Paolo Di Canio is in the top rank of West Ham legends, up there with such luminaries as Sir Trevor Brooking, Martin Peters, Sir Geoff Hurst, and Carlos Tevez, and just below the peerless Sir Bobby Moore.
He has been a tremendous supporter of the club for years and, whenever I’ve met him, struck me as charming, intelligent and what you might call Italian in the extreme. People in football’s fraternity say he is industrious and devoted to nurturing young talent. I expect Sunderland – who appointed him this week – to avoid relegation, as they would have done, in my view, under Martin O’Neill.
For all these reasons, I find it very hard to criticise him – but harder still to swallow the events of this week. Put simply, Paolo should not be managing a football club until he has convincingly renounced fascism. The statement he issued yesterday was, if not too late, certainly too broad. Until he provides a clear refutation of his previous position, we’ll have to assume he thinks fascism and football can get along. Well, not in my book, they can’t, and Sunderland should not have appointed him manager.
When, years ago, he lifted his arm in a Nazi salute, I took it to be a daft gesture by a player ingratiating himself with lunatic fans. This week, he’s totally failed to account for such behaviour, or say that he’s changed his mind after all. Can we really tolerate a champion of such ideology occupying a very senior position in our national game? Fascism, as I understand it, is a belief in totalitarian government, allied to extreme nationalism and militarism. It is, in other words, antithetical to the liberal democracy that we treasure in Britain, and that Sunderland’s fans take for granted. If Paolo has sympathy with fascism, he is going against the grain of our people, and the traditions that make our country strong.
Two other questions about this saga fascinate me. First, why is it suddenly an issue now, when he was for some time a manager at Swindon? Partly because David Miliband resigned in protest – clever politics – and partly because it happened over Easter, when there wasn’t much other news around. But the idea that it only matters if he’s a fascist now that he’s at Sunderland is an insult to the people of Swindon.
Second, should different standards apply for managers as compared with players? My answer is: no, but they inevitably do. Fascism is always intolerable, but managers, like owners, have an additional duty to the wider community. That is why, despite having once considered him a future manager of West Ham, my partner David Gold and I wouldn’t do so now – unless he renounced his extreme views. The point is not that football and fascism do not mix (Paolo shows they often can); the point is, they ought not to – as Sunderland should know.
David Sullivan is co-chairman of West Ham United