I’ve often thought that British football needed a good dose of fascism — and now at last it has exactly this, in the form of the combative and somewhat eccentric Italian chap Paolo Di Canio. He has been installed as the manager of Sunderland, and all hell has broken loose.
Di Canio has described himself as a fascist — but definitely not a racist, which shows that he is at least au fait with the current dictum that there is but one crime and one crime alone that matters. He has a couple of fascisty tatts on his muscular shoulders, one of which seems to be invoking the late, controversial politician Benito Mussolini, whom Paolo has previously described as ‘much misunderstood’. There is a photograph somewhere near you at this very moment of Di Canio snarling in the manner of a Staffordshire bull terrier while giving a straight armed salute to the supporters of the team he once played for — Lazio, of Rome.
It is not clear how deeply entrenched is Paolo’s fascism, nor whether it is historical and geographically occasioned rather than truly political in nature. He has never, to my knowledge, explained if he would wish the country to follow, in economic terms, a distributist or corporatist system, or whether he favours the Military Keynesianism which defined the latter stages of the Third Reich. Perhaps the BBC, which is now obsessed with the fellow, will ascertain which it is.
The part of Rome from which he hails, and the team he has always loved — SS Lazio — are renowned for right-of-centre politics. We do not really have politically aligned football teams over here, like they do on the continent; no equivalents to St Pauli, Livorno or Barcelona (the left) or Real Madrid, Zenit St Petersburg and Lazio (the right).
Di Canio’s biographer reckons the man isn’t a proper fascist really, and is quite nice when you get to know him. On the other hand, Paulo’s favourite reading matter is the berserk old Japanese fascist Yukio Mishima, who disembowelled himself when nobody wanted to take part in his planned coup d’état.
My guess is that Di Canio’s affection for fascism is partly a consequence of where he was raised, plus a certain intellectual sympathy for social Darwinism and all things martial. In this last regard, he is very similar to those early British fascist sympathisers such as Wyndham Lewis, except that Lewis could not hammer a ball on the volley into the roof of the net from the edge of the area.
But whatever, there is a howl-round which seems disinclined to abate. I do not think that a player or manager with extreme left-wing sympathies would warrant this sort of inquest, although I am at a loss to name any British footballer who was a member of the CPGB or the WRP. Paul Breitner, the former German defender, was reputedly a Maoist, mind, and nobody got terribly cross with him. Plenty of Spanish, Italian and (especially) Serbian coaches and players have been heard to say extremely fascistic things, but because none of them have an Il Duce tattoo we are prepared to forgive and forget.
And let’s face it, half of Fifa’s board of delegates have cosied up to fascists at one time or another, not least the repulsive Julio Grondona of Argentina, who once suggested that you couldn’t trust Jews to referee a football match. For fairly obvious reasons, sport and fascism have made easy bedfellows over the years, but it never hugely bothered anyone that — for example — Juan Antonio Samaranch, formerly boss of the IOC, had previously been a minister in General Franco’s cabinet.
But as I have noted before, there is an absolutist tendency in public life at the moment which demands that people have politically correct views and seeks to punish them when they do not, to the extent of removing from them their paid employment. And it does not remotely matter if their political beliefs do not impinge in any way upon the jobs they are doing. If you can take children away from their foster parents because they are supporters of Ukip, you can certainly make sure a football manager is sacked because he’s a bit of a fascist. I suspect that Di Canio, as a foreigner, does not understand this hysteria, this totalitarianism — although I suppose, as an avowed fascist, he really should. And approve of it.
As usual with liberal outrage, inconsistencies abound. Paolo Di Canio was far more famous as a player than he is as a manager, but nobody suggested that West Ham or Sheffield Wednesday — two of the clubs for whom the self-described Anglophile played — should drop him because of his political views. It was, at the time, thought to be part and parcel of his somewhat odd personality and nobody really gave it a second thought. Furthermore, he was, until recently, the extremely successful manager of the League One club Swindon Town, and nobody got worked up about him being a fascist during that period. Why is it morally wrong for him to manage Sunderland but perfectly fine for him to run Swindon?
It is all, I suspect, a confected brouhaha, more flexing of the muscles of the metropolitan elite, who will not be happy until everyone thinks precisely the same as them.