Sunderland’s own goal
In appointing Paolo Di Canio, the club’s board has revived memories of the darker days of English football
In their quest to avoid relegation from the Premier League, Sunderland Association Football Club have appointed a self-declared fascist as manager. By hiring Paolo Di Canio, the Sunderland board appears to have thrown its club (and by extension the whole English game ) back to an era in which the dividing line between extremism and football was far from clear.
It would be surprising if Sunderland tried to claim political naivety, as Di Canio’s statements of political belief are on record. These include a number of public fascist salutes, which in several European countries would earn him a lifetime bans from the sport. There is Di Canio’s description of Benito Mussolini as “basically a very principled, ethical individual” who was “deeply misunderstood”. And in case of any lingering doubt, there is also the ‘Dux’ tattoo on Di Canio’s arm, a reference to the dictator’s epithet, Il Duce.
Di Canio has responded, as in the past, by claiming he is not a racist. He would argue that the Italian brand of fascism, which at least during its infancy and unlike German Nazism expressed little interest in antisemitism, is simply misunderstood by the rest of Europe. Rather than attribute national decline to the influence of Jews, Mussolini talked of fascism as a political religion that was rooted in Italian nationalism, sought to remove class conflicts and create a “new man” who would serve a corporatist state and the all-powerful leader.
As part of an attempt to distance themselves from the racially motivated genocide of Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s supporters argue his brand of fascism was more interested in moulding authoritarian state power than racial supremacism, and merely fell under the influence of Hitler’s Nazis.
Some Italians have certainly been receptive to that view, sending Mussolini’s granddaughter back into parliament in the early 1990s. Of course, what fascists like Di Canio conveniently forget or downplay is that when it suited, Mussolini was perfectly willing to employ the same racist rhetoric as Hitler. He enacted discriminatory racial laws in the late 1930s and facilitated the deportation and murder of Jews.
In any case, fascism vigorously opposes the representative democracy that works to safeguard the interests of different groups and ideas. In that sense, at the very least, it’s antithetical to a 21st-century football league that brings together many different organisations, each of which in turn increasingly depends on multicultural teams.
English football is of course no stranger to far-right ideology. In 1938 the government, still set on appeasement, ordered members of the national team to give the fascist salute to their German hosts.
In the 1960s and 1970s, open expressions of racism on the terraces attracted recruitment drives by the National Front. But British society and football have come a long way since then. True, recent groups like the English Defence League have absorbed parts of the football hooligan scene, but these are fringe (and often banned) elements in a sport that has actively sought to remove extremist politics and racism. The likes of John Terry and Luis Suárez testify to the enduring challenges, but they should be seen against the backdrop of anti-racism campaigns that are some of the most highly developed and prominent in Europe.
More can always be done, but the campaigner Sunder Katwala was right to note that while in the past football probably introduced many to racism, it has arguably done more than any other part of British society to publicly repudiate racists and fascists in recent years.
This shift seems to have been lost on the directors of Sunderland, who by hiring a self-described fascist have shown themselves to be at odds with wider society. Even in Italy, Di Canio’s posturing was met with short bans and fines. Only the club’s non-executive director, David Miliband, recognised the significance of the decision by resigning from his local club in protest.
The president of Fifa, Sepp Blatter, has made clear his desire to impose a lifetime ban on players who openly support fascism. This measure has just been enacted in Greece, where in an economic climate that has contributed to the return of neo-Nazism, a talented young midfielder named Giorgos Katidis ended his career by celebrating a goal with the same salute used by Di Canio on several occasions. The Greek authorities banned Katidis from playing in national teams for life while condemning him for insulting “the victims of Nazi bestiality” and “injuring the deeply pacifist and human character of the game”.
And Katidis was not even an open admirer of fascist ideology. While in modern-day Greece they ban you for injuring the human character of football, in Sunderland it can get you made manager.
Matthew Goodwin – The Guardian