'I will talk about only football': Paolo Di Canio risks embarrassing Sunderland with refusal to clarify pro-fascist views

New Sunderland manager has made dubious statements in the past

Paolo Di Canio’s on-going refusal to clarify his previous pro-fascist comments are continuing to cause embarrassment for Sunderland football club amid further boycotts from fans and some of the club’s key sponsors forced to defend their involvement in the Premier League side following the Italian’s controversial appointment as manager.

The former striker refused to answer journalists’ questions about the precise nature of his pro-fascist sympathies which have included multiple fist salutes to “ultra” right-wing fans while playing at Lazio, a tattoo symbolising Benito Mussolini on his shoulder and repeated statements expressing both sympathy for and criticism of Italy’s former fascist dictator.

At his first press conference since being appointed on Sunday, the 44-year-old manager tried to steer the talk away from politics and refused to deny he still held fascist views. 

"I don't have to answer any more this question," he said, pointing to a statement he released on Monday in which he denied being racist without addressing whether he is a fascist. "My life speaks for me, so there is no need to speak any more about this situation because it's ridiculous and pathetic. I can't every two weeks, every two months, every 10 months answer the same questions that are not really in my area. We are in a football club and not in the House of Parliament. I'm not a political person. I will talk about only football." 

However if club chiefs were hoping that their new manager’s steadfast silence on his political beliefs would move the debate on they were mistaken.

While the majority of fans have welcomed the appointment as long as he can secure better than 17 place and stave off relegation for the struggling club, complaints continued to flood in with more than 2,000 fans signing a petition calling for Di Canio’s removal.

Meanwhile the Durham Miners Association became the latest Sunderland linked group to threaten to boycott matches with a demand for the club hand back a banner that has, until now, been on permanent display at the Stadium of Light.

“Our banner represents the Durham miners' long struggle for the rights of the working class, rights which were annihilated by fascism in Germany, Italy, Spain and Chile,” said Dave Hopper,  General Secretary of the association. "We have a sacred obligation to the millions who were wiped out by Hitler, Mussolini and Franco to oppose fascism wherever and in whatever context this evil creed raises its head particularly at a time when working people are again being forced to pay for capitalism's crisis as they were in Europe in the 1920s and 30s. The appointment of Di Canio is a disgrace and a betrayal of all who fought and died in the fight against fascism.”

The controversy is also threatening to cause spill over embarrassment for sponsors of the north eastern club, which has recently thrived on a brand image of supporting ethical projects. Last month the club announced a partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, described in a press release on the club’s website as a way to promote “inclusion and diversity and support football’s quest to eradicate racism from within the game.”

The Foundation released a statement saying its representatives had met with Di Canio on Monday and were told that Sunderland had “reaffirmed its commitment” to the values of “human rights and anti-racism.” The statement added: “It must be stressed that the Centre’s relationship is with the club, not with any individual in the club.”

Meanwhile Sunderland’s official sponsor, the non-profit Invest in Africa – which is in turn run by Tullow Oil – announced that it was currently in the process of reviewing their contract with the club, However a spokesman told The Independent that the review was “unrelated to events over the weekend” and was instead prompted by the upcoming end of their one-year deal “with options to renew for the future”.

While Di Canio has yet to elaborate on how his sympathy for Mussolini manifests, he gives clues in a 2002 book West Ham: Irons in the Soul by Pete May. In it Di Canio criticised Mussolini but nonetheless says Italy would be “in a better situation” with someone like him in charge.

“In Italy if the right or left win the election they don’t think in three or four years’ time we will give the people a better society,” he said. “They don’t think tomorrow we are going to work for the people, they think tomorrow we start the publicity for the next election. They have no vision. With Mussolini I’m sure we would have had a better situation, but not in a wrong way, not with a union with the Nazis because I am not a Fascist. Then was a different time, nobody wants war, now we want peace.” He later added: “Black or white or yellow people, gay people, men or women, they can come to my house and be my friend because I am not xenophobic.”

However critics say Di Canio’s repeated pro-fascist remarks still need to be retracted. Andy Newman, who runs the Socialist Unity blog and was one of the officials behind the GMB union’s decision to withdraw their sponsorship of Swindon football club when Di Canio took over there two years ago, wrote: “Let us recall Paolo Di Canio has himself described himself as a fascist, he has fascist tattoos, he has made fascist salutes on the pitch and has known affinity with fascist ultras who support his old club Lazio. Sunderland are making a clear stance that they do not find fascist political views objectionable and that they are unconcerned about who they offend.”

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