The new Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio has rejected "stupid and ridiculous" claims that he is a racist, as concerns grow over his self-confessed fascist leanings.
The controversy surrounding the appointment of Paolo Di Canio as Sunderland head coach exploded yesterday when he was forced to deny claims he is a racist. The club's board was also so angered by the reaction to the hiring of Di Canio as their replacement to Martin O'Neill that it too defended the 44-year-old.
Di Canio made a fascist salute when he was playing for Lazio and it has been widely reported that he used the term "I am fascist, not a racist," in an interview with an Italian news agency.
Sunderland's non-executive director David Miliband resigned from his position in light of the appointment and Piara Powar, a director at Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), called it a "worrying time".
"When there is a rise of intolerance and there is a coach in the Premier League... who hasn't clarified or wanted to renounce his fascist views during his time in the UK, it is a worrying time," Powar said. "There is no place in a sport, which seeks to draw out a positive impact on social relations and community, to have someone who says: 'I am a fascist and I admire Mussolini.'"
Di Canio will be unveiled as the new head coach today, but speaking on the club's website he denied that he is racist and a fascist. "I've never had a problem with people from a different culture," he said. "[The 'fascist' quote] was twisted. They did not use all of the interview. I don't know why I have to keep repeating my story, to be defending myself on something that doesn't belong to me every time I change clubs.
"Talk about racism? That is absolutely stupid, stupid and ridiculous. The people who know me can change that idea quickly. When I was in England my best friends were Trevor Sinclair and Chris Powell, the Charlton manager, they can tell you everything about my character.
"I don't want to talk about politics because it's not my area. We are not in the Houses of Parliament, we are in a football club. I want to talk about football, my players, the board and the fans. My first priority is my family and my daughters and, secondly, to have the responsibility for thousands of people. I don't want to talk any more about politics, I am not a politics person.
"Something can happen many years ago but what counts is the facts. My life speaks for me. Of course, it hurts me because people try to take your dignity and that is not fair. I believe in my pillars and I have values. What offends me more than anything is not because they touch me; they touch what my parents gave to me; the values they gave to me. This is not acceptable.
"What I can say is that if someone is hurt, I am sorry, but this didn't come from me, it came from a big story that people put out in a different way to what it was. I expressed an opinion in an interview many years ago."
Margaret Byrne, Sunderland's chief executive, also released a statement defending Di Canio. "To accuse him now, as some have done, of being a racist or having fascist sympathies, is insulting not only to him but to the integrity of this football club," she said.
"Sunderland AFC has a strong ethos and ethics and that has not changed in any shape or form. Naturally, it's been very disappointing to read some of the reaction to Paolo's appointment. Anyone who has met Paolo and spoken with him personally, as we did in depth before making this appointment, will know that he is an honest man, a man of principle and a driven, determined and passionate individual.
"Paolo has spoken emotively and at length in order to clarify some of the misconceptions that surround him and historical comments and actions attributed to him. My role and that of the board is to act in the best interests of this club at all times and in appointing Paolo Di Canio we feel we have done just that. It is disappointing that some people are trying to turn the appointment of a head coach into a political circus."
The former Swindon Town chairman Jeremy Wray, who hired Di Canio as manager at the Wiltshire club, backed the appointment. "He will galvanise the team," he said. "He is passionate; he eats, sleeps and drinks it. He is full-on 24 hours a day and will be focused on the last seven games of the season. The Sunderland fans who are nervous now and are doubting the appointment should have no fears and trust what I saw in him is what Ellis Short will have seen in him: someone who is committed to the job."
"Paolo will have many strong views. He probably has a strong view on whether Italy should be in the euro, gay marriage or the endangered Siberian tiger, but I doubt if it's really relevant to keeping Sunderland in the Premiership."
Paolo Di Canio in his own words
"What I don't like is how 90 per cent of refs in Scotland are Protestant and I am playing for a Catholic club. They are shameless." Speaking about referees during his time at Celtic.
"I laughed in the face of 70,000 Man Utd fans when I scored, you could imagine what it would be like if I was worried by the words of him who I've never heard of before." Speaking about former Crawley manager Steve Evans during his time at Swindon.
"I don't recollect having had any good referees in matches I've played in this country. Honestly." The standard of refereeing in England wasn't to the Italian's liking.
"Even now, when I watch it, I can't believe the way he went down, like a drunken clown." Reflecting on referee Paul Alcock's fall after pushing him in 1998.
"You cannot do like I did in the past, of course." Upon appointment at Swindon Town.
"Football has never been a business. Football is a passion." Di Canio's ethos may not see eye to eye with Sunderland's owners.
"Out there he behaved as the worst professional, arrogant, ignorant athlete I have ever seen. And if he doesn't come out and apologise to the fans, to the professionals in general, he is out from my team." On Swindon goalkeeper Wes Foderingham after he reacted negatively to being substituted after 20 minutes.
"Doping in English football is restricted to lager and baked beans with sausages. After which the players take to the field belching and farting." Playing down drugs in football.