There was no such political trouble when he was in fulminating charge at Swindon Town. Former miners with their strong socialist roots have been especially incensed by the appointment of a man who until now has never hidden or tried to obscure his strong pro Fascist commitment. The very Stadium of Light, where Sunderland moved from historic Roker Park, was built on the site of a mine, one of those veteran miners has bitterly denounced the assumption of Di Canio.
Overall, it was surely naïve and even reckless of Ellis Short, the Irish American millionaire owner of Sunderland, to appoint Di Canio. One assumed that he lived in blissful ignorance of the inevitable backlash though someone connected with the club could surely have warned him.
In the meantime, Di Canio has tied himself in knots. At first asserting that he might be a Fascist but was not a racist, he was begging the question. Certainly there is no evidence of racism in his career, though the ultra right Lazio fans who shamelessly flaunt Nazi flags on the Curva Nord at the Olympic stadium are Fascist and blatantly anti-Semitic, while being racist into the bargain.
Di Canio’s 11th hour attempt to declare he was not a Fascist came infinitely late, even if – a remote chance – it was sincere. His body is covered with Fascist tattoos, biggest and most flamboyant of all a giant emblem on his back featuring an eagle and a picture of Mussolini himself.
His former Fascist companions are now scornfully turning their own backs, tattooed or otherwise on him. And the photographic evidence is damning. Not least a picture from a few years back of Di Canio attending, with saluting Fascists, the funeral of a notorious activist, imprisoned for eight years, though later released, for his alleged part in the bombing of Bologna station, with horrific deaths.
I won’t say, as a dyed in the wool anti Fascist that some of my best friends, when I lived in Rome were Fascist, though two fellow journalists at least for all their misguided views were loyal colleagues. The truth surely is that Fascism is an appalling, enduring poison which has never been cleared from the Italian psyche. There is no rationality about it.
In his first autobiography Di Canio eulogised Mussolini at length. No mention of the brutal assaults by his thugs on peasants in the South, none of the assassination of political opponents he devised. Nor of the insanity in 1940 of involving Italy – stabbing France in the back – in a war from which even Spain’s Franco abstained. With horrific consequences.
Sunderland’s players do seem to have welcomed Di Canio and his training methods, they played well and with far more spirit at Chelsea. But a further accusation of Short, that the appointment, to be pragmatic, has come far too late. At Chelsea Di Canio lamented his players’ fitness. Defeat there was unlucky, but time is alarmingly short.
Fascist or not, Di Canio seems doubly to have been boxed into a corner, in terms both of football and Fascism.