British football (A.K.A. soccer in the United States) has long mixed with extremist politics in interesting ways. During the heyday of the National Front, a far right, whites-only, nationalist political party in Britain, skinheads, thugs, and virulent nationalists were commonly found at football games and in the ensuing riots, stirring up violence and causing trouble in the name of their fringe political beliefs. In the 1970s and 1980s, this was more prevalent than ever, however, these same types of individuals continue to attend matches and make their political beliefs heard in the stands around Britain.
Now, however, a similar voice is coming not from the stands, but from the sidelines. Fascist beliefs are once again rearing their ugly head in the world of British football, but this time from a rather unusual source. Recently, Paolo Di Canio was named the manager of the Sunderland football club. A self-proclaimed Fascist, Di Canio has declined to make any announcements about his political beliefs since he was named as manager of the British club. The Italian, a former professional footballer himself, has taken flak in the past however for his self-identification as a Fascist and his unusual and politically motivated behavior.
In 2005, when Di Canio was playing for the Italian Lazio team, he was twice spotted giving the straight-armed Fascist salute to Lazio fans. The salute, which became popular in Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, indicates Di Canio’s adherence to the Fascist belief system. That political credo involves a commitment to ultra-nationalism, militarism, and ethnocentrism. However, Di Canio has been quick to point out that his unique viewpoint doesn’t involve racism. “I am a Fascist, not a racist,” Di Canio told Italian news agency ANSA in the mid-2000s. Di Canio has even gone so far as to insist to the media that he cannot and should not be construed as a racist because some of his best friends are black, including fellow footballers Chris Powell and Trevor Sinclair.
More signs point to Di Canio’s unique brand of Italian fascism. For example, it is well known that Di Canio has the word “Dux,” which is Latin for Mussolini’s nickname “Il Duce,” tattooed on his right bicep. In his autobiography, Di Canio admitted that he was completely fascinated by Benito Mussolini, and called him “deeply misunderstood.” Under Mussolini, Italian Jews and other ethnic minorities were summarily executed. After giving the stiff-armed Fascist salute, Di Canio was once fined 10,000 Euros by the Italian League, but was not suspended.
In England, Di Canio’s appointment of manager of Sunderland has been met with outrage and anger. David Miliband, a former foreign secretary and former senior Labor Party official, resigned as the vice chairman of the Sunderland football club following Di Canio’s appointment. Many others in England and abroad have also voiced their disappointment in the club’s decision to hire Di Canio, a self-proclaimed Fascist, for the chief role. Local politicians and fans spoke out in the local newspaper, the Sunderland Echo.
This latest mix of sports and politics underscores the ability of both to stir up strong emotions. In America, sports and politics have also had a rocky relationship over the years. In the 1920s, prominent Major League Baseball players such as Ty Cobb and Roger Hornsby were alleged to be members of the Ku Klux Klan. Alternatively in the 1960s, popular black athletes such as Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali were vocal in their radical, racially-motivated politics. As the years went by, however, the connection between politics and sports seemed to wane.
With the advent of tremendously high-paying salaries and lucrative endorsement deals for athletes, many American sports players are less inclined to share their political beliefs. Fearing they could lose endorsements, athletes in America generally shy away from espousing any political sentiments, let alone radical ones. One can only imagine how the appointment of a self-confessed Fascist to coach a football team in the United States would go over.