English football is on its head over the appointment of Paolo Di Canio as the manager of Sunderland AFC, but as this was announced on Sunday following the Man U game, it could not be a April Fool’s Day gag. Although I am studying English football I had never really seen such a clear example of how the different leagues relate to one another until he was hired to replace Martin O’Neill and keep Sunderland from falling into the relegation zone. The hype/hypocrisy from the press over his hiring has again got me thinking about the treatment of non-Brits in the Premier League, particularly in management positions.
Di Canio isn’t just a lightning rod for controversy, he is the lightning. This is the player who, while playing for SS Lazio in 2005, gave a Nazi salute to the AS Roma crowd following a goal and again to Livorno fans, giving him a ban and considerable notoriety (Giorgos Katidis take note: you may never get a chance to play for the Greek team, but you still have a future career in management). Of course, he only fuelled the controversy with his response to the incidents saying, “I’m not a racist, I’m a fascist.” Despite this history, he managed to get hired at Swindon Town, then in League 2, and guided them to promotion, and was on track to see them promoted to Championship before he quit due to conflicts with the club board and ownership. One of the Swindon board members described Di Canio’s spell at Swindon as “management by hand grenade.” Perhaps because you could never tell what was going to happen next with him. Some of the highlights of Di Canio’s management techniques involved: kicking one of his players, mowing the field turf, and offering to spend his own money to keep three players on loan at cash-strapped Swindon Town. He even broke into Swindon’s offices following his resignation to take the team pictures that he wanted. This is a man who will not be stopped. But is he a fascist? Does it matter?
Arguably to the media, David Milliband, Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), and many Sunderland fans it does. He does occupy a very visible spot in the sporting world now and although kids don’t often idolize the managers, he is very much a more public figure than he ever was at Swindon. However, he isn’t being paid for his politics, and having politically correct views is not a job requirement – winning games is. That said, I think some of the outcry over the whole situation is that it is another foreign manager at an English club. Consider the reception various other non-Brit managers have received this year: calls for Wenger’s dismissal, Benitez out was the cry at Stamford Bridge before he’d finished his first game, Villas-Boas nervy start at Tottenham. Arguably the worst job this year is Harry Redknapp’s QPR, but he’s English and trying to save a team so he’s been cut some slack. See the hypocrisy, it’s tougher to be a manager if you aren’t British because the game is British. It would be like all the Canadian NHL teams being coached by Europeans – Don Cherry would have an aneurysm.
But is he even a fascist? On the whole he probably leans that way, he has a tattoo “DUX” on his arm. However before I found that bit out I was wondering about his performance to the Italian fans those many years ago. Could it be that he was playing the part that was expected of him? Was he just riling up the opposing fans (Mussolini was apparently a Lazio fan) by playing the part of a fascist on a team long associated with fascism? Is it any different than Paul Gascoigne piping in front of the Celtic fans when he was on Rangers? Or Artur Boruc crossing himself as the Celtic keeper in front of the Rangers fans? Players can get just as involved in the performances as the fans. Am I going to turn off Sunderland because of Di Canio – not likely, especially if Crystal Palace get promoted and Ian Holloway is back in the EPL. Di Canio and Holloway – that would be a press conference to watch.
Until then at least we know that the Sunderland practices will run on time.