Sunderland AFC, Fascism and Paolo Di Canio

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.


26 thoughts on “Sunderland AFC, Fascism and Paolo Di Canio

  1. James Ryddel says:

    Your views don’t count. You are just a supporter. Fact of life, sadly.

  2. Peter says:

    I think you’ve been unfair to him, you’ve taken certain soundbites and taken that as the whole. I read a short extract of his book today – it outlines his thoughts quite clearly. He’s not the demon he’s been painted as, or the fascist he called himself (most likely flippantly).

    To him, I believe he sees certain aspects of fascism – unity, pride as a group, working as one – as good things (things you yourself mention above). The others – such as xenophobia (he said he welcomes those foreigners who assimilate into the culture – noting the UK for its success in this) and violence as things he is against. He believes he can pick and choose. To the British public, only the definition carries weight, not the mans substance.

    I feel for you to make sure a judgement is unfair – before writing such things, I feel you should have actually read what he believes in. Theres an independant article, various scans of his biography online.

  3. Alistair Leadbetter says:

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for your comment. I know that there are a number of articles on line and I have read them too. Gabrielle Marcotti has also made some good points to try and clarify Di Canio’s thinking and I have seen some parts of his book, particularly with regard to immigration.

    I have never said he is a demon and I have tried to allude to the various schools of Italian fascist thought in my piece.

    You have said that you think that Di Canio has probably referred to himself as a fascist in a flippant way. Perhaps the enormous tattoo on his back with a profile of Mussolini and the fasces is also flippant? I don’t think he was being so flippant.

    Di Canio is an interesting and complex man. He cannot pick and choose various aspects of fascism and still call himself a fascist. Either he is or he isn’t. His past actions and his refusal to resolve this issue leave this as a completely fair interpretation of the situation.

    He is of course entitled to his views. However I can’t give my support to a club which is now deeply associated with views I fundamentally disagree with.

    • Peter says:

      Hi Allistair,

      Firstly to clear things up, you didnt refer to him as a demon, but as a whole I feel the consensus is swinging that way – without really looking at it in detail.

      You have said that he cant pick and choice which part of facism he supports. Perhaps Italians they feel they can – so my comment regarding being flippant, relates to how he is perceived in Britain. He was being flippant in his notion of what facism is to people beyond those he made the comment to. Tho. your comment on his tattoos does put a big whole in that argument.

      I think he is an impulsive guy, with strong opinions – I dont think he wishes harm to anybody or people of different race, his thinking to my eyes is authoritarian.

      • Alistair Leadbetter says:

        He’s certainly an interesting character. His lack of willingness to clarify or explain what he means by “I am a fascist not a racist” makes it hard to critique his beliefs in any great detail so I have to take statements on face value. The statement was made to ANSA with regard to his fascist salute to a section of the Lazio support and is not in anyway linked to the interpretation by anyone here in the UK.

    • Peter says:

      I think Gabrielle Marcotti’s timeline sums up my thinking better than I could put it myself. I dont think a soundbite and a picture from 14 years ago is a great way to measure the man that he is today.

      • Alistair Leadbetter says:

        The fascist salutes and the comment [not quite a soundbite] are from 8 years ago. I guess we’ll have to see but I’m not holding my breath. If he has changed his views and he’s no longer a fascist then why not just say so?

      • Peter says:

        My mistake, the book was 14 years ago, the salute 8 years.

  4. Not Happening says:

    Nelson Mandela also has a rather shady past, particularly in regards to white farmers. So you simply cannot like the ‘nice’ parts of Nelson whilst ignoring the bad. By extension, therefore, Sunderland AFC support terrorism.

    Which is your logic, not mine.

    • Alistair Leadbetter says:

      Nelson Mandela doesn’t really have a shady past since I think we all know about his actions on behalf of the ANC. I think we also know what drove his actions which were in direct response to the repression of black and coloured people in South Africa under the apartheid system. This now becomes a discussion of whether he was a freedom fighter or a terrorist. Irrespective of the definition, Mandela was fighting for the emancipation of the majority by the minority. This is somewhat different to supporting a fascist ideology.

      • Peter says:

        I could be well off base – but I feel Di Canio wants a better Italy, with unity between all creeds, races and classes.

        In terms of fascism, what negative aspects of it do you believe Di Canio supports?

      • Alistair Leadbetter says:

        It’s hard to say isn’t it because he refuses to expand! If we take the basic definitions of fascism as a starting point then we have to think he believes in those. The unity he appears to support is that based around a population mobilised in complete service of the state and the state culture under an authoritarian leader. Which in anyone’s terms is oppressive and leads you to ask about what happens when you don’t comply

  5. Peter says:

    “Which in anyone’s terms is oppressive and leads you to ask about what happens when you don’t comply”

    I think Di Canio is oppressive in character – which is probably one of the big reasons he was signed to be manager. He will try to lead them from the relegation zone with his sheer will.

    He has said he isnt racist, but believes in assimilation, and doesnt condone violence. So really its a question of him being authoritarian.

  6. AH says:

    Hi Peter

    I’m from Durham and I understand very clearly what Alistair so eloquently has alluded to in this post.

    The North East has battled through generations of social and economic adversity and through it all, has been almost uniform in its application of socialism and liberal democracy (whether or not Joe Average from Pennywell realises this or not).

    Fascism at its very core offends the north-eastern view of equality. Of course Di Canio fancies himself as a fascist and ‘identifies’ with Mussolini. He probably thinks it is a cool way of saying he’s a cut above the rest – a born leader. Fascism allows this deluded fantasism.

    In my mind, fascism and xenophobia also go hand in hand. There’s no coincidence that Italy (a place that Alistair correctly identifies as having more acceptance to the ideals of fascism) also has very serious problems with race relations. I lived and worked there for a few years and it made me realise how unbelievably far our own country has come when it comes to racial integration.

    I’m only one person to have experienced the (mostly wonderful) Italian culture. However, in my own experience, modern day Italian fascism is synonymous with racism and xenophobia. Walk around the suburbs of Milan or Roma and on every other street you’ll be guaranteed to see posters or graffiti with the slogan “basta di negri”. You don’t have to be some social anthropology expert to have witnessed the Italian public’s reaction to Mario Balotelli’s call up to the Italy squad either.

    I don’t support Sunderland but I do have a vested interest in my region. I don’t want the manager of the second biggest club (sorry SAFC supporters!) in the region, someone my kids will look up to, allowed a parapet in which he can spout off his controversial views. I want my children to grow up in a region of tolerance and equality and this is was makes the north-east so special.

    As a result, for the time that Di Canio is in charge of Sunderland AFC, I will not be bringing my family there either. Yes, you might argue that the football itself would dissuade me (and who am I to argue!) but some times are more important.

    • Peter says:

      Hello AH,

      As I have said Di Canio has stated he is neither racist or xenophobic, he believes in immigration and assimilation. I would ask you to read this interview if you havent already:

      In terms of spouting off his views, Its been stated he doesnt wish to.

      The reason I debate all of this, is because its pure conjecture. He has rejected the negative aspects of facism (Alistairs agument and yours) and has no wish to discuss the issue (your objection). You both seem preocuppied by the word itself.

      • AH says:

        Thanks Peter.

        I would counter that by saying it isn’t me who labels Di Canio as a fascist. Di Canio himself does that.

        All I know is that in my experience in Italy, Italians know very clearly what fascism is and it is synonymous with racism, intolerance and xenophobia.

        If he doesn’t mean this, then he should come out and provide some clarity on the matter. His past has been, regrettably, littered with previous incidents of indiscretion and he will drag that with him to wherever he goes. I just wish it wasn’t Sunderland.

  7. Peter says:

    Please read the article above, its quite long, but do read it all, it just may well provide you some clarity.

    I appreciate you have lived in Italy, but I dont feel you can generalise the way you have. People can share a view, but they also have the freedom of thought to make take from it what they will. 2 years in any country only just scratches the surface and generally highlights your own preconceptions.

  8. Peter says:

    Appreciate the conversion, good luck to Sunderland in the relegation battle and hopefully some better football! Its getting late here, good night.

  9. AH says:

    I read the article Peter. He is an interesting and complex character. It does not provide me with any additional clarity though.

    My comment about the problems with racial integration was prefaced by my statement that it is only one man’s experience. All you’re really doing is reaffirming what I already said – just more forcibly.

    By the way, I spent four and a half years in Italy. Not two. I would like to think my time there allowed me to do more than “scratch the surface” but you may well know better.

  10. Hr Mann says:

    Peter knows it all. He has read the aforementioned article!

  11. aita says:

    Reblogged this on Black White Red.

  12. derek hilley says:

    Lets face it di canio is an out and out facist and has no place as .manager of sunderland. The history of sunderland is of a people who fought against such views and convictions ,the only choice is a complete boycott and march against this outrages decision by the board.

    • Alistair Leadbetter says:

      But now SAFC have released a statement in which Di Canio denies wholeheartedly supporting the fascist ideology. Some digging [in Italian] shows Di Canio denying that he made the claim regarding being a fascist but not a racist back in 2005 although I cannot find a transcript of the interview in which he made the alleged statement.

      So now we have Di Canio’s multiple denials but we are left with his tattoos and salutes. Maybe his claims about the salutes are true and we can’t readily verify it [how can we check his intentions other than his own comments] and his tattoos might be explained away by a poor understanding of Italian fascist history [I face a similar problem].

      It all leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth but what do we now? Accept the claims and move on?

      There will be those who don’t accept his statement, those who do and those who give him the benefit of the doubt. Right now I am erring towards giving him the benefit of the doubt and moving on.

      I don’t want a witch hunt. It serves no purpose and is antithetical to the ideals that I support. He has said his piece and I don’t think we’re going to get anything else that truly satisfies everyone.

      Whatever happens, this has all been deeply unsatisfying and upsetting. SAFC have really let themselves down and that will take years to regain the fine work that Niall Quinn had done in establishing us as a real club.

  13. […] on Sunday.  I am not unhappy with the news since I was not at all happy with his appointment [see here and here] however it does lead me to the inevitable worry that if the directors could manage to […]

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