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English Soccer, an Italian Fascist and the Jews

There was an old slogan on the left in the years between the wars: Fascism means war. Succinct, it managed to say at once that war is inherent to fascism, since it is both expansionist and authoritarian, and that fascism demands war as an ideology so heinous it must be combated.

Such sentiments evidently still mean something to David Miliband.

The British Labour MP resigned from the board of English Premier League team Sunderland AFC Sunday, after the club appointed Italian Paolo Di Canio as their new manager following the sacking of Martin O’Neill. In a brief statement, Miliband said:

I wish Sunderland AFC all success in the future. It is a great institution that does a huge amount for the North East and I wish the team very well over the next vital seven games. However, in the light of the new manager’s past political statements, I think it right to step down.

Miliband’s move came days after he announced his intention to leave the House of Commons in order to take up the directorship of the International Rescue Committee in New York.

Di Canio has always been a controversial figure in European soccer, regardless of his ‘past political statements’, because of his passionate and erratic behaviour on and off the field. In 1998 during his playing career, Di Canio was banned for 11 matches and fined $15,000 for pushing over a referee. During the 2002-03 season while playing for West Ham United he repeatedly criticised his manager, Glenn Roeder, in the press as the club slumped to the bottom of the Premier League. Di Canio left his last job as manager of Swindon Town under a cloud following disagreements over finances and transfers while the club was in the middle of a takeover.

But Di Canio is also a fascist. To be specific, “I am a fascist, not a racist,” he declared in 2005, as if trying to distinguish between these two types of supremacisms makes his politics less abhorrent. While he was playing for SS Lazio, Di Canio became closely affiliated with the club’s ultras, and on three separate occasions celebrated scoring by raising his right arm in the fascistic style to a group of supporters known for their right-wing extremism. “What a delightful Roman salute!” Alessandra Mussolini is reported to have said after one such display during a game against cross-city rivals, AS Roma. “I was deeply moved. I will write him a thank you note.”

Indeed, Di Canio has declared his admiration for her grandfather, Benito Mussolini. “I think he was a deeply misunderstood individual,” Di Canio – who also has the word dux tattooed on his arm – wrote in his memoir. “He deceived people. His actions were often vile. But all this was motivated by a higher purpose. He was basically a very principled individual.” Such principles, it should be remembered, included a belief in the innate superiority of Aryans and ‘European Mediterraneans’ over Jews and North Africans, embodied both in Mussolini’s imperial war in Abyssinia and his wilful collaboration in the Holocaust during which 8,000 Italian Jews were slaughtered.

Di Canio’s apologies for Italian fascism obviously a good deal about the man, and give an indication as to the ways in which Mussolini is remembered in Italy, but is appointment is indicative of something foul about English soccer, namely its selective morality and outrage. England’s Football Association often leads Europe in terms of the fight against racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism in stadia and institutions, and English supporters have suffered this season while travelling abroad from both verbal and physical abuse in France and Italy. Yet at home, campaigns such as Kick It Out) can only be so effective when clubs are willing to protect and supporters forgive their own players’ misdemeanours, abuses, and crimes if it suits them.

For example, during the course of his career former England captain John Terry has, among other things: drunkenly mocked American tourists at Heathrow Airport in the days following September 11, 2001; sold access to Chelsea’s training ground for a £10,000 cash payment; and, was found by the FA to have racially abused QPR defender Anton Ferdinand. Widely reviled throughout the soccer community for his offences public and personal, Terry is lauded at Chelsea as a ‘captain, leader, legend’. Worse still, during the investigation into the Ferdinand incident, the FA concluded that officials at Chelsea had aided in the “evolution” of evidence in order to make it more favourable to Terry’s defence.

What good, then, are campaigns against intolerance of all stripes, if soccer clubs like Chelsea and Sunderland shelter the game’s villainous characters? If it is acceptable to publically declare one’s fascism and respect for Benito Mussolini, what would someone have to do short of a criminal offence to acquire universal public opprobrium in English soccer?

And Di Canio’s new role is also a slap in the face to Sunderland itself, a bastion of Labour socialism in England’s industrial north-east where it is understood all too well that fascism means war. During the Second World War, 267 residents died as a consequence of bombing raids by the Luftwaffe. 1,000 homes were destroyed, and an additional 3,000 were damaged. “The appointment of Di Canio is a disgrace and a betrayal of all who fought and died in the fight against fascism,” Dave Hopper, General Secretary of the Durham Miners’ Association, stated.


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