Wednesday 25 April 2018

Football gamble, political disaster

Saving Sunderland from drop will move spotlight from boss's controversial past, writes Dion Fanning

When Paolo Di Canio began to outline his vision for the club at Sunderland last Monday, there was a sense of anticipation. "I had goosebumps," says one member of Sunderland's staff, "and I wasn't alone." This was not the anticipation of impending doom, but a feeling that Di Canio was going to lead a revivalist movement at the Stadium of Light. This, after all, is what Di Canio was hired for. A belief in strong leadership is a concept he hasn't yet disowned.

But those who were getting excited by the prospect of Di Canio's management were ignoring the mess his appointment has made. From the moment David Miliband announced his resignation last Sunday, Di Canio's fascism, his fascination with Mussolini and his tattoos were going to cause trouble for Sunderland.

It was a comic story, too, as so many in the Premier League are. Every time the Sky Sports News presenters breathlessly announced that Paolo Di Canio had yet to renounce fascism, things became more surreal.

Those who complained that his appointment at Swindon had been uncontroversial failed to appreciate the way things work. When the GMB Union withdrew its sponsorship of Swindon because of Di Canio's fascism, it was reported proportionately for a League Two side. Life and the news are also random and unfair. Some at Sunderland could be heard to complain last week that West Ham had a Paolo Di Canio Lounge and nobody objected, not even the Jewish owners of the club, which was to miss the point spectacularly.

For the first few days of the appointment, Sunderland floundered as Di Canio denied being something he wasn't directly accused of being: a racist. He did so in the clumsiest way, by suggesting the press talk to his black and Jewish friends.

Football clubs are used to telling reporters the questions they can and can't ask. Sunderland felt they could do this in this instance, but failed to see that the story was too big. When a manager is accused of being a fascist, it doesn't look good to insist there will be no more questions on the subject.

Sunderland say they had anticipated the anger but there are those with some knowledge of the club who wonder if they had.

David Miliband's resignation created what was called the "political circus" but those who know Miliband feel if he had more knowledge of the situation, the resignation would have been avoided. There were plenty of people being blamed for the mess of the appointment but there weren't many demands to hear from Ellis Short, the man who was responsible for the decision to sack Martin O'Neill and hire Di Canio.

Short's relationship with O'Neill is said to have disintegrated. Some have wondered if things would have been different if Niall Quinn had remained at the club. When he left the club, Quinn remarked that Short was a straight talker – "not an operator" – and contrasted it with his own tendency to "run with the hare and hunt with the hounds". In short, Quinn is a politician and as a politician, he is adept at overcoming problems.

O'Neill, it is said by some close to the club, became dejected at the squad's lack of depth. Short is a man who wants to win and, according to one source, finds it hard to come to terms with defeat.

As the club slipped helplessly towards relegation, Short decided to act. O'Neill's sacking wasn't a shock but replacing him with Di Canio was. Again there are those who wonder who advised Short in this decision.

A source at the club, who admitted they weren't involved in the discussions, insisted that any issue which would have the potential to embarrass Sunderland would have been raised. "Ellis would have made sure any problem was boxed off."

Clearly the club felt they could overcome these problems. Di Canio's appointment was a risk. "It was," says a source, "a football gamble and a political nightmare."

Miliband's resignation brought on the nightmare. When the Durham miners demanded the return of the Wearmouth Miners' banner which is proudly displayed at the Stadium of Light, it was felt to be a significant blow by those who understand the values of the local community. The Stadium of Light was built on the site of the old Wearmouth Colliery. County Durham once employed 170,000 miners.

While they have withdrawn that demand, they are not quite "back in their box" as one club source put it. They are demanding that Sunderland join them in backing an anti-fascist campaign. They insist that Di Canio must not be part of the campaign. Their call added to the pressure but the club's failure to grasp the significance of the story kept it going.

On Monday, the chief executive Margaret Byrne issued a statement which made things worse. Byrne, from south Armagh, is recognised as being an adept and competent administrator but, says one observer, "PR is not her thing". Her statement proved it.

"To accuse him [Di Canio] now, as some have done, of being a racist or having fascist sympathies, is insulting not only to him but to the integrity of this football club," she said in her statement. It concluded, "It is disappointing that some people are trying to turn the appointment of a head coach into a political circus. We are a football club and now want to allow Paolo and the team to focus on the rest of the season."

Sunderland were trying to hold to the line that sport and politics shouldn't mix, unaware that the line had been breached long before by their new manager, who had, in Byrne's terms, insulted himself by aligning himself with a fascist tendency. The club ended their press release last Monday with a stern but forlorn hope: "Neither Sunderland AFC, nor Paolo Di Canio, will make any further comment on this matter."

On Tuesday, Di Canio failed to deal with the issue. He was asked, "Are you a fascist?" and as part of his evasive reply stated, "If I was working in the Houses of Parliament then I would answer a political question, but I'm probably never going to get there." Eventually, the club press officer intervened to say, "We're moving on."

But Sunderland weren't moving on and Byrne is known to have been anxiously trying to find a way of resolving the issue. When she canvassed views, she was told one thing: Di Canio must state he is not a fascist.

On Wednesday, Di Canio made another statement through the club. He didn't support "the ideology of fascism". A club source says that it was Di Canio's idea to try and bring an end to the matter. "Paolo was very concerned that the club was getting damaged. He wasn't concerned about his own reputation but he felt it was harming the integrity of the club," says a club source.

Once again, he tried to end the debate. "Now I will speak only of football."

For now, it is resolved and there is a view in the club that if Di Canio leads them away from the relegation zone then his links to fascists, his salutes and associate problems will no longer be a matter of debate.

Paolo Di Canio's fascism is heavy on nostalgia and regret for a lost land. He is a familiar type in all countries, an extreme nationalist who speaks of abstract values like pride and discipline and, in his case, has added in the occasional fascist salute. Fascism of Di Canio's type is common in Italy. The images of his salute are the most damaging part of Di Canio's history. He can talk all he likes about how the salute is an acknowledgement between comrades but the most potent gesture of modern history can't be dismissed as an intimate handshake among friends. Nobody can make a fascist salute in the 21st century and not be aware of its significance for the past 90 years.

There are those within the club who feel Di Canio could connect to the people of Sunderland, with its high unemployment and sense of disenfranchisement. "I have always felt a special affinity towards the weak, the disadvantaged, the unloved," he wrote in his autobiography.

There is also the question of whether a man's political beliefs should prevent him from holding a job. The media were entitled to ask questions and those fans of the club who were angered had the right to express their views. In an era of outrage, however, there is always a demand that something is done about the anger. Di Canio's rejection of the ideology of fascism, for now, may be enough. Glenn Hoddle remains the only manager to lose a high-profile job because of his personal beliefs: his views on the transmigration of souls cost him the England job.

In his autobiography, Di Canio laments that in Italy there is a "national taboo on discussing politics". He recalls how he told an interviewer he was "right wing" and the fuss that followed. "I'm not ashamed of it, the Right embodies values and ideals I believe in. This does mean I'm a Nazi or a racist . . . I could say that because . . . in England there is such a thing as free speech."

In his private moments, Di Canio may be adding this to his list of lost values. Sunderland visit Chelsea today and they will hope that victory allows them to move on. The football gamble will become clear in time. Both Short and Di Canio want to win and how they work together could be fascinating.

Those within the club speak of Di Canio's positive energy but that positivity has been lost in the storm about fascism. "Paolo doesn't feel he has to justify his existence," a club source says. Yet the story will never fade from view, not while the images remain and they will always remain. "It will never go away, there'll always be somebody ready to bring it up," the source concedes. Last week, Paolo Di Canio's history was a nightmare from which Sunderland were trying to awake.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport