Paolo Di Canio, principles and the interaction between politics and football
The first thing to say is that I don’t agree with Paolo Di Canio’s views. Fascist or not, he clearly believes in a Third Way-style politics. He is on record in his autobiography saying that immigrants should adapt to the culture of their new country – not especially radical (I’d hazard a guess that a huge number of British people would agree with similar sentiments) but not something I agree with.
He also likes Mussolini. Well, sort of. Or at least the media like to say he likes Mussolini. Let’s have a look at a quote from his autobiography (as stated in this Independent article) in full instead of taking it out of context as usual – “I am fascinated by Mussolini. I think he was a deeply misunderstood individual. He deceived people. His actions were often vile. But all this was motivated by a higher purpose. He was basically a very principled individual. Yet he turned against his sense of right and wrong. He compromised his ethics.”
For one, I’m sure you’ll agree that this is nothing in the league of “I am a Tory and I really like David Cameron”, said by one Frank Lampard Jr of Chelsea – he is hardly jumping around saying “Mussolini was brilliant, I agree with everything he did”. It’s worth noting at this stage that respect for Mussolini is not out of the ordinary in Italy – unlike in Germany, the former fascist leader is not stigmatised or put to the back of the collective memory. Hence the right-wing ultras in clubs like Inter and Lazio, the latter of whom Di Canio embraced during his time at the club, resulting in his infamous Roman salute goal celebration during the Rome derby.
But one salute does not a fascist make. Yes, he said he was a fascist. Yes, he said he respects Mussolini. But I think we need to think of this in a cultural sense rather than a political one. I don’t believe Di Canio’s salute was a political statement – I think it makes more sense as a show of unity with the Lazio fans with whom he grew up and played for. He stated that he has never voted for a far-right candidate, and there are plenty of them in the Italian political scene, from Lega Nord to (arguably) Silvio Berlusconi. He also admires the Japanese samurai culture – does that make him a samurai? No, of course not. It just means he admires samurai culture.
The best comparison that I’ve seen is with Che Guevara t-shirts. Is everyone in Britain who wears a Guevara t-shirt a communist revolutionary who likes Fidel Castro? No. After all, Karl Marx said we should be judged on our actions when the revolution arrives, not what we say and do beforehand. We can spout all the left-wing rhetoric we want but if we protect our property when the revolution comes, it proves the dishonesty of those words. Saying you believe something does not mean you actually believe something. Each political definition comes with its own baggage, and that doesn’t mean you agree with all of it – not all Labour Party members supported the Iraq War; not all communists would agree with Soviet atrocities committed under Stalin.
We need to stop looking at this in such an objective way. Perhaps it is better looking at it from the other angle. Another well-known Italian striker, Cristiano Lucarelli, who played for the national side as well as Livorno, Torino, Parma and abroad for Valencia and Shakhtar, was openly communist. His goal celebration, in a mirror image of Di Canio’s Roman salute, was a clenched fist salute. He admires Guevara – when on Under 21 duty in 1997, he lifted his jersey to reveal Guevara’s image, which led to him being barred from the national team until 2005. It is even said that his mobile phone ring tone is The Red Flag.
Now what if Cristiano Lucarelli became a manager of a football club in England? While I wouldn’t anticipate an identical reaction to that which has followed Di Canio’s appointments at Swindon and Sunderland, I’m sure that a lot of fans would object or at least be uncomfortable, even if they did not say so publicly.
For me, there are two elements to this, both of which come back to the same thing. One is the public nature of political proclamations. I’m sure there’s more than one fascist player or manager out there, or indeed more than one communist player or manager. The difference is Di Canio and Lucarelli have stated their views publicly – although it is not clear cut as the individual’s definition of that has never been fully defined publicly in both cases.
The other element this leads on to is the principle of objecting to someone’s political views. We have seen this with both of Di Canio’s appointments. When he was announced as the new Swindon manager in the summer of 2011, the trade union GMB pulled out of a sponsorship deal with the club. When he was announced as Sunderland manager yesterday, former Foreign Secretary and Labour MP David Miliband resigned as a non-executive director of the club. Fans in both cases have announced they were leaving the club until he was/is gone.
And yet the only “mistake” I can see that Di Canio has made is that he has said and done things publicly. If he hadn’t, we would be none the wiser about his beliefs. It’s worth remembering that Paolo Di Canio first arrived on these shores in 1996 when he signed for Celtic, before playing for Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham and Charlton. He didn’t start openly talking about being a “fascist” until he was back in Italy playing for Lazio. Nobody objected to him playing for these clubs here because he hadn’t said anything about his political view – to the wider public, he was not a fascist, even though you would assume he didn’t change his views or definitions just as he moved from one country to another.
It’s Schroedinger’s cat, is it not? He was both a fascist (or “fascist”) and not a fascist at the same time until he said something publicly. The fact is if he hadn’t said anything publicly, no one would care. Blissful ignorance.
Another example – Jose Mourinho. I’m sure nearly every football fan in the country would love, or at least accept him as the manager of their club if he was appointed tomorrow. He is arguably the best manager of all time, with unparalleled success over the last decade. And yet beneath the surface, it is said that he may be a fascist, or at least very right wing – Peter Conrad of the Guardian wrote an overview of this 7 years ago. His family were part of the wealthy middle class and their business relied upon the Salazar regime, whose ideology was a form of fascism developed from the Italian form which Di Canio has at least shown solidarity with. When a communist mayor was voted into their home town, as they were part of the bourgeoisie, they had to leave. Conrad states “this sudden, humiliating demotion left Mourinho with unregenerately right-wing views.”
But will we see mass protests and supporters claiming that “this is the last straw” if he is appointed at a Premier League club this summer? I very much doubt it. And yet ideologically, depending on your viewpoint, either there seems to be very little difference between the two men’s views, or Mourinho is far more right wing or closer to fascism than Di Canio. The difference is one has said something in public, and the other has avoided it. One is evil, the other is worshipped as a demi-god.
Mourinho may not have publicly stated he is a fascist/right wing/a fan of Salazar but his background is in the public domain. The media could choose to make this a big deal if they wanted. But they choose not to. The fans could make this a big deal if they wanted. But they choose not to.
What we are seeing here is hypocrisy – someone holding questionable political views is not a big deal if 1) you personally agree or sympathise with them, or 2) the person in question is enormously successful at what he does and/or a popular public figure. People are happy to overlook flaws in someone if they’ll bring them what they want. And people say they are walking away out of principle? There are no principles in that, as far as I can tell.
The irony is Di Canio has stated that he admires the fact that Mussolini was a very principled person, regardless of what those principles were – he is in effect saying that we should all act based on our principles. Perhaps we should think about that for a moment – it seems to me that Di Canio has far more principles than some of the people protesting against him “out of principle”.
These protests (keyboard or actual) are not as a result of this managerial appointment. This is a result of wider issues within the club. If the fans were confident that the owner and the board were making the right decision, they wouldn’t be protesting. The problem at Sunderland is the fans have lost confidence in the people running the public.
Football fans today always feel the need to cite a reason to stop supporting a club – “they signed a player/manager I don’t like”, or “they put ticket prices up”. Speaking from experience, that’s not the reason why. If you are fed up enough to walk away from the club you love, as I am on the verge of doing myself, there is a wider reason – which should be especially obvious if you are listing things you don’t like about the club in your open letter to the chairman.
So to those Sunderland fans who are making a big public deal about the fact that “this is the last straw” for you as a fan of the club, I say this – you are not telling the truth. It may be subconscious, but you are not being honest – you are not leaving because of Paolo Di Canio’s political beliefs. You are leaving because you do not like the way the club is run as a whole. Or, in another sense, you are leaving because you have fallen out of love with the club in general.
Of course there are circumstances where I support fans raising awareness of issues within their club, and taking a stand on those by walking away. But the problem itself is never the issue itself – it’s the way the club is being run. For Cardiff fans walking away because of the colour change this season, the colour change wasn’t the issue – it was the way Vincent Tan was running the club, the decisions he was making. Similarly, Sunderland fans’ ire should not be aimed at Di Canio but at Ellis Short and the club hierarchy. Don’t blame a man for having different political view to yours – like it or not, it’s his choice. It’s up to the owners and operators of the club to judge whether having a fascist, communist or any other -ist as the public face of the club is appropriate – and that’s a matter of opinion, a subjective issue rather than objective.
Ultimately, I don’t think it really matters what Di Canio’s opinions are – as I’ve stated already, his only “mistake” so far has been to say or do something publicly. There are people involved in football who hold far more destructive and offensive views than him – we may not know, but they are out there. As long as someone isn’t using football as a political platform to openly promote dangerous ideological views (and I mean the detail, not the name), I don’t think it’s a problem and we should just concentrate on the football itself. I don’t believe Di Canio has done this or will do this.
Whether or not he can keep Sunderland in the Premier League is a different matter, and that should be the issue we should be debating today…