Is furor over football coach's 'fascism' really a sign of Britain's progress?

Newly signed Sunderland manager Paulo Di Canio denied that he supported fascism, in response to criticism for past pro-fascism statements and straight-arm salutes he made as a player.

Scott Heppell/AP
Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio (r.) poses for the media outside the Academy of Light, in Sunderland, England, on Tuesday. Mr. Di Canio on Wednesday issued a statement saying he did not support a fascist ideology, following several days of criticism due to his history of Roman salutes and statements sympathetic to Italian fascism.
Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters/File
Paolo Di Canio, who played for Italian team Lazio from 2004 to 2006, salutes supporters after a Lazio victory in January 2005.

After a week of scrutiny in the British press over his political beliefs, the newest coach in England’s top-flight soccer league is likely looking forward to turning the page from fascism to football this weekend.

Not that life will suddenly get any easier for Paulo Di Canio, who was appointed last weekend to manage Sunderland, a struggling Premiership club in the former industrial heartland of the northeast of England.  His opening game this Sunday is against the reigning European champions, Chelsea.

But Mr. Di Canio will undoubtedly welcome a chance to end the examination of his political leanings. On Wednesday, the former Italian national team star, who is tattooed with the letters ‘DUX’ (a Latin reference to Benito Mussolini's title ‘Il Duce’) and was photographed as a player giving a straight-armed salute to fans of the Rome club Lazio in 2005, issued a statement Wednesday stressing that he did not support racism or a fascist ideology.

Yet while the controversy has cast some shadow over Di Canio and Sunderland, in many ways the affair is an aberration from a narrative over recent decades in which English soccer has not only exorcised darker days of racism and fascism among fans, but played a major role in combating such tendencies in broader society. The affair also contrasted the beyond-the-pale nature of far right ideology in the UK with the relatively ambiguous place of fascism in some parts of Italian society.

“In the Sunderland boardroom, people have seemed a bit surprised by the reaction to Mr. Di Canio’s appointment, and that seemed a bit naive and unprofessional of them,” says Sunder Katwala, a soccer fan and director of the think tank British Future, which focuses on identity, integration, and migration.

“But actually the reaction showed the importance in British football, and in society to an extent, of maintaining the anti-racist and anti-fascist norm that we have got. It’s also very interesting if you look the ‘red-top’ tabloid newspapers like The Star and The Sun, you can see that what might have been a kind of liberal, elite, university position 20 or 30 years ago on an issue like this [Di Canio], is now presented as tabloid ‘common sense.’”

The Di Canio controversy made an early transition from sports story to a focus for broader debate after David Miliband – a former British foreign secretary, brother of Labour leader Ed Miliband, and son of Polish Jews who fled the Holocaust – resigned from Sunderland’s board, citing the new manager’s "past political statements."

The Italian refused to confirm whether he was still a fascist during an introductory media press conference on Tuesday while, elsewhere, his reluctance to renounce past remarks was presented as having more to do loyalty to youthful friendships and personal origins in Rome.

But a tipping point came. More photographs emerged of Di Canio giving salutes in the company of fans of Lazio, a club known to have a significant following among supporters of the far right, and attending the funeral of an Italian fascist linked to a terrorist bombing.

Di Canio released his statement after the Anglican Dean of Durham, the son of a Jewish war refugee and a Sunderland fan, called on him to renounce fascism publicly or risk being associated with "toxic far-right tendencies."

"I am not a racist and I do not support the ideology of fascism,” the manager said in a statement posted on Sunderland’s website in a bid to draw a line under the furor.

“I respect everyone. I am a football man and this and my family are my focus. Now I will speak only of football.”

The controversy comes at a time of weakness and division on Britain’s own far right, which has threatened in spurts to break out from the margins over recent years.

The British National Party and the English Defence League, a far-right street protest movement, have been fragmenting, although supporters of the latter continue to attempt to rally. Some were involved in a face-off with anti-fascist demonstrators at the site of a proposed mosque in Sunderland last Saturday.

However, Britain’s soccer terraces are no longer the places of open hostility they once were for non-white fans in the wake of concerted efforts by clubs to combat racism, as well as initiatives by fans groups.

“It’s very safe. Games might be edgy atmospheres in terms of being loud and and places where people swear, but it’s not about race,” adds Katwala.

“The paradox is that we are now getting issues about racism among players on the pitch, issues about fascism on the part of a manager. You just wouldn’t see a fascist salute among fans now. It would be very rare and so that’s why it’s quite reasonable to hold a Premiership manager to the standard that we hold all the fans to.”

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