manifestations’. At first, Di Canio refused to answer questions about his beliefs. But such was the media clamour that he was forced to issue a statement distancing himself from fascism. ‘I am not political, I do not affiliate myself to any organisation’, he declared. ‘I am not a racist. I do not support the ideology of fascism.’

The furore over Di Canio’s appointment is utterly pathetic. It combines a longstanding British preoccupation with Nazis with a more contemporary intolerance of racial thought-crimes. I know we’ve been weaned on a diet of Dad’s Army, ’Allo ’Allo and The Great Escape. But the Second World War, in case you hadn’t noticed, is over. Mussolini is dead. Finito. He was strung up 67 years ago. The people who still worship him are no-marks with no political influence whatsoever (and probably no friends either). Or as spiked’s Brendan O’Neill eloquently put it last week: [T]he moving to Sunderland of a balding, hotheaded Italian manager is not the same as the Night of the Long Knives. If you think it is, you need to read a history book. Or stop taking drugs.’ To be honest, I’d be more concerned about the vapid ideology-free managerialism of David Miliband and New Labour than the non-existent threat of fascism. These days, it’s the absence of political beliefs that is a more pressing problem. I’m reminded of the words of John’s Goodman’s character Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski: ‘Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, dude, at least it’s an ethos.’

What are Paolo Di Canio’s political views anyway? We actually know very little about what he thinks. Of course, there’s the Mussolini tattoo, the famous picture of his straight-arm salute in 2005, his ‘I am a fascist, not a racist’ quote, plus a few quotes lifted out of context from his autobiography saying that Mussolini was ‘misunderstood’. Like many of Lazio hardcore Irriducibili, it would appear that he has flirted with the cult of Il Duce in his youth. But whatever his political views, he pretty much keeps them to himself. He hasn’t stood for political office. He doesn’t write make political speeches or write political pamphlets. If he is a fascist, he’s a very coy fascist.

In an Observer column, his former West Ham team-mate David James wrote: ‘Paolo could talk for Italy but I never remember him talking politics’. In an interview with the Independent on Sunday in 2011, Di Canio said: ‘I don’t vote…I haven’t voted for 14 years. Not just because of Berlusconi – though I don’t support him. Italian politicians – all of them – think only about themselves, and making money.’ He went to say: ‘In the past few years I’ve become closer to that Japanese spiritual mentality.’

Whatever Di Canio really believes – and we still don’t really know – there are legitimate question marks over his management style. David James calls him ‘authoritarian’. Nick Watkins, the former Swindon chief executive described his methods as ‘management by hand grenade’. He left a trail of devastation at Swindon, falling out with a succession of players. However, the style of football he introduced at the County Ground also won him admirers, including Sir Alex Ferguson. ‘I must confess to a liking for the fellow and his approach to the game’, said Ferguson. ‘I like his football philosophy, wanting to play the ball on the ground rather than in the air.’

The appointment of a coach with no Premiership experience is certainly a big gamble. Di Canio’s disciplinarian methods might just be the shock therapy the underperforming Black Cats need. Or else they might spectacularly backfire. But whatever happens, he should be judged on results and results alone. His political beliefs are irrelevant. So what if Di Canio does lie in bed dreaming of Mussolini’s March on Rome? That should not debar him from managing Sunderland. Holding extreme or unorthodox beliefs should not be a reason to deny anyone a job.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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