By Andrew Leci
Paolemic: Di Canio or Cannot
Adjectives: charismatic, argumentative, inspirational, belligerent.
Nouns: leader, dictator, motivator, fascist.
These are a few of the words that can, and indeed have, been used to describe or mentioned in association with, the larger-than-life personality that is Paolo Di Canio, the latest and newest manager in the English Premier League.
True to the form that characterised him as a player, opinions are polarised, with as many people accusing him of thuggery as have applauded his demonstrations of fair play and sportsmanship.
On his day, as a player, Di Canio could light up a match (no pun intended), and was one of a rare breed to deserve the epithet “worth the admission money alone.”
When off his game, and demonstrating the ill temper of a mythical, wrathful god, he was, quite simply, a disgrace to the game of football.
Some would say that somewhere therein lies the true nature of the man, but I’m afraid the less convenient truth is that he is both, and more, all at the same time.
Much has been made of his frequent ‘Nazi style’ salutes when he was a player at Lazio, a club, incidentally that will always be close to his heart, and for whom he was prepared to sacrifice body and soul.
Di Canio has made no secret of the fact that Benito Mussolini is a hero of his, and some would say there’s nothing wrong with that – ‘fascism’ not having taken on quite as many negative connotations until Adolf Hitler entered the picture, and infected ‘Il Duce’s political universe with the tenets of ‘national socialism’ and all the misery it brought.
While an acceptably pretty argument (if you gloss over Mussolini’s brutal rise to power in Italy in the early 1920s), bearing in mind subsequent events, it skims over history in a none too tasteful way.
We all know what happened in World War II, and we all know with what the Nazi salute has come to be associated. Either Di Canio is unaware of the connotations (in which case he’s a moron) or aware, but has chosen to ignore them (in which case he demonstrates either an extraordinary lack of judgment or unbridled arrogance).
Whichever is the case, it can’t be good, and Di Canio’s appointment as the custodian of a top flight team in English football has created a storm even before his buttocks have hit the bench in the prelude to a game.
Those who believe in the concept of pie in the sky and the existence of the tooth fairy will aver that sport and politics should be extricable. In an ideal world they would be, but we don’t live in an ideal world, and it’s not a coincidence that in Di Canio’s first press conference as Sunderland manager, most of the questions from the media were directed at him and his political leanings. They were questions, incidentally, that Di Canio refused to answer.
The big top has been erected at the Stadium of Light, and the circus is in town, and please don’t try to tell me that the Sunderland Board didn’t foresee the scenario. If it did, each member is as stupid as Di Canio himself, if he thought his Nazi salutes would either be forgotten or ignored.
The fact is, getting back to football – if we’re ever allowed to – Di Canio is at the helm, and has seven games left to save Sunderland’s season and indeed, their Premiership lives.
Two places and one point off the drop zone, Sunderland’s run-in could hardly be more problematic, with the next three games likely to shape their destiny. First up will be an away day against Chelsea, followed by the Tyne-Wear derby against Newcastle, after which they’re at home to Everton whose form of late has been good, and who are still harbouring hopes of a top 4 finish.
Despite doing well with Swindon Town in League Two (they gained promotion in his first season at the club, finishing top), and then in League One (they were in the play-off places when he resigned in February) Di Canio is untried and untested in English football’s top tier. His appointment is a huge gamble, with his paymasters hoping, more than anything else, that he can be the catalyst that sparks a revival.
For Sunderland, at this moment in time, it’s not about building for the future – that can come later. His surprising appointment is intended to provoke a knee-jerk reaction from the players, and it’s difficult to think of anyone in the game more qualified to achieve that. He had a fractious relationship with certain individuals at Swindon, and described some of them as arrogant. Heaven only knows what he’s going to make of some cossetted ‘overpaid’ Premier League princelings.
According to former Swindon Chairman Jeremy Wray, Di Canio can be “pure box office”. He’ll provide huge entertainment before, during and after matches, and some would say that this is not a bad thing, particularly bearing in mind the predisposition for platitudes in post-match press conferences these days (no alliteration intended).
He could turn out to be a breath of fresh (or even fetid) air, even at this late stage in the season, and he could just get the job done, as long as the media let him get on with managing a football team rather than trying to pigeonhole him into a political compartment that none of us really understands, and even fewer of us, hopefully, can relate to.
I’m a “fascist not a racist” said Di Canio in 2005, when asked to clarify his political tendencies.
Recently, he was keen to mention, in an uncomfortably hesitant listing, some of the black players who had been under his charge at Swindon. It sounded disconcertingly similar to the person who scrupulously maintains that “some of my best friends are black/Hispanic/Jewish/Muslim/Martian/green…” It leads me to suggest that a) perhaps he doth protest too much, and b) he may not be very bright.
It does appear though that the pressure to nail his political colours to the mast has been overwhelming, hence his very recent statement that he does “not support the ideology of fascism.” Far be it from me to suggest that expediency has played a part in this process, or that Paolo’s hand was forced, but let’s be honest, any kind of retraction at this stage is bound to sound hollow.
Whether he’s a fascist or a racist, both, or even neither, many Sunderland fans won’t give a hoot if his idiosyncratic management style keeps the club in the English Premier League. For many others, the situation could provide an unpalatable recipe for political incorrectness.
But then again, sport and politics should never mix…right?
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