Italy's political scars reopened by Di Canio's 'Fascist salute'

Fans of Italy's Lazio football club yesterday threatened to stage mass protests if Paolo Di Canio, the team's striker, is disciplined for celebrating a win over Roma with a Fascist salute.

National football federation officials opened an inquiry after Di Canio, 35, gave the straight-armed, flat-handed gesture, known since the rule of the Second World War dictator Benito Mussolini as a "Roman salute" at the end of Thursday evening's derby game in which Lazio beat Roma 3-1.

The forward, who earned a reputation for his erratic temperament while playing for West Ham, denied there was political significance in the sinister greeting captured on photographs published around Italy.

"I am a professional footballer and my celebrations had nothing to do with political behaviour of any kind," he told Gazzetta dello Sport.

Lazio fans known as "Ultras" long have been notorious for their neo-Fascist tendencies and famous supporters include Daniela Fini, the wife of the Italian Foreign Minister, Gianfranco Fini, who heads the "post-Fascist" National Alliance party founded by former members of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a grouping led by former blackshirts from Mussolini's totalitarian regime.

A spokesman for the most uncompromising Ultras, the so-called Irriducibili, Fabrizio Toffolo, claimed that left-wing players such as Cristiano Lucarelli, a Livorno striker, made clenched-fist salutes during matches with impunity.

"If Di Canio is disciplined, there will be 30,000 of us demonstrating outside the football league offices," he told Il Messaggero. Encouraging Fascism is a crime under Italian law.

A club statement also rallied behind the striker, saying the controversy showed that Roma supporters are bad losers.

"The result on the field was well deserved and celebrations by players and fans were absolutely legitimate," a Lazio statement said.

Di Canio has the word dux, the latin term from which Mussolini styled himself Duce (leader), tattooed on his arm. In an autobiography, he said he was fascinated by the dictator, whom he called "basically a very principled, ethical individual". Alessandra Mussolini, the dictator's granddaughter who recently left the National Alliance to start a new far-right party, said she approved of the salute. "How nice that Roman salute was, it delighted me so much. I shall write him a thank- you note." Among those to disagree, however, was Andrea Della Valle, president of first division club Fiorentina, who Lazio defeated yesterday. "Every city would like to have a player with talent like his, but Di Canio went too far; I would not have accepted such an attitude. He should be careful, there are youngsters who will follow his example."

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