IN making his impassioned defence yesterday, Paolo Di Canio demanded that those debating his political views should remember "we are not in the Houses of Parliament, we are in a football club".
Sometimes, Paolo, it is hard to differentiate. In the Premier League, it is always question time, often tribal and invariably intensely scrutinised. Nuance has long left the building in an era when public perceptions of individuals are synthesised into 140 characters.
Such has been the widespread deliberations over Di Canio that one footballing power broker even floated the idea privately of whether there should be a Fit and Proper Person’s test for managers. Yet nobody fully understands Di Canio’s politics because they involve nuances.
A glance at his 2000 autobiography reveals admiration for elements of Benito Mussolini and abhorrence at the dictator’s “vile” traits.
Di Canio is clearly an intelligent man, analysing subjects that some footballers would have trouble spelling yet, as in Parliament, he has some explaining to do.
What he cannot escape is the inky presence of a Fascist tattoo and the photographs of a stiff-arm salute to Lazio’s Ultras. English football has a right to hear his answers and the exact nuances of his believes.
In his autobiography, Di Canio berates the Italian government for doing “little for immigrants, so they simply do things their way”. He adds: “They make little effort to fit in and, to be fair, we Italians make little effort to integrate them I have nothing against Muslims but I don’t want my Italian culture to disappear.’’
Di Canio wants more effort from the government and more from immigrants towards inclusion. “I don’t care if they are black, yellow, pink or green,’’ he writes.
“I would love it if an immigrant could come to Italy and, after a few years, say, ‘This is my country. I am Italian’.” He praises Britain for its multi-culturalism.
Sunderland’s chief executive, Margaret Byrne, was clearly angered by those who accuse Di Canio of “being a racist, of having fascist sympathies” as this was “insulting not only to him but to the integrity of this football club”.
For outsiders looking in, Sunderland have always been a club associated with integrity. It is well known in football that Sunderland enjoy a good working relationship with Kick It Out, the inclusion campaigner. Sunderland’s involvement in charitable initiatives in Africa is also well-established.
If anything, Sunderland are guilty primarily of naivety. They should have anticipated the storm heading their way, particularly after David Miliband stood down from their board.
They should have immediately called a media conference for Di Canio to address all the issues, rather than the fire-fighting he had to engage in last night and today. It is a simple process: take control of the story, do not let the story take control of you.
Sunderland should have tackled the one-dimensional headline perceptions of their controversial new manager, pointing out the nuances and extinguishing the flames.
Sunderland’s owner, Ellis Short, a thoughtful man, needs to be heard on this subject. This is the Premier League, a competition that stirs opinion all over the world. This is not an appointment in League Two. Same man, same views, different media reaction.
The global interest in the Premier League is one reason why broadcasters pay so handsomely to show the elite soap opera, one reason why Short became involved and one reason why Sunderland are fighting so hard to stay in it.
Sunderland should have been aware that they would get dragged into the long-running narrative in English football about intolerance.
Their statement took to task “comments by certain sections of the media and other individuals”. “Other individuals?” Miliband? Miliband could be accused of exploiting the Di Canio situation as an easy exit from the club as he is moving to New York anyway yet those who know him insist he is a man of principles.
As a savvy politician, Miliband would also have known how the Di Canio’s appointment would have played out initially. Messily.
“Other individuals?” Did the board mean those Sunderland fans who sent messages to the leading fanzine A Love Supreme lamenting Di Canio’s appointment (while some backed it)?
A nuanced interpretation of events was difficult to find. One posted that Sunderland had been bombed by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War and that Mussolini was in league with the Nazis. Another expressed dismay at Di Canio’s arrival a day after the club had honoured Nelson Mandela.
Elsewhere, rival supporters made jokes about at least the training running on time. This is the reaction, unfair or otherwise, that the club have to deal with. Sunderland’s visit to Newcastle United in 12 days should be even noisier than normal.
Intolerance is a raw, live issue in English football. England fans were recently accused of making racist chants about Rio and Anton Ferdinand in San Marino.
No nuances were allowed in the debate about England fans’ perceived behaviour in Serravalle. This observer heard only one England supporter voice the offensive “bonfire” chant about the Ferdinand brothers (although some others present insist they heard more joining in and, anyway, one is one too many).
Far more audible, although less reported on, was the 'you know what you are' song about Rio Ferdinand. Ferdinand and Terry were both targeted with unpleasant chants at Stamford Bridge yesterday. These are some of the sound-tracks to modern English football and Di Canio may endure some chants about him.
Amid all the controversy, the focus has been distracted by other issues with Di Canio, the “management by hand-grenade” as the Swindon Town’s former chief executive Nick Watkins observed, the Italian’s obvious inexperience as a manager at the highest level and the escalating frustration among young home-grown managers about the perceived glass ceiling in the Premier League.
Di Canio certainly brings some more drama to the Premier League. He could shake up Adam Johnson, make James McClean more disciplined in possession.
His energy is immense, his charisma invective. I was waiting in the reception at Charlton Athletic’s Sparrows Lane training ground in 2004 when Di Canio came through the front door as if jet-propelled.
He showered all present, staff and visitors, with effusive greetings and offered us all a taste of the trifle he had made. It could have been Tiramisu.
Details and nuances gets blurred by Di Canio’s electrifying presence. His managerial entry into the Premier League has been even more eventful.