Berlusconi defends Fascist salute by Lazio footballer

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Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's Prime Minister, sought to make light of the controversy over Paolo Di Canio's use of the Fascist salute at a football match on Sunday, saying the Lazio striker was simply an incorrigible exhibitionist.

The footballer flashed a straight-armed, flat-handed Roman salute to the crowd during Lazio's match against Livorno, earning him a €10,000 (£6,750) fine and a single-match ban.

Mr Berlusconi leapt to his defence yesterday, saying that Di Canio was "a respectable boy, not a Fascist. He just does it for the fans, not out of malice. He's a good boy, just a bit of a show-off."

The right-wing leader, often accused of dictatorial tendencies because of his control of much of Italian television, denied the 37-year-old's activities were a sign of residual Fascism.

"Fascism is finished, Communism continues," he snorted. Mussolini's era hadn't been so bad, he added, explaining that Fascist racial laws against Jews were only introduced to help the Axis war effort.

"Fascism in Italy was never a criminal doctrine. There were the racial laws, horrible, but because one wanted to win the war with Hitler," Mr Berlusconi told foreign journalists.

Mr Berlusconi's comments came as his ageing mother fascinated the nation by disclosing in an interview how her son sold refrigerators as a sixth form student and waxed parquet floors for pocket money.

Rosa Berlusconi toldChi magazine: "I pray that the Lord gives him the strength to face up to all the malicious things people who don't know him say about him."

She made the rare foray into public life as her son poured scorn on suggestions that his centre-right coalition might lose the 2006 election. Mrs Berlusconi said: "I would be very sad if he wasn't re-elected because, knowing how sensitive he is, he would take a defeat as a humiliation."