Federico Farcomeni: Sunderland boss Paolo Di Canio - the working-class hero from Centocelle who revels as the underdog

He was a hero to West Ham fans, the working class of the East End

To understand Paolo Di Canio, you have to go back to Centocelle, the working-class area in eastern Rome where his story began. Most inhabitants are Roma supporters yet Di Canio sided with the minority and grew up a Lazio fan.

Rome is not Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham or Sheffield where the rivalry is evenly balanced. Lazio fans are outnumbered, yet Di Canio just loves the underdog spirit of their supporters – it has been the thread running through his own career as a player too, this fierce desire to beat the odds. And it is something he will be drawing on in the face of the resistance to his appointment as manager of Sunderland. I took part in a BBC radio debate (World Have Your Say) on Di Canio on Monday and it came as a big surprise to me how virtually the whole hour was about politics and history rather than what he has achieved as a manager so far.

The common feeling in Italy is that politics should always be separated from football; in the world of our ultras, they tend to label every curva of a stadium as right or left wing (that is why it is impossible to ever imagine Di Canio as coach of Livorno, a famously left-wing club).

The subject of Di Canio's supposed fascist ideology is tricky too. The original idea of fascism in Italy was to restore the old glory of the Roman Empire, deploying symbols like the Eagle (coincidentally also Lazio's badge). In this context, Di Canio's one-armed gesture after the Rome derby in 2005, for all the obvious, negative connotations, could be interpreted locally as an old Roman salute designed to say "We are Rome" to his own club's fans and as a riposte to those Roma fans who mock Lazio supporters as outsiders in the city.

Di Canio has spent much of his career swimming against the tide – his move to Scotland to play for Celtic being a prime example. Rangers were very much in control in those years and few Italians were looking outside their own country. And this willingness to try something different means we should be wary of pigeonholing him. Amid the talk about Di Canio's right-wing views, he was pretty left-field when he stopped play at Goodison to help Everton's injured goalkeeper, Paul Gerrard, rather than score in an empty net.

He has been a hero at different working-class clubs too. He saw Swindon's rivalry with Oxford as similar to the one he experienced when playing for Ternana against Perugia in Serie C2 in the 1986/87 season. People in Terni are very solidly working-class while Perugia has its renowned university (just like Oxford).

He was a hero to West Ham fans too and they are very much the working class of the East End, just as Sunderland has its traditional links to Wearside miners.

With the hostility and Sunderland's tough run-in, this is quite possibly his toughest challenge yet, but with Swindon, he earned cup wins over teams from higher divisions – Stoke, Wigan and Brighton – and he could really make a positive impact in the seven 'cup finals' Sunderland have left.

Federico Farcomeni is an Italian journalist based in London and a Lazio supporter

election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'