x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Method behind the madness in our fascination with Paolo Di Canio

As Sunderland's new manager Paolo Di Canio is embroiled in a row over his "fascist" beliefs, Will Batchelor explores how an old story gained fresh legs.

Newly appointed Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio.
Newly appointed Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio.

Paolo Di Canio, the new coach of Premier League side Sunderland, "does not support the ideology of fascism".

Frankly, I believe him. His flirtation with the trappings of the Far Right - that straight-arm salute to Lazio fans, the verbal and tattoo-based tributes to Benito Mussolini - always seemed more a statement of misguided fashion than serious political belief, a slightly pathetic attempt to impress the bigger, tougher boys at Lazio's Stadio Olimpico. Presumably most other football fans felt the same way - if, indeed, we ever gave it much thought at all.

Otherwise, why was there no widespread furore when he became the manager of Swindon Town in 2011? Why did we not seize upon the story that a trade union, the GMB, had withdrawn its support for Swindon in protest at Di Canio's appointment? Most commentators claim it was because Swindon is a smaller club than Sunderland. Well, it is, but not that much smaller.

Swindon Town is a former Premier League club (albeit for just one miserable season in the early 1990s) which has been managed by household names like Glenn Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles, and Dennis Wise. This is not an amateur team.

Others claim the backlash was a result of the north-east of England being more of a hotbed of left-wing politics than the south-west. This too seems blinkered. Swindon is a railway town with a rich history of trade unionism, while nearby Bristol is arguably the UK's most counter-cultural city.

Of course, Sunderland's status as a current Premier League team makes it more newsworthy, but let's take a closer look at how that story unfolded.

The initial story was sparked by the resignation of David Miliband, a local MP and one-time favourite to be the next Labour prime minister, as vice-chairman of Sunderland.

He claimed he did so on principle, although some argued that it also suited his own ends, coming just days after he announced his plan to retire from UK politics and move to the United States. This combination of high-profile politician plus the Premier League created a huge buzz, which dominated the news, creating a fantastic platform for other organisations with a message to promote.

Football Against Racism In Europe was quick to join the fray, with the Durham Miners' Association in hot pursuit. The latter proved their continued relevance in society by threatening to take down their banner from Sunderland's Stadium of Light ground.

Once the issue had taken root, with Di Canio fanning the flames by refusing to condemn fascism, other organisations, including the church, apparently felt compelled to weigh in, perhaps for fear of looking foolish or somehow complicit if they did not.

Meanwhile, social networking, which is a force far greater today than when Di Canio went to Swindon, enabled millions more to join the clamour, calling for the new manager's head, threatening match boycotts, signing petitions, or simply making off-colour jokes.

Will Sunderland, nicknamed the Black Cats, become the Blackshirts? Did he only agree to take over because he thought it was the Sudetenland? At least he'll make the training run on time, etc.

So, to distil these facts: a clever politician spun an unfortunate situation to his own advantage, skilfully using a powerful vehicle of mass media to spread the word.

Others quickly realised he was onto something and joined the fun, prompting more still to join for fear of being left behind. Millions more joined the throng, either because our passions were aroused or simply that we enjoy a big, noisy, bunfight.

Hey, does that sound like a familiar pattern to you?

Paolo Di Canio does not support the ideology of fascism. But it seems we all remain susceptible to its methodology.

sports@thenational.ae