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Di Canio hits back: 'I am not a fascist'

updated 1:17 PM EDT, Wed April 3, 2013
Paolo Di Canio poses after a press conference to unveil him as the new manager of English Premier League club Sunderland. Paolo Di Canio poses after a press conference to unveil him as the new manager of English Premier League club Sunderland.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • English soccer club's new manager issues statement denying he has fascist beliefs
  • Paolo Di Canio had initially refused to talk about his past statements
  • His appointment has caused a barrage of widespread criticism
  • However, Sunderland's key partners have refused to condemn his arrival

(CNN) -- The man who once indignantly remarked, "I'm a fascist, not a racist," has publicly disavowed his past far-right statements after the storm of controversy that has followed his appointment as manager of an English Premier League soccer team.

Sunderland's decision to hire Paolo Di Canio at the weekend has left the club and the Italian facing a barrage of questions about his past, when he has admitted being "fascinated" by his country's former dictator Benito Mussolini. He even has tattoos of fascist emblems.

His new club's vice-chairman, prominent politician David Miliband, stepped down as soon as the announcement was made.

At first Di Canio refused to respond, saying he would only talk about football-related matters.

However, following widespread media pressure, protests from local war veterans, anti-racism groups, a leading church member from England's north-east region whose mother was a Jewish refugee, and several anti-Di Canio Facebook pages, the 44-year-old has released a statement to clarify his beliefs.

Read: 'Fascist' Di Canio polarizes opinion

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"I feel that I should not have to continually justify myself to people who do not understand this, however I will say one thing only -- I am not the man that some people like to portray," Di Canio said in a statement on Sunderland's website on Wednesday.

"I am not political, I do not affiliate myself to any organization, I am not a racist and I do not support the ideology of fascism. I respect everyone."

Di Canio was once a member of a hardcore right-wing fan group that follows his hometown team Lazio -- the club where he started his career and later got into trouble when he returned, when he made straight-arm salutes to the crowd in 2005.

At the time he was praised by members of Mussolini's family, but the football authorities fined him and suspended him for one match. Lazio, meanwhile, has been charged four times this season over the racist behavior of its fans.

Read: Di Canio under scrutiny

The decision by Sunderland's American owner Ellis Short to hire a man with such a controversial past was seen by many as being at odds with the club's strong family values.

Its work with children in the community helped secure a sponsorship deal with the "Invest in Africa" group and also led to a partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Both have said that Di Canio's appointment will not affect their relationship with Sunderland, while several fan groups told CNN Tuesday that they supported his arrival.

"It is a football-related matter and under the remit of the club," an Invest in Africa spokesman told the UK Press Association.

The Mandela charity, whose partnership was publicly launched at a high-profile home match against Manchester United on Saturday, met with Di Canio and club officials on Monday.

Read: Mandela's legacy - How Sunderland fell for Africa

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"At the heart of the partnership is a commitment to our Founder's values with a special focus on human rights and anti-racism," it said in a statement Tuesday.

"At the meeting on Monday, Sunderland reaffirmed its commitment to these values and the ethos of the partnership."

Di Canio is now hoping to focus on the task of keeping Sunderland in the top division, in what is only his second managerial role after less than two years at Swindon -- a club he took from the fourth tier of the English game to the third before quitting over its financial problems.

His new team is just one point above the relegation zone with seven games to play ahead of his first match in charge -- Sunday's trip to fourth-placed Chelsea.

"I have clearly stated that I do not wish to speak about matters other than football, however, I have been deeply hurt by the attacks on the football club," he said Wednesday.

"This is a historic, proud and ethical club and to read and hear some of the vicious and personal accusations is painful. I am an honest man, my values and principles come from my family and my upbringing.

"Now I will speak only of football."

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