Paolo Di Canio: 'My life speaks for me'

Ref-pushing, net-busting, Mussolini-worshipping... Football virtuoso-turned-manager Paolo Di Canio tells Robert Chalmers how Swindon Town and the ways of the Samurai (yes, really) helped him find his place in the world.

"The first thing I had to do was to fight back the tears," Paolo Di Canio admitted, "even though it seemed that they would never stop. When I arrived at the stadium, I had a lump in my throat which I thought would choke me. I was overwhelmed by the experience. And so I wept. And I trembled. The pounding of my heart tormented me. I felt unable to control my thoughts or my actions. I lost the power of speech. And yet I kept on crying like a baby. I am not a man accustomed to weeping. But here, everything was different."

Strong words, perhaps, but who knows how a man will be affected when he first arrives at Swindon Town?

Actually those recollections come from Il Ritorno (The Return), Di Canio's wonderful but sadly untranslated 2005 memoir. They describe his homecoming, as a player, to his beloved Lazio; the team to which he has dedicated much of his life, both as a player and a member of the Irriducibili, the Roman club's notorious hardcore supporters.

No modern footballer – not even Eric Cantona – has polarised opinion quite so effectively as Paolo Di Canio. A prodigious talent as a player ("Paolo," said Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, "did things with the ball that made you gasp. Other footballers would pay to watch him train"), he was been worshipped by supporters of the many clubs he's represented. As well as the sky-blue of Lazio, he has worn the colours of clubs including AC Milan, Napoli, Celtic, West Ham United and Charlton Athletic. The length of that incomplete list is indicative of his often turbulent relationship with authority figures. His history has been punctuated by insurrection, both verbal and physical, towards managers. And now, at 43, here at this modest League Two club in Wiltshire, he is in charge.

In an age in which overpaid, badge-kissing footballers have found loyalty almost as easy to simulate as injury, Di Canio embodies the passion and commitment of another age. In his playing days, he once kept a Lazio room-mate awake all night, on the eve of a derby against Roma, by playing the DVD of Braveheart over and over again. Sir Alex Ferguson, I tell the Italian, once told me that he'd attempted to sign the headstrong striker on two occasions.

"Who knows what you'd have won under Ferguson, at Old Trafford?"

"I can't pretend that isn't flattering," Di Canio replies. "But there was no way I could ever have betrayed the fans at West Ham." In his life, he says, "football has never been a business. Football is a passion."

Di Canio's ultimate allegiance has always been to Lazio; so much so that, one day in January 2005, while celebrating a goal in front of their disconcertingly right-wing fans, he was moved to the point that he raised his right arm to join them in their trademark Roman salute. The gesture was an ancient historical practice, Di Canio claimed, even if, to the untrained eye, it was indistinguishable from a more recent, Germanic sign of allegiance. He repeated the salute twice more in Lazio colours, and as a result has been branded by some as an ideologically committed, fully fledged fascist activist. When Swindon Town chairman Jeremy Wray showed the initiative (and, it has to be said, the courage) to appoint Di Canio, one of the club's sponsors, the GMB union, withdrew its support, reluctant to be associated with a man some still perceive, mistakenly, as a neo-Nazi.

I first met Paolo Di Canio five years ago at Cisco Roma (now Atletico Roma), a tiny lower-league club where he was embarking on what promises to be a distinguished managerial career. He has kept our appointment in Swindon despite having recently returned from the funeral of Ignazio, his father.

"When we first met," I remind him, "you were speaking about your dad in Italian; explaining how everything you ever learnt, you owed to him. Then, suddenly, you said four words in English: 'He was a brickie.' You have a real bond with this country, don't you?"

"You remember how I told you then that my dream was to come back to Britain?" Di Canio asks. "Well, Swindon Town has given me my chance. I love England. I love the country and I love the people. I just hope I can stay here for many years."

"You get a sense of the atmosphere at a football club very quickly," I say, "from the people who work in the café and the souvenir shop; from the players, and the office staff. Swindon Town has a very welcoming, yet highly professional feel about it. I'm sure a club acquires its character from the manager. And yet – with no disrespect to this town – there can't be many Italians who would have chosen it over the Eternal City."

"I love Swindon. OK, it's not a place where you can almost smell the history, like Rome or Florence. It's an industrial town. That may not seem 'cool' to some people, but it only makes me love Swindon more. You know why? Because the people here are proper people; people who work hard, often for low wages. And," Di Canio continues, "when Swindon people tell you something, you can trust them, because they mean it. They still have a lot of the values that we had in Italy back in the 1960s and 1970s. Don't misunderstand me. I still love my country. But I've cut the umbilical cord with Italy."

England, in Di Canio's words, is "the perfect place to play football. In Italy, you get a goal, then kill the game. That is the mentality. In England, it's 90 minutes of battle."

He also believes that cheating, for instance with performance-enhancing drugs, is less prevalent here.

"Doping in English football," he writes in Il Ritorno, "is restricted to lager and baked beans with sausages. After which the players take to the field, belching and farting. English football culture is one of pure, intense competition, and that's why I have always preferred it to Italy."

As a player, Di Canio scored arguably the best goal in the history of the Premier League: an exquisite volley for West Ham against Wimbledon in the 1999-2000 season. In 2001 he won the FIFA Fair Play award following a game in which, seeing the Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard was badly injured, he picked up the ball rather than put it into the unguarded net, so that his opponent could get immediate treatment.

He received slightly less praise for his decision, having just been shown a red card while playing for Sheffield Wednesday against Arsenal in 1998, to shove referee Paul Alcock in the chest. The official fell to the ground in a slow, spiralling movement; the consequence of what looked like a doomed, Oliver Hardyesque attempt to dignify his collapse with an element of grace.

"One moment," Di Canio argues, "can erase everything else you've accomplished in your career. I didn't kill anybody. I pushed a referee. We all know that's wrong. But it can happen. And if it happens, you take your punishment. I was banned for 11 games. But you remember the press. People said I was a barbarian..."

"And mad," I remind him. "And wretched. And 'a man with a mind like a blast furnace'. And a gypsy: your former manager David Pleat called you that."

"I took 'gypsy' as a compliment. Pleat made me laugh."

It was the late Tony Banks, then Minister for Sport, who said, "Barbarian go home," according to Di Canio. "Somebody wrote that what I'd done was worse than [the] Hillsborough [disaster], where 96 people died. I still have the cutting."

"Didn't that make you want to leave England?"

"No. Because there are people of low intelligence all over the world."

In Paolo Di Canio: The Autobiography, published in 2000 and ghost-written by the distinguished journalist and broadcaster Gabriele Marcotti, Di Canio claims that his dismissal was precipitated by a foul by Patrick Vieira. He recalls that he approached Vieira and admonished him as follows. "Patrick. Come on. There is no need for that. Cut it out." A few seconds later, Arsenal's Martin Keown caught Di Canio in the face with his elbow – accidentally, according to the defender. What infuriated the Italian was that, "Alcock initially sent only me off."

After pushing the referee over ("Even now, when I watch it, I can't believe the way he went down, like a drunken clown"), Di Canio was approached by Arsenal's Nigel Winterburn, who had run the width of the pitch to confront him.

"He was shouting, 'You bastard! You're done! You fucking Italian bastard! You're finished!'" k

At which point Winterburn looked at Di Canio and, realising he was staring into the eye of what appeared to be a true psychotic, flinched in anticipation of a blow that never came. He then retreated with some urgency, having noticed a divot that needed replacing.

Di Canio is not a big man: 5ft 11in at most. That incident demonstrated what can be achieved by somebody of utter determination who has absolutely no regard for his personal safety. As a manager, he appears to have harnessed that ferocious self-belief, and rendered it contagious. Swindon Town's extraordinary recent run, which threatens to see his side promoted at their first attempt, has been characterised by extreme discipline, and an unusual degree of fitness, which tends to see them prevail in the closing stages of games.

"I changed the coaching methods completely," says Di Canio, who has introduced a regime of double training sessions, and scrutinises every aspect of a player's welfare, including diet. Lager, sausages and beans are things of the past. "I can't praise the players enough," he adds, "because at the beginning it was very tough for them. In my first seven weeks here they had just one day off. You saw what we did [in the FA Cup] to Huddersfield, who are the fittest team in the division above us. [Swindon will play Premier League team Wigan Athletic in the third round.] We destroyed them, technically and physically. Because we have organisation, discipline and quality."

Every player has his failings; in the case of Di Canio, exaggerated deference towards managers has not been among them. In Il Ritorno, he confesses to an inability to shut up when on the substitutes' bench. "I wasn't trying to manage the team," he says. "I was just shouting encouragement." Of Roberto Mancini (currently charged with the daunting task of disposing of the colossal wealth of Manchester City), he writes: "Mancini is increasingly 'in character'. He has become quite the gentleman, toying with his fringe, and talking in this curious, affected voice."

Il Ritorno also describes a contretemps with the Lazio chairman Claudio Lotito, over dinner. "Inside the restaurant, I feel my anger rising. I start to scream like a madman. I turn the buffet table over. I start throwing things. The room is full of flying objects: plates, bottles and forks. Everything is flying; anything I can lay my hands on, I throw. I go up to the coach's table and I start kicking it. They look at me as if I am mad."

Now that Di Canio is in the position of exerting, rather than defying, authority, he displays scant tolerance for insolence from players. In August this year there was a highly publicised scuffle with his striker Leon Clarke in the wake of a defeat by Southampton.

"I saw Leon insulting my colleagues. So, as his manager, I put my arm round his shoulder and told him to go down the tunnel. He kept on swearing. I had to grab his shirt and put him up against the wall. It wasn't violent. But he'd been saying 'fuck off' repeatedly, to people older than him. Imagine Sir Alex Ferguson in that situation. Eventually I had to say, 'OK. Now, you fuck off.' The chairman was wonderful. I said, 'Either he goes, or I go.' He said, 'The club is with you.' In that moment, we gelled. I think I have shown that I have matured. I didn't lose my temper."

"But aren't you the man who, as a player, told Fabio Capello [then of AC Milan, now of England] to go fuck himself, then pushed him over?

"Not on the field. I pushed him and he lost his balance. He fell over a bag. I'd been challenging his decisions. Capello was saying things to me like 'Vaffanculo' ["fuck you"]. I understand his point of view better now. I was young."

I would get the chance to witness Di Canio's new-found self-control a week later, when I went to watch Swindon play at AFC Wimbledon. Di Canio's team were unfortunate to draw 1-1; in the closing minutes Swindon were denied a penalty in a decision which astonished even the most partisan home fan. "That," I said to Di Canio, after the game, "was a penalty kick."

Complaining, the Italian said, achieves nothing. "I'm disappointed," he said. "I'm also proud of the way my lads fought today."

Leon Clarke has since been dispatched on loan to Chesterfield. "The Italian press printed lies about that incident. The British media were extremely fair. But I've taken the decision not to say too much to the national press, even in England. The conversation we're having now is unusual because we're talking about everything, which I believe is good for me. I also hope it will allow people to understand the way I really think. I have a family." (He has two daughters with his wife Betta, one of whom is at Southampton University.) "I pay my taxes. My life speaks for me. I am," Di Canio concludes, "an ordinary man."

He delivers these last words with no trace of irony, which is not to say that he lacks humour. A few years ago an Italian journalist asked him about Francesco Totti; a player who achieved, at Roma, the same iconic status Di Canio enjoyed with their detested rivals, Lazio.

"Totti has said that he wouldn't sit at the same dinner table with me," Di Canio replied. "I said that was no great loss because if you tell Totti there are tensions in the Middle East, he'll assume that a fight has broken out on the right side of midfield."

Paolo Di Canio grew up in Quarticciolo, a working-class area of Rome which was, as he recalls it, "A parallel dimension; a neighbourhood constructed with just one thing in mind: to house people." He shared a bed with Antonio, his oldest brother. "When I needed to go to the bathroom, I simply wouldn't. Bed-wetting is something I had to deal with till I was 10 or 11."

Such candour illuminates his 2000 autobiography, a remarkable book which broaches subjects many in football fear to address, such as the chronic panic attacks he suffered as a young player, his fear of flying, and the help he has had from psychoanalysts, one of whom was – in Di Canio's words – a "specialist in nervous breakdowns".

As a small boy, he was addicted to cola and similar drinks.

"What was that word they used to call you?"

"Palloca," he replies. It's a slang term, meaning lard-ball. Di Canio was fat, and knock-kneed to the point that he had to wear orthopaedic shoes. "But I never hid. My response was to exercise; to try to become the kind of person I am." His father Ignazio, he says – struggling to control his emotion – got up at four in the morning and didn't come back till five in the afternoon. "When I think of the sacrifices he made, I feel like crying."

He was drawn to Lazio for reasons that were "basically geographical". Quarticciolo is overwhelmingly populated by Roma fans; Di Canio's light-blue scarf gave him unlimited opportunities to fight for the underdog.

Even when recruited to Lazio's youth team, he was still hanging out with the Irriducibili.

Italian supporters, even the most unhinged of the widely feared ultras, are relatively disinclined (by comparison with their British counterparts) to travel. Di Canio relished away fixtures. "I've had bricks thrown at me by opposing fans. I've been tear-gassed and beaten by police." His autobiography describes his seeing the Bergamo chief of police getting knifed when he, Di Canio, was five yards away.

He is not proud, he says, of what he did.

He'd been at Lazio for five years when they sold him to Juventus, at which point he first began to experience panic attacks. "It was terrible. You feel that something goes dark. It's as if your eyes can't see any more."

Di Canio came close to removing such intimate material from his autobiography. But, he adds, "I got a lot of letters. One guy in Manchester wrote to me, saying that what I'd written had given him the motivation to confront his own problem. I was very moved by that. I wrote back and said: 'Don't thank me. I didn't do anything.'"

Di Canio left Juventus after an animated exchange with then manager Giovanni Trapattoni, and spent the 1993-1994 season with Napoli. Under coach Marcello Lippi, he was widely acknowledged as the finest player in Serie A, at a time when the Italian league was as strong as it has ever been. He endured two difficult seasons at Milan, culminating in his row with Capello, then came into the British game with Celtic. He had no difficulty in understanding the vicious loathing between Glasgow's Catholic club and neighbours Rangers. Channelled correctly, he once said, "hatred can be good. But you don't hate someone just because they're a Protestant."

While it's a matter of record that Di Canio has previously declared his sympathy with the historical tradition of fascism, such pronouncements don't represent an area of his life he wishes to relive or revisit. There is no denying the DVX tattoo on his shoulder (the Latin appellation for Benito Mussolini). It's the symbolic expression of an opinion expressed in his autobiography, in a passage which has frequently been misquoted so as to appear more incendiary than it actually is. "I am fascinated by Mussolini," Di Canio wrote. "I think he was a deeply misunderstood k individual. He deceived people. His actions were often vile. But all this was motivated by a higher purpose. He was basically a very principled individual. Yet he turned against his sense of right and wrong. He compromised his ethics."

The truth is that – today at least – you don't have to spend long with Di Canio to realise he is not a demented fascista; neither does he have any time for the sort of repugnant racial opinions held by at least two English Premier League footballers I can think of (and that's without even trying). While he was in Italy, his column in the national sport newspaper Corriere dello Sport routinely took the form of a rant against the idiocy of racism.

"The truth is very simple," said one respected source who knows Di Canio well, but was insistent that his name should not appear in this article. "Paolo is not, and has never been, a bad person, or an ideological fascist. Certain things he has said and done – like the salute with the Lazio fans – have to do with his psychological history, particularly his former compulsive tendencies and pronounced mood swings. Paolo is not mad. But he has had, as he describes in his autobiography... episodes."

Di Canio is involved in none of the activities which his detractors might imagine him enjoying: like consorting with Italian or pan-European neo-fascist groups, or cultivating politicians such as Gianfranco Fini or Alessandra Mussolini, the mention of whose names evokes nothing but scornful indifference from him. (Even though the latter, like Silvio Berlusconi, voiced her unsolicited support for Di Canio after the first salute in 2005.)

I know, though he doesn't advertise it, that Di Canio has many Italian friends who are unreconstructed socialists. He is not, he insists, a political animal. "I don't vote," he says. "I haven't voted for 14 years. Not just because of Berlusconi – though I don't support him. Italian politicians – all of them – think only about themselves, and making money."

"There's no shortage of far-right candidates."

"I would never vote for them."

He is a less volatile man now, Di Canio explains, partly through his study of Samurai culture.

"Pardon?"

"In the past few years I've become closer to that Japanese spiritual mentality."

"You've been studying the history of the Samurai?"

"Yes. I have read a lot. Mishima, obviously. And the spiritual teachings in the traditions of Hagakure, and Bushido."

"Why?"

"I like the code they lived by. The loyalty. The honour. There's a story about a Samurai who committed hara-kiri because he arrived late for an appointment."

I ask him about his fear of flying, a phobia he shares with Eric Cantona. "The thought of dying in a plane crash is so difficult because there's absolutely nothing you can do. And yet, according to the Samurai philosophy, there is always a chance that you can overcome a challenge. Let's say that you release some lions into this room."

"Oh, all right. How many?"

"A few. We're in England, so let's say three. Three English lions. Now, in the mind of a Samurai, there is always the possibility that you could beat them. Or at least do something. Like fight and die with honour. Die like a warrior. But what can I do on a plane that's crashing – fight the guy next to me? I'd rather take my chance with the lions."

Such notions, Di Canio concedes, "are exaggerations, of course. The qualities of loyalty and respect are the really important things. When I see young people showing disrespect to their elders, I go mad. You must respect old people, because they teach you about the true meaning of life. About suffering. About joy." Through studying ancient practices, Di Canio says, "I am more peaceful these days."

"Are you religious?"

"I believe in nature. I believe in earth, sun, fire and water. I believe in the circle of life. When a tree loses its leaves, you think it's dead. But the tree is only resting. It's born again, in the spring. I believe in energy. Positive energy."

At this point Di Canio's mind turns, as must happen with many managers, to his heavy schedule over Christmas. In his case, the demands of a congested fixture list are further complicated by a need to celebrate the winter solstice.

"I love to visit Stonehenge. The idea that, around 3,500 years ago there were these people, with their connection between earth and heaven. And that community came together at the solstice."

He has a friend in Italy who shares his interest in pagan ritual. "On 21 December he will be coming over, and we'll celebrate the solstice."

"At Stonehenge?"

"Well, the thing is that the 21st is a Wednesday. We play Morecambe at home on the 17th, then we're away to Torquay on the 26th. I don't want to go away between games, even if Stonehenge is a magic place. But we'll celebrate the ritual, at my home. We have space in the garden."

"With a bonfire?"

"Yes. Pointed in the proper direction. In the pagan tradition, with laurel branches. It's important to me, because a few years ago I started to feel the energy... something that connects with others, in some way. I respect anybody who believes in Christ, Buddha, Allah or Krishna. But I feel that the energy around you is something that can empower you. A few years ago I started to appreciate the idea of thinking about mortality every day, so that you prepare yourself for death."

"Has the loss of your father helped you to bond with the club?"

"Definitely. I got the news after we'd played at Accrington. I was in Rome for the funeral; I came back straight away. I wanted to do something special in the next game, for his sake. We played Plymouth. We won, and the lads were just amazing. They led me up to our fans. What really touched me was that I knew they were doing it not because they felt obliged to, but because they felt my pain themselves. And that's when I realised that, in this squad at Swindon, I don't just have skill and professionalism; I have decency and humanity. Some young people – most of these players are young – don't understand other people's pain. But these young men did and, because of that, they are very close to me. It was the same with the chairman and everybody else here. I felt I was in a family. They became close to me as a man. That was, and is, very important to me."

"Some people have expressed a concern that – given your history – you're bound to lose your head sooner or later, and punch a referee, or another manager."

"People who talk that way don't know me. I am calm, as I said, and more mature and I am really happy. The board, the players and the fans are fantastic. They all have enthusiasm, commitment and a real bond with the town. I say again, we're like a family. Our ambition may take years to achieve, but I honestly believe that this club is capable, eventually, of promotion to the Premier League."

As you leave Swindon Town's County Ground, heading towards the city centre, you have to cross an intersection named, appropriately enough, the Magic Roundabout. Looking back at the stadium, with the autumn light fading over the main stand, I can't help believing that the gypsy has, at long last, found his home.

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