In their quest to avoid relegation from the Premier League, Sunderland Association Football Club have appointed a self-declared fascist. By hiring Paolo Di Canio, who has repeatedly made his fascist beliefs known, the Sunderland board has thrown their club (and by extension English football) back to an era in which the dividing line between extremism and football appears far from clear.
Nor can the Sunderland board claim political naivety, as Di Canio’s political beliefs and lineage are all on record. There are his (several) fascist public salutes, which in several European democracies would entail life bans from the sport. There are his links to the neo-fascist ‘ultras’ in Lazio, the members of which have mocked Jewish communities, sing about putting their opponents in Auschwitz-style ‘ovens’ and recently attacked supporters of Tottenham Hotspur, which many traced to the Ultras’ virulent anti-Semitism. There is Di Canio’s description of Benito Mussolini as ‘basically a very principled, ethical individual’ who was ‘deeply misunderstood’. And in case of any lingering doubt, there is also the ‘Dux’ tattoo on Di Canio’s arm, a reference to the Italian dictator, ‘Il Duce’.
Di Canio will respond, as he has done in the past, by claiming that he is a fascist and not a racist. This is an old argument on the extreme right-wing, which is often referred to by activists as ‘verbal judo’. As part of an attempt to distance themselves from the racially motivated genocide of Nazi Germany, they claim the Mussolini brand of fascism was, at best, more interested in state power and harnessing a new man than race-based supremacism or, at worst, fell under the influence of Hitler’s Nazis. Italians have certainly been receptive to the view, even sending Mussolini’s grand-daughter back into Parliament in the early 1990s and at various points voting for parties that have praised Il Duce and downplayed his regime. Of course, what fascists like Di Canio conveniently forget or downplay is that, when it suited, Mussolini was perfectly willing to employ the same racially supremacist rhetoric as Hitler, as when discussing Italy’s expansion into Yugoslavia or Africa, enacted discriminatory racial laws in the late 1930s, and facilitated the deportation and murder of Jews. Also downplayed is the fact that the ideology of fascism vigorously opposes egalitarianism and a representative democracy that works to safeguard a plurality of different groups and ideas, all of which are integral to a functioning and twenty-first century football league that brings together a multitude of organizations, each of which in turn increasingly depend on multicultural teams.
English football has certainly had its fair share of dark days. Perhaps the darkest came in 1938 when, under the government’s appeasement policy, the Foreign Office ordered members of the national team to give the fascist salute to their German hosts. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, open expressions of racism on the terraces attracted recruitment drives by the far right National Front. But British society and football have come a long way since then. True, recent groups like the English Defence League have absorbed elements of the football hooligan scene, but these are fringe (and often banned) elements within a sport that has actively sought to remove extremist politics and racism. The likes of John Terry and Luis Suarez highlight the enduring challenge of racism, but they are a minority and should be juxtaposed against the anti-racism campaigns in English football, which are some of the most highly developed and prominent in Europe. More can always be done, but the campaigner Sunder Katwala was right to note that while in the past football probably introduced many to racism, today it has arguably done more than any other part of British society to publicly repudiate racists and fascists.
But this shift is seemingly lost on the directors of Sunderland, who by hiring a self-described fascist have shown themselves to be at odds with the broader generational shift that is taking place in British society. Their indifference to Di Canio’s beliefs is the most striking aspect of this case. Only the club’s non-executive director, David Miliband, recognised the significance by instantly resigning from his local club, attributing to the decision to Di Canio’s ‘past political statements’. While intending to bolster their immediate prospects, the decision has relegated the wider standing of Sunderland AFC. I am not even convinced that based on his past actions Di Canio would pass the ‘six point plan’ that was recently advocated by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), and which under its ‘commitment to all’ calls for action against all forms of prejudice, including anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
Consider this. Even in Italy, Di Canio’s open posturing was met with short bans and fines, while the President of FIFA made clear his desire to impose a life ban on players who openly supported fascism. In fact, this latter measure has just been enacted in Greece, where amidst a climate that has seen the return of neo-Nazism, a talented young midfielder named Giorgos Katidis effectively ended his football career after celebrating a goal with the same salute that Di Canio has given on several occasions. In stark contrast to Sunderland, and even amidst rising support for Golden Dawn, the Greek authorities instantly handed Katidis a life ban from playing in national teams, while condemning the player for insulting ‘the victims of Nazi bestiality’ and ‘injuring the deeply pacifist and human character of the game’. And Katidis was not even an open admirer of fascist ideology. While in modern day Greece they ban you for injuring the human character of football, in Sunderland it appears they make you the manager.