I have supported Sunderland AFC for nearly the last forty years. I can’t pretend that it’s been the most glamorous and successful period in the club’s history but it’s been an emotional obsession for all of those years.
When I say I support Sunderland AFC, what do I mean? I certainly don’t support the legal entity. That would be akin to supporting a supermarket or a bank or a construction company. I know that the legal entity has to exist for the club to play its games and all of that but still, I don’t support that. I can’t say I always I like the players or managers. I struggle to sometimes make a connection with some of them but of course I want them to score goals and win games. Players and managers come and go. I don’t expect them to give their souls to SAFC and I’m not living in a deluded world where they offer anything but their efforts in return for very good rates of pay and I know that if a bigger club or bigger wage comes along then the players will probably leave. I support an abstract notion. It’s an abstract notion that wears red and white stripes and has a long history and a shared mythology but it’s pretty abstract nonetheless. I support an notion upon which I have overlain my own hopes and ideas of what I expect my club to be like and what it represents.
For those that don’t know, Sunderland is in the north east of England and is in an area that has a long and proud history of mining, shipbuilding and other heavy industries. Thanks to the large working class population the area is politically more on the left of the political spectrum, having a Labour dominated council for at least the last 40 years and six of the seven MPs elected in the [now defunct] Sunderland North and Sunderland South constituencies over sixty years were Labour party MPs. Over the years these industries have been lost, often down to Conservative government policies and the same quality of work and pride in jobs has been lost too. But, even though the city has been neglected in terms of its development and support from central government there is still a fierce pride in the history and traditions of the area and the football club is a big part of that. In recent years the club has been involved in positive actions to make itself a “community club” and has signed a sponsorship deal with the [slightly dubious] Invest in Africa organisation and has signed up as an advocate of the Mandela Foundation. This foundation is there to promote Nelson Mandela’s legacy of social justice.
The football club has rarely been wildly successful in my lifetime. A couple of 7th place finishes in the Premier League, any number of promotions and four [losing] Wembley finals are probably the highlights but each season usually brings hopes of some semblance of success, maybe a promotion and more often, fear of relegation. But still, like many thousands of others, I returned every season always hoping that this season would be the one where we would maybe win something.
We’ve had a fairly eventful time recently with managers, from a maniacal Roy Keane who got us promoted to the Championship, to Steve Bruce who was barely forgiven by many for having been a supporter of our arch-rivals Newcastle United. And then we signed Martin O’Neill. A man surely destined to be a great Sunderland manager. But, after a flying start, created a facsimile of any of our other dismal underperforming teams from the past. With relegation looking a distinct possibility if not an absolute certainty and seven games remaining, O’Neill was sacked.
And Paolo Di Canio has been signed up as manager. Di Canio was a cracking player, capable of wonderful skills, acts of sportsmanship, great commitment and moments of, well, lunacy. There’s one thing that can be put down to lunacy, but I’m not that generous, and that’s his political outlook. Di Canio told the Italian news agency ANSA in 2005 “I am a fascist, not a racist”. That maybe so [although Di Canio was investigated and cleared by the FA for references to the black striker Jonathan Téhoué's skin colour and he apologised for the comments in a letter] and racism is not necessarily an explicit part of fascist ideology. He has expressed his admiration of Mussolini and has a couple of tattoos, one reading “Dux”, latin for leader and a reference to “Il Duce” and a rather impressive back tattoo that seems to feature the profile of the “misunderstood” Benito Mussolini. And of course most people have, by now, seen the pictures of Di Canio’s *ahem* Roman salutes [Nazi salutes to you and me] to the Lazio fans.
It’s certainly true that fascism, like many other political ideologies, embraces a number of views and schools of thought. Indeed some of these ideas would be accepted by many people in the UK. It is also true that fascism in Italy is a more commonplace, and accepted part, of the political forum. In the UK the term has been used as an insult with such an undefined meaning that it has almost become meaningless or without any widely accepted meaning among the general public, but it does have a meaning in Italy and a meaning which Di Canio fully understands. Di Canio has added his own slight nuances to fascism and condemned racism and violence as well as advocated democracy and a free press, but these elements are not prescribed elements of fascism anyway, which is based more on extreme nationalism, where the population adhere to a strongly defined cultural ideal which is embodied by an authoritarian leader and where all efforts are to strengthen the power of the state. Di Canio cannot pick and choose “nice” fascism and like the “nice” parts of Benito Mussolini and ignore the rest.
There are many who say that football and politics do not belong together. Maybe that’s true in the sanitisied, commoditised world of Sky Sports but it’s certainly not true among the grassroot supporters of a football club. There the club means something, represents something and has huge cultural importance to the place where the club is based and to its fans. At this level football is political. Avoiding the issue is not going to help and the problem will remain until it is properly addressed. Sunderland AFC, as a legal entity, have released a particularly odd and vague press release and denied that Di Canio is a fascist. Which is a little odd since it was Di Canio who announced he was a fascist in the first place. Sunderland AFC’s handling of the appointment of Di Canio, which has also resulted in the resignation of David Milliband as a non-executive director, has been cack-handed to say the least. There have also been responses from the Durham Miners Association who are to withdraw their historic pit union banner from its place of honour at Sunderland Football Club in protest at the club’s appointment of Di Canio. It is also difficult to see how this appointment reflects on the agreement with the Mandela Foundation.
Being a supporter of the club means that the club reflects in some way on me. I don’t want to be represented by a club with a self declared fascist as manager and I cannot support one. Whilst Di Canio is there and whilst he and club refuses to clarify his views, I’ll not be watching Sunderland AFC nor will I be taking the opportunities to go to games on my trips back to the area. I doubt Sunderland AFC’s board will be too fussed, they are focussing on the short-term and making decisions that they hope will preserve the club’s status in the Premier League. But for me, supporting Sunderland has thankfully never been just about league positions. This appointment damages my image and view of the club and my idea of what it represents and how it should behave. Di Canio might be wildly successful as a manager but I don’t want to be a part of it.