Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic (or ‘left-fascist’ according to the Telegraph) decreed that, “in football, we win if we obey the rules; in politics we win if we have the audacity to change the rules.” Paolo Di Canio must like rules because he announced upon appointment at Swindon, “if someone has an appointment at 9.30, I can’t accept that they turn up at 9.45.” Of course, this is not the conclusive proof of fascist ideological affiliation that everyone is looking for, a quest in which he has already ordered repudiation – “I don’t have to answer this question any more.” A very authoritarian start then, but that is a characteristic somewhat revered in a football manager. So does Di Canio have point?
Many would prefer matters relating the beautiful game and its unifying and escapist qualities to be kept separate the minefield of political allegiance. Surely however, there is room for a healthy debate, and although this may not be found on the back or indeed front of the tabloids, the political persuasions of those in the upper echelons of the footballing ruling classes ought to brought into sharp focus. After all, the much cited ‘fit and proper persons’ filter scarcely does what it says on the tin.
It is spurious to say that the media circus surrounding Di Canio’s appointment is a product of a quiet news week for sport (ie no British sides in the Champions League) – the story is as weighty as one Sunderland centre-back. Discussion regarding Di Canio’s suitability as a manager of an elite football club has not resulted from scrambling around for non-story in the mould of a fail-safe Terry/Ferdinand furore during another mind-numbing international break on these shores. Nor has evidence subject to media scrutiny (the notoriously anomalous “I’m a fascist, not a racist” quote) been taken out of context like the gratuitous collective faux-fury in response to Hilary Mantel’s speech on Kate Middleton’s human-as-object media depiction.
The Di Canio affair is perfect year-round media fodder, and its controversial impact cannot simply be reduced to an analogous case of ‘a vegetarian managing a team of meat-eaters’. A TalkSport caller provided that particular gem, making Harry Redknapp’s “the reason I don’t listen to phone-ins is because you’re talking about idiots” aphorism as true as ever.
The captivating chain of events as told by the media (with plenty of mileage to go) has encompassed the local mining history of Sunderland which literally provides the foundations to the Stadium of Light, a departure by already NYC bound Mr David Miliband, some terrible PR by Sunderland outlining their ‘strong ethos AND ethics‘, and Di Canio flatly refusing to convey any ideological political leanings before a dramatic u-turn the day after. Furthermore, whilst the replacement of Martin O’Neil could ultimately make footballing sense, the tale goes to the heart of the seemingly contagious short-termism amongst owners of the football clubs that we plough our heart and soul (and cash reserves) into. The question in respect to the definition of a fascist in this post-modern era, at home and abroad, also abounds.
The nature of Di Canio’s fascist beliefs and how it sits specifically in English football has been a latent issue, bubbling under the surface of the national game for a while. Many have pointed to the lack of attention placed on Swindon’s decision to appoint the Italian in 2011 and yet this can easily be put down to their status as a League 2 side. Besides, as small-fry as GMB’s commitment to Swindon was, the union’s withdrawal of its sponsorship was a gesture which made national news.
In addition, an example of one of the many vile outbreaks of anti-semitic abuse courtesy of West Ham fans at White Hart Lane in November was a ‘Paolo Di Canio’ chant dedicated to their former hero accompanied in some quarters by a certain gesticulation. It doesn’t take a leap of faith to guess where they got their inspiration. Paolo’s ‘Roman’ salute is an act that has manifested itself on more than one occasion in the presence of Lazio’s Irriducibili (ultras). Notably, S.S. Lazio are a club who have actually been sanctioned the heavy punishment of playing competitive games behind closed doors by UEFA, an organisation known for its antipathy towards repeat offenders of racist behaviour in football.
There is a hypothetical case to be made that Di Canio would have been given an easier ride had he been appointed as England Head Coach. Capello’s extolling of Franco was never really explored in the media, whilst his hardly heroic resignation on the basis of John Terry losing his captaincy (again), was barely questioned in favour of excitedly lining up good old ‘Arry as his replacement. Our self-serving news publications have proven themselves to hold highly questionable (xenophobic) standards when national pride in a sporting sense is at stake.
It is all to easy to leave one’s morals at the door in the wholehearted support of a club one loves but a line ought be drawn at some point. The now former Chairman of Sunderland’s Greater Manchester Supporter’s club branch has found it, although the Durham Miners’ Association have backed down and the majority of the Sunderland faithful will continue to attend matches in legitimate blind faith. Nevertheless, in increasingly compromising times to be a football supporter, the relationship between footballing loyalty and political alignment in this country is an issue of significance in which light has been shed (see Barney Ronay’s surprise at ‘English football’s sudden discovery of a political conscience‘). Intriguingly, and it would be all too easy to forget, we will also soon see how this mad appointment plays out on the pitch.