Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the kerfuffle that has blown up surrounding the appointment of Paolo Di Canio as the manager of Sunderland is how much of a surprise certain aspects of his past seem to have been to so many people. After all, he was hired as the manager of Swindon Town almost two years ago, and the “Roman Salute” business at Lazio happened eight years ago. You might not have thought this had you opened a newspaper this morning, though. It was screaming from the front page of The Sun, whilst other newspapers weren’t far behind with their opinions on the matter. On a week that might be otherwise characterised by a distinct lack of English clubs in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, though, this is a story that the press can really sink its teeth into.
What, then, do we know of Paolo Di Canio’s political allegiances? Well, we know that he has identified himself as a “fascist” before (his own words to the Italian news agency ANSA in 2005 were that, “I am a fascist, not a racist”), and that the roots of this are most likely to be found in his working class upbringing in Rome. We know that he has two tattoos relating to Benito Mussolini secreted about his body, and that no-one has stopped to comment on the oddness of anybody having a tattoo relating to any political figure, never mind a fascist one. We also know that fascism has a well-founded tendency to be associated with racism, and that arguing about the semantics of what constitutes a fascist, what constitutes a racist and variations thereupon can a very tiresome way to spend many hours on the internet, so we’re going to leave that angle of this discussion to others.
The point about Di Canio today is that he has had the opportunity to explain or clarify his political views over the last day or two and has, broadly speaking, failed to do so. If we dig around enough in his past, we can find whatever we wish to find. It is entirely possible that Di Canio himself doesn’t spend a great deal time actually thinking about his political convictions, of course. However, his views are views that he has expressed publicly in the past, and to say of the prior public pronouncements of the manager of a Premier League football club, considering the completely disproportionate their sphere of influence can be and how lavishly paid for their employment, that “it doesn’t matter” or that “football and politics don’t mix” won’t cut it at this level. In some respects, some might say that the appointment of a self-confessed fascist as the manager of a Premier League football club is some sort of logical conclusion, considering much of the white noise – as it were – that has been rumbling on in English football over the last couple of years or so and the extent to which the Premier League has become a moral vacuum in which only success and status are worth a jot.
Paolo Di Canio, however, is probably not even really the story here. Di Canio is a known quantity in terms of his politics, and the faux shock in certain sections of the media feels about as disingenuous as these things are wont to come. Of considerably greater interest is the small matter of why Sunderland may have chosen this particular man for this particular job. After all, Di Canio was successful at Swindon Town, but he can hardly be said to have changed the world. Swindon Town won the League Two championship at the end of his first season in charge of the club and, whilst there might be a degree of merit to the suggestion that any manager can only go out and do as well as he can in the job, the size of Swindon’s budget in League Two last season was no great surprise, and the hangover from this spending led to the issues at the club which resulted in Di Canio’s departure from The County Ground at the start of February.
The new man in charge at The Stadium of Light has been a professional manager for just ninety-five matches, and at a level that doesn’t compare with the rarefied atmosphere of the Premier League. And this is what puzzles the most. To sack a manager and appoint replacement at a football club that is on the cusp of a most unwanted relegation battle at this stage of the season is, to say the least, to take a gamble. To appoint a manager who not only has no experience at this level but also has less than two years experience managing anywhere is an even bigger gamble. To appoint a manager who ticks all of the aforementioned boxes and is Paolo Di Canio, with all of the baggage that he carries with him, is probably the biggest gamble of the lot.
And no matter what anybody might say, the concept of “staying in the Premier League” is not the be all and end all of how the success of this particular experiment will be gauged. This might not be the sort of phrasing that you might expect to see on this site – and typing it is probably as difficult as reading it, if that’s any consolation – but the Sunderland brand is undergoing a degree of reputational damage at the moment. Even if we set to one side arguments regarding the morals of appointing Paolo Di Canio into such a high profile position, the baggage that he carries with him makes it difficult to believe that this story will end well. We could, of course, be wrong. Perhaps running down touchlines in a brightly coloured scarves, hollering at players with an expression of bug-eyed mania hasn’t been tried enough in the Premier League in recent years. On the other hand, however, there is a very real chance that Di Canio will not get away with the sort of hectoring that he could – and did – direct at Swindon Town players during his time at that club.
Life, for most adults, is a series of choices. Paolo Di Canio has made his political choices, Sunderland AFC has made its choice in appointing him as the club’s first team manager, and the support of the club will make its choice as well, should it choose to adopt a similar bunker mentality to the supporters of other clubs whose employees have made questionable public statements in the past. We don’t know how this will play out in the fullness of time, but the impression of this club given over the last few months has been one that needs a solid base, a careful overhaul and a period of stability. There’s clearly an element of risk to this appointment, and Sunderland will not find out whether their gamble has paid off until it is too late to do anything about it, if it does go wrong.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.