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  1. It was a stroke of genius to invite Paolo Di Canio to Harper’s party. From his theatrical entrance, blowing kisses to the fans to the beautifully orchestrated, balletic tackle by bad boy Barton, it was perfectly staged. Both sets of fans lapped it up, because it was ‘all in a good cause’. Newcastle fans celebrating 20 years’ loyalty, (or lack of ambition depending on how you look at it) took the opportunity to wallow in some much needed nostalgia, while Sunderland fans, eager see if anti-hero Paolo could stick another one on the Mags, took to Twitter to try and add insult to injury on a proud club still smarting from an embarrassing home defeat at the hands of their fiercest local rivals. Some fans even took it seriously, like fans of WWF who, although they knew it was just ‘sports entertainment’ became comically outraged at the tackle, and nonsensically ecstatic that the home side couldn't score from the penalty spot. The pantomime season had started early, evidently. Enter, Paolo Di Canio, lean as a whippet, perfectly cast as the villain of the piece, the evil landlord Sir Jasper collecting rent from the impoverished pretty Polly Perkins of Paddington Green. And we all played along, booing and hissing right on cue, in the grand old melodrama at the Music Hall tradition, while holding a grudging admiration for his consummate style. Of course, Newcastle fans could afford to be magnanimous at this stage of the season; after all we’ve made a better start than him so all is okay tonight isn’t it? ‘Fair play to the man’ and ‘he’s won a lot of friends’ won the clichés of the night award and Paolo, well, he couldn’t really lose could he? And he didn’t. In spite of the true greats, Baresi, Maldini, Ferdinand and Shearer, he owned the stadium and the night. He did exactly what I would have done, he played it like the seasoned professional he is. He is an actor; he judged it perfectly and it was, well… it was perfectly judged. Now I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Newcastle United fan with an irrational hostility and natural bitterness toward all things Sunderland AFC, with, of course, some notable exceptions, and yet, contrarily, I’ve written this in defence of Paolo; not because of his antics/heroics on Wednesday evening but because I believe, like a lot of people, he is a complex character and like everyone, deserves not only a chance to succeed but also a shot at redemption. As the old Spanish proverb goes, it is a wise man that changes his mind, a fool never. And I’m changing too, in a thousand little ways, how I think about the man. He may be only a football manager and clearly he hasn’t overrun a weaker country in a fascist ‘might is right’ display of government, but he is currently attempting a coup d'état at Sunderland AFC and it absolutely fascinates me that Paolo Di Canio, poster boy of the far right in Italy, reads Yukio Mishima. Perhaps that last bit bears repeating, so read it again, Mishima for Heaven’s sake. Paolo, you had me at Mishima. Mishima was one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century; a poet, playwright, actor, natural body builder, a model and film director. He was notorious for his radical right-wing activities but remembered mostly for his ritual suicide by seppuku (part of the samurai bushido code of honour) in 1970 after a failed coup d'état. As Mishima addressed the soldiers from the balcony, they began to mock him, the shame was too much to bear and he plunged a tantō, into his abdomen moving the blade from left to right in a slicing motion till he passed out and died. Now I’m not suggesting for one moment that a similar fate awaits Paolo, but if his planned revolution fails, Di Canio will not be sacked, because he is far too intelligent and proud a man to bear such a shameful, dishonourable destiny. What I’m saying here is, move over Katsumoto, Paolo, is the last Samurai. And this is why. When he was at West Ham, Di Canio’s views and past were well known but largely ignored by the press. Some Sunderland fans who are currently blinded by Lazio-like, hero-worship simply want to see a bit of passion back at the club, while there are others who give as much thought or credence to Di Canio’s political views as they would to Shearer’s views on 'String Theory'. Most Sunderland fans I would suggest, like football fans across the country, subscribe to the view that that politics should be kept out of football, but to say that political ideologies and football should be kept apart, is to completely misjudge the power of football and the central part it plays in life and communities. Football, more than any other sport, is rooted in the hearts of families, communities and entire countries. To argue that politics and football should be kept separate ignores the importance of both in the lives of a community and underestimates the social power that football can wield. To insist on a separation, as some Sunderland fans have done is an artificial and insipid defence of their manager and negates one of the most important aspects of football – the creation of a collective identity for a community. It’s not just Sunderland fans who bleat on about this divorce of course, however, the spotlight is currently pointed back on their Stadium and I think Sunderland fans, instead of excusing Di Canio or burying their heads in the sand should be embracing him instead and confronting the undesirable issues head-on, turning them into a force for good. A shining example of politics and football interacting in such a positive way, both on an individual and collective level although in stark contrast to Di Canio, is Cristiano Lucarelli, of A.S. Livorno Calcio. Livorno, a North-western coastal city is characterised by working class left wing dock union politics. In 1921, the city offered itself as a counter-argument against the rising tide of fascism in Italy and maintains a passionate highly politicised football fan base. Lucarelli earned the enduring love of Livorno fans, as well as respect throughout Europe for his commitment to his local club. After scoring he would often raise his hands in a dual clenched-fist salute of the Italian Communist Party in open declaration of his beliefs. Lucarelli’s mobile phone still rings to the socialist anthem ’Bandeira Rossa”. He felt their oppression, he shared their blood. Lucarelli’s status as a left-wing icon was confirmed by the fact that in order to move to Livorno he took a 50% pay cut, claiming that “some footballers buy Ferraris or yachts, I bought myself a Livorno shirt”. When he eventually left Livorno for Shaktar Donetsk in 2007, he ploughed most of his signing-on fee to set up a left-wing newspaper to “contribute to freedom of expression and thought” and fund community projects back home. There are some similarities between Di Canio and Lucarelli in spite of the political differences. I truly believe that Paolo Di Canio is good for football in England, because he has focussed attention and reopened the debate on moral and political issues in the game. He may have attracted the mockery of the media and opposing football fans, when he defended the political views expressed his 2001 autobiography and the raising of that right arm, by blurting out the knee-jerk defence that he is “not a political person” and his Roman salute was merely a “gesture to his people” but he has since been forced to retract these statements under media pressure. And his statement is not quite as ridiculous as I first thought it sounded at the time. To gain a better understanding of the man and his motives, his endorsement of an odious ideology and why he polarises opinion, I decided to go back to school and revisit an old ‘A’ Level History essay on modern Italy as heir to ancient Rome and its legacy and the rise of Fascism. In 1976, I wrote that Mussolini was the last Roman Emperor. Il Duce’s dream was to reignite the former Roman Empire of Aurelius and Augustus, a dream shared by Di Canio, or so he claimed, labelling Mussolini as ‘misunderstood’, he joined the ‘Irriducibili’ in his youth and he even had ‘Dux’ (‘Leader’) tattooed on his arm. His passionate ‘Roman’, salute to his ‘Irriducibili’, ‘his people’ after scoring against both Livorno and Roma, at the tail end of his career did little to enhance his reputation for neutrality but ensured that his face would be painted into Lazio folklore, just as the ruining of a very fine suit during Sunderland’s 0 v 3 roasting of Newcastle United will seal his place in Mackem mythology. However, fascism as it exists in the UK and Italy are very different beasts from very different political cultures. Some of the comments on social media on Wednesday night filled me full of horror when I read of Di Canio being labelled a Nazi. Such ignorance is understandable, of course, since the Second World War continues to blight Britain and generations of families, mould its opinion of Europe and cement its xenophobic island mentality. This is why many people still, wrongly, perceive fascism as being inextricably linked with Nazism and its attendant heavy stigma, evoking, memories of the Holocaust. Italian fascism is much more ambiguous, and it is predominantly associated with Mussolini’s Italy. It is not just Di Canio who has praised this particular brand either; mainstream politicians such as Berlusconi before his recent disgrace, made remarks in favour of Mussolini’s record. The reasoning behind such praise is that the 1920s was considered by most of the Italian population as an era of stability and prosperity following the ‘bienno rosso’, the two-year period, between 1919-1920, of intense social conflict, after the First World War. The accusations of racism levelled at Di Canio because of his admiration for Mussolini are ill founded because Il Duce’s views on race were similarly blurred in as much as he believed in the superiority of the “Roman” people but considered race to be more of a “feeling, not a reality” which is a much more plausible defence against the charge of overt racism. Now that won’t endear Di Canio to fans of Tottenham Hotspur, of course, but it was widely known that Mussolini also held a deep personal dislike for Hitler, and his influence over the government of Italy, the racist ‘Manifesto Della Razza’ of 1938, being one such clear example. Italian fascism of the 1920s is distinct from that of the Nazi-influenced 1930s and while this view might have a hint of revisionism it is indisputable that pockets of mainstream Italian society can till readily identify as fascist without any stigma, unlike in the United Kingdom. One such pocket, is the fanatical, loudly passionate working class football fans of Lazio, the Irriducibili’, known for their allegiance to extreme political ideologies. It was on their terraces that Di Canio chose to take his place with other working-class Romans to pursue his love of football and Lazio, in direct contrast to his family and peers in the left wing, Roma-dominated Roman district of his birth. He was either being deliberately antagonistic or else he relished the fanatical underdog spirit; perhaps it was a bit of both. Either way, the ‘outsider’ mentality provides a reasonable interpretation of ‘that’ salute to the ‘Irriducibili’ against fierce left wing rivals, Livorno, and during the Derby della Capiatalle. The AS Roma squad boasted local heroes and Rome’s favourite sons, Francesco Totti and Daniele de Rossi among its ranks and it remains to this day, the quintessential “Roman” team. By contrast Lazio, based in the more affluent north of the city is more cosmopolitan in character and is regarded as Rome’s “other” team. It could be argued, in this context, that Di Canio’s gesture was simply an old Roman salute, intended to display a message of authenticity to and solidarity with the ‘Irriducibili’ – “We are the Romans”. While this may be a little too charitable, it fits perfectly with Di Canio’s initial remarks that his gesture was a non-racist signal for his people, deliberately antagonistic, inflammatory and just plain wrong, perhaps, but certainly not racist. And I can accept that. Paolo Di Canio, as far as I’m aware is not affiliated to any political party. He doesn’t vote and rarely comments on social or economic issues and the idea that he is an ideologue who subscribes to a well-formed and coherent political agenda is just nonsense. But perhaps he should. Maybe he ought to start commenting on social and economic issues, instead of merely posing for photographs outside The Bridges. He is more than capable of being a force for good in the ‘depression capital’ of England. I believe that he is a changing man, a wise man, not a fool. Unlike Berlusconi, Di Canio’s praise of Mussolini is more than likely based on personal integrity, and tied up with nebulous notions of values and community. Football is so bound up with ideas of community and local identity, which is precisely the reason the most successful managers, wilfully create backs-to-the-wall, no one likes us, siege mentalities, to get the best out of the team and its supporters. Di Canio succeeded in channelling the predominant political culture of the ‘Irriucibili’ to create just such a condition at his beloved Lazio, at a time when the club was under severe financial constraints and it’s one of the reasons he is still so highly-regarded by its fans. At Sunderland, however, he is being forced to distance himself from fascism and adapt his management style to be more collaborative and “democratic” in style, without ever ‘ceding control', of course. And it’s abundantly clear that he is prepared to revise his own methods and philosophy in order to win football matches and rally support. He is, by his own admission, a football man first and foremost. He is also a wise man. And I like that too. You see, strange as it may seem, John, I happen to like Paolo Di Canio. I always liked him as a player, exciting and explosive on the field for 23 years. He combined the discipline of an athlete for more years than most, with the imagination to surprise and entertain. And although I could never excuse him pushing over a referee, however comical Paul Alcock’s slow motion, fall-by-instalments, by the same token, I cannot deny him the acclaim he deserved for an extraordinary act of sportsmanship that won him the FIFA Fair Play Award in 2001. Such displays are diametrically opposing facets of a fascinating man who is never any shade of grey. In a footballing world of studied emptiness, dull characters and tired clichés, only a moron would disagree that Paolo Di Canio is anything other than a welcome departure from such a banal script. Who else would describe scoring a goal “like having sex with Madonna”, although how he knows this is perhaps some cause for concern; who else could summarise the drugs in sport debate by declaring that “doping in English football is restricted to lager and baked beans with sausages?” Brilliant. So, while he may not have any marshes to drain on Wearside, he will no doubt continue to ensure that the training runs on time, and I applaud his attempts to instil a similar discipline and professional work ethic into rich young footballers who have never known what it’s like to do an honest day’s graft. Sadly. though I don’t think it can last. Di Canio may set a new standard for management post-Ferguson, but he will be its first casualty, unless the current balance of power changes, and changes quickly. Paolo Di Canio is an eccentric, exciting, explosive football manager who holds ill-defined political views and celebrates without restraint. He does his biscuit, just like a fan, which is very different from the standard joyless, expressionless manager standing in the technical area glaring at his back four and pointing randomly at across the pitch. I applaud it, but these qualities may not serve him well as a manager. They should, of course, but I have little doubt that he will just get on with the job he's paid to do, in his own inimitable confrontational style, and very little will change for now, until the axe falls, as it surely will. As an avowed Newcastle fan, I’m glad he’s around plying he’s trade down the road in the 'dark lands of the unwashed' because there is actually something very uplifting about his appointment. Football fans are by nature subjective, blind to the faults of their own, but the appointment of Paolo Di Canio has reinforced my belief that here in the UK, we are still, thankfully and healthily opposed to fascism and extremism in all of its guises. Sunderland fans insist that Di Canio goes out of his way to make individuals feel special, and I think he does, but only time will tell whether their delight in his risky nature endures and whether the dubious darkness that surrounds him will manifest itself in the home technical area. It might not be too long before the poster boy of the far right ends up sitting round a burning oil drum under a flyover, passing round the crack pipe and telling everyone what a great manager he was, and how both him and Mussolini were misunderstood. I somehow doubt that though, for this is not the way of the warrior.
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