LONDON – Blunderland FC is searching for a new manager. Chairman Ellis Long heads a board meeting.
Long: “How about Paolo di Canio?”
One stunned director almost spits out a mouthful of coffee. “Mr. Chairman, di Canio has never managed higher than League One and his, er, political views may overshadow any appointment . . . “
Long: “What political views?”
Director: “He said he was a fascist and that Benito Mussolini was a principled, ethical individual. Then there’s the one-arm salute. The tattoo . . . there may be problems.”
Long: “We can keep politics out of football . . . “
Director: “No we can’t. The media will be all over us like a rash. You want to appoint a manager who has never worked in the top two divisions and who will be accused of having extremist political leanings . . . ?”
Long: “We’ll tell him to say nothing about his political beliefs at the press conference. Just talk about football.”
Director: “I’m not sure if the media will accept that.”
Long: “OK, we’ll see what the reaction is . . . we can always get Paolo to put a denial out later.”
Director: “We assess the damage and then get him to say something later?”
Long: “So, Paolo di Canio it is then.”
JUST WHEN YOU think you have seen and heard it all, that there is nothing left to surprise you in football, Benito Mussolini becomes a central figure in the appointment of a new manager.
If Sunderland chairman and owner Ellis Short did not see this coming he is the Mr. Magoo of the Premier League.
Sacking Martin O’Neill with Sunderland one point above the relegation zone and seven games remaining is one thing.
Even putting Paolo di Canio’s political views aside, to bring in someone who has not managed in the Premier League or the Championship — the latter may come next season — beggars belief. The self-destruct has been well and truly pressed and Sunderland got what it deserved. It is the most badly handled managerial appointment ever (even though his official title is head coach).
Soon after di Canio’s confirmation former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who is Jewish, resigned from the board where he was non-executive vice-chairman, in protest. The media machine was now in overdrive and di Canio’s unveiling was more like a political rally; there were plenty of F-words, but the questions were about fascism rather than football.
He refused to explain or enlarge on his political views at his unveiling and the press reaction was hysterical, The Times even made it front page news.
Di Canio needed to draw a line under the matter by clarifying the statements in his autobiography and the “I am a fascist, not a racist” remark made while a Lazio player in 2005 when he was banned for one match after giving a straight-arm gesture for the third time that year after the game against Roma.
On Wednesday, di Canio relented, putting out a statement in the wake of pressure from the Dean of Durham who wrote an open letter saying: “Unless you denounce fascism in all its manifestations you will be associated with the far-right tendencies we have seen too much of in this region.”
Belatedly, Di Canio said: “I do not affiliate myself to any organization. I am not a racist and do not support the ideology of fascism.”
Is there a difference between saying “I do not support the ideology of fascism” and “I am not a fascist”?
There is no denying the DVX tattoo on his shoulder (the Latin appellation for Benito Mussolini) so perhaps di Canio is the first non-fascist with a tattoo of the man synonymous with the beliefs the Sunderland manager apparently doesn’t follow.
Three years ago di Canio attended the funeral of Paolo Signorelli, a member of the Italian Socialist Movement which was formed by supporters of Mussolini. Di Canio’s denial has fallen on a mountain of deaf ears.
This is not a new problem, just the stage is bigger. When di Canio was manager of Swindon, the trade union GMB withdrew its sponsorship deal with the club when the Italian was appointed. In League Two the media spotlight is less intense, in the Premier League there is no hiding place.
It is an issue that is unlikely to go away and you would be hard pushed to find anyone who thinks he will see out his 2½-year contract. For now, the di Canio era kicks off at Chelsea on Sunday, with a Tyne-Wear derby against Newcastle to follow. Some introduction to life at the top.
While its new manager could never be accused of being boring, Sunderland is the dullest team in the Premier League, lacking inspiration, imagination and especially goals.
Leading scorer Steven Fletcher is injured and will not play again this season, Danny Graham has yet to find the back of the net since joining from Swansea in January, and Conor Wickham has one goal all season.
Di Canio’s time at Sunderland will probably end in tears. It is also likely to start that way.
IF YOU WERE at your local golf club and saw someone drive in and you knew they were serving a six-month ban, would you tip off the police?
Someone, presumably not a Manchester City supporter, who was at Mottram Hall Golf Club dialed 999 when Carlos Tevez arrived in his Porsche Cayenne.
On Wednesday at Macclesfield Magistrates’ Court, the striker was ordered to carry out 250 hours of community service, prompting the front page headline in The Sun — “Don’t Cry For Me Argie Cleaner.”
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.