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'Fascist' Di Canio polarizes opinion

By Ravi Ubha, for CNN
updated 2:09 PM EDT, Wed April 3, 2013
Controversial Italian Paolo Di Canio has landed his second club manager's job with English Premier League side Sunderland. Controversial Italian Paolo Di Canio has landed his second club manager's job with English Premier League side Sunderland.
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Paolo Di Canio: 'Fascist not racist'
Paolo Di Canio: 'Fascist not racist'
Paolo Di Canio: 'Fascist not racist'
Paolo Di Canio: 'Fascist not racist'
Paolo Di Canio: 'Fascist not racist'
Paolo Di Canio: 'Fascist not racist'
Paolo Di Canio: 'Fascist not racist'
Paolo Di Canio: 'Fascist not racist'
Paolo Di Canio: 'Fascist not racist'
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paolo Di Canio doesn't want to discuss his controversial political views
  • Facebook page launched in opposition to Di Canio's appointment
  • Media is "trying to make something out of nothing," one Sunderland fan says
  • "I'm not in the Houses of Parliament, I will only talk about football," says Di Canio

(CNN) -- He sports a "Dux" tattoo and has expressed a fascination with Benito Mussolini. Meet Paolo Di Canio -- the new Sunderland manager who is proving a polarizing figure after his appointment by the struggling English Premier League club.

As his right-wing sympathies come under intense scrutiny, Di Canio says he only wants to talk about football -- though his controversial views threaten to overshadow his job of trying to keep Sunderland in the top flight.

"My life speaks for me so there is no need to speak any more about this situation because it is ridiculous and pathetic," Di Canio, who quit as manager of Swindon Town in England's third tier in February, told reporters.

"I can't every two weeks, every two months, every 10 months answer the same questions that are not really in my area."

But he might have to -- and in fact did a day later to try to stop more questions about his past.

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In 2005 while playing for Lazio, the club he supported as a boy, Di Canio told Italian news agency ANSA, "I'm a fascist, not a racist," after making a straight-arm salute to Lazio fans in a game against city rival Roma.

"Dux," the Latin version of the nickname given to Mussolini, is branded on Di Canio's right arm and the Italian dictator is cited in his autobiography.

Facebook criticism

Di Canio's appointment has already prompted British MP David Miliband to quit his post as Sunderland's vice-chairman and he isn't the only one dissatisfied with the Italian's hiring.

Read: Miliband quits after Di Canio hiring

A Facebook page, entitled "Sunderland Against Fascist Di Canio" has been set up and as of Wednesday morning UK time, had more than 4,000 "likes."

A miners' association in the industrial north east of England region said it has written to Sunderland "demanding" the return of a banner at the club's Stadium of Light "in protest of the decision to appoint the self-confessed fascist, Paolo Di Canio." Sunderland's stadium was formerly the site of a coal mine.

"The appointment of Di Canio is a disgrace and a betrayal of all who fought and died in the fight against fascism," Dave Hopper, general secretary of the Durham Miners' Association, said on its website.

The criticism didn't stop there.

In a comment posted on website A Love Supreme, an independent Sunderland supporters' magazine, one reader wrote: "If he supports fascism then he should be sacked immediately."

Such was the interest surrounding Di Canio's arrival at Sunderland, the site was overflowing with responses to the Italian's appointment.

Is Di Canio racist?

Given Italy's former fascist leader Mussolini enacted anti-Semitic laws and oversaw the deporting of thousands of Italian Jews to concentration and death camps, academic Kevin Passmore disagreed with the feeling of other Sunderland fans that Di Canio's political stance shouldn't have mattered when the club sought a new manager.

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However as for Di Canio's claim that he was a fascist "but not a racist," Passmore acknowledged the 44-year-old may not be wrong.

Di Canio -- still adored at West Ham, where he played for four years -- has attempted to quash suggestions he was a racist by claiming that two of his best friends during his playing career in England were black.

"Those who have called themselves fascists have had many different views, and they have often evolved over time," said Passmore, Reader in History at Cardiff University in Wales and the author of "Fascism: a very short introduction".

"Fascists did not agree what fascism was, and academics can't agree, either. So in principle, Di Canio could be right, and certainly Italian fascism was less racist than Nazism. However the story in practice could be different.

"These days, most people think that fascism does equal racism, rightly or wrongly, so one could argue that Di Canio is irresponsible," Passmore added.

Read: Greek player banned for fascist salute

Another academic, Alberto Testa, agreed that differences existed in the definition of fascism, particularly in the United Kingdom and Italy.

He pointed out that a fascist group in Italy had participated in charity work for minorities.

In Italy, Testa said, Di Canio's comment of "I am a fascist" would mean "many things."

"I believe in Paolo Di Canio not being a racist," added Testa, who spent time "embedded" with Lazio and Roma ultras for the book "Football, Fascism and Fandom: The UltraS of Italian Football," co-authored by Gary Armstrong.

"I also believe that a celebrity like him which has numerous fans in Italy and the UK should commit publicly to fight racism in football," said Testa, a lecturer at Brunel University in London.

Fans back Italian

After Di Canio quit Swindon in February, the club's former chief executive provided a graphic description of his management style.

"Paolo would chuck a hand grenade and I would do the repair work at the end, like the Red Cross," said Nick Watkins.

Janet Rowan, a season-ticket holder for nearly 20 years and secretary of a Sunderland supporters' association in Chester-le-Street, said Di Canio should not have been hired due to his lack of managerial experience.

Though Swindon was promoted from the fourth division as champion under Di Canio in 2012, he lasted less than two seasons and resigned amid uncertainty involving the club's ownership. He claimed, too, that a player had been sold behind his back.

"It's down to his footballing experience rather than anything to do with politics," said Rowan. "I think he's lacking in experience at the top level."

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Simon Walsh, the 28-year-old editor of the Sunderland website Roker Report, said: "He's trying to be made out as an uber-fascist when he's not."

In response to the question, "Would you be happy if we appointed Paolo Di Canio?" 61% of respondents on the Roker Report website said yes.

If Sunderland wins or draw at Chelsea in Di Canio's first game in charge Sunday, much of the brouhaha surrounding him will dissipate, according to Walsh.

Read: How Sunderland fell for Africa

Fred Taylor, from Sunderland's Boldon supporters' association, also said that the media was "trying to make something out of nothing."

And Iain Dale, editor of website West Ham Till I Die and a radio broadcaster in London, wondered why Di Canio's past wasn't as intensely examined when he was in charge of Swindon.

Di Canio's forward play for West Ham, including a stunning volley he struck against Wimbledon in 2000 that is widely regarded as one of the greatest goals in Premier League history, hasn't been forgotten by West Ham's supporters.

"If you want to be consistent, have a front page when he's played in this country and when he's come to Swindon, not just when he's appointed manager of a Premier League club," said Dale.

When it comes to Di Canio, it seems, people will always agree to disagree.

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