Sunderland’s choice of Paolo Di Canio (above) as their new manager was particularly notable in that the former Lazio striker has few soccer peers who’ve described Mussolini as “deeply misunderstood” in their autobiographies. While Di Canio considers questions about his fascist sympathies, “ridiculous and pathetic”, the Guardian’s Barney Ronay laments, “the protracted teasing out of one manager’s sweatily confused personal politics is enough to make anybody reach for a revolver.”
English football may be prone to a sweeping narrative hysteria, a tendency that has now landed its unblinking eye on the semantic miracle of the world’s first non-racist fascist. And Di Canio is also perfectly within his rights to believe in whatever he wants, although were he to produce one of his wretched straight-arm salutes in, say, Germany, he might be sent to prison. But still, this is more than simply noises off.
Not only does the reality of Di Canio’s openly espoused belief system speak to the half-remembered idea of what we actually want our football, the dear old working man’s game, to be (just ask those Durham miners). It is a system of beliefs, or anti-beliefs, that remains vividly synonymous for many in this country with thuggery, dictatorship, censorship, pogroms, dubious ethnic theory and – sorry Paolo! – people trying to murder your grandparents.
Has any Premier League football club made a more ill-conceived managerial appointment in the midst of its own relegation dogfight? It is a feat of staggering hierarchical ineptitude and a move that can only have brought not just relegation but bizarrely tarnished relegation a few steps closer. The only reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that Ellis Short and those advising him had either failed to do their homework on Di Canio, or failed to canvass any kind of wider public opinion on what reaction to his appointment might be.