British football has long been associated with skinheads, nationalist thugs and extreme right-wing political figures, particularly in the heyday of the National Front of the 1970s and 1980s.
Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, fascism has again reared its ugly head on the British football pitch – but this time from a foreign source.
Paolo Di Canio, who was recently appointed manager of the Sunderland football club, is a self-proclaimed Fascist – and this fact has rubbed many people in Britain the wrong way.
After he replaced Martin O'Neill as Sunderland boss, a number of prominent Britons have expressed their outrage over DiCanio’s political ideology.
David Miliband, the former senior Labour Party official and former foreign secretary, immediately resigned as Sunderland’s vice chairman to protest Di Canio’s appointment.
Piara Powar, the director of campaigner group Football Against Racism in Europe, demanded that Di Canio clarify his current political beliefs.
"There is no question that to have a manager who calls himself a fascist at a high-profile Premier League club will encourage those movements," Powar said. "I think there is no place in a sport which seeks to make a positive impact on social relations and its community to have someone who says 'I am a fascist and I admire Mussolini'."
Others have also voiced their disapproval of Di Canio’s hiring.
"The appointment of Di Canio is a disgrace and a betrayal of all who fought and died in the fight against fascism,” said general secretary, Dave Hooper, of the Durham Miners' Association, which is closely linked to the Sunderland club.
"Everyone must speak out and oppose this outrage and call on [Sunderland club owner] Ellis Short and the Sunderland Board to reverse their decision."
Paul Callaghan, a prominent local fan and member of the University of Sunderland board of governors, tweeted that Di Canio’s hiring was the “darkest day in Sunderland’s history. Absolutely appalled by the appointment of a self-confessed Fascist.”
Martyn McFadden, editor of A Love Supreme, a leading Sunderland fan club magazine, said that while some younger fans are disinterested, their parents and grandparents who fought in the second world war are upset.
"It has been an unbelievable few days for many,” McFadden said, according to FARE.
“On Saturday there were African drummers on the pitch at half time and the whole match presentation was themed around the club's new association with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the next day they employ a manager who has described himself as a fascist."
Local politicians are also piling on.
"We hope there is a commitment from the club that this won't conflict with the anti-fascist work we are supporting." said Sunderland council leader and Labour member, Paul Watson.
Another Sunderland Council member, Colin Wakefield, leader of the Independent party, worried that Di Canio’s presence on the pitch could lead to violence on the terraces.
“It is not something we really need to add to the woes we already have,” he told the Sunderland Echo newspaper. “The potential for football violence is worrying enough to start with, without adding this into the mix. I would hate to see politics invading into football.”
Gary Duncan, of Sunderland’s anti-fascist coalition, blasted Di Canio.
“We are angered by the decision … to appoint a fascist as a manager of our great football club,” he told the Echo.
“It is incredible that we have a fascist in such an important role in a working-class city like Sunderland … There should be no place for fascism in football, in politics or in a wider society.”
In response to the gathering storm, Di Canio, 44, asserted that accusations of racism are “ridiculous” and claimed that some of his best friends are black, including former England national players Trevor Sinclair and Chris Powell.
“They [my black friends] can tell you everything about my character,” Di Canio told reporters. “I don't want to talk about politics because it's not my area. We are not in the Houses of Parliament; we are [on] a football club."
Di Canio further defended himself.
"I don't have a problem with anyone,” he said. “I don't know why I have to keep repeating my story, to be defending myself on something that doesn't belong to me every time I change clubs. Talk about racism? That is absolutely stupid, stupid and ridiculous."
The Sunderland club's chief executive, Margaret Byrne, has supported her controversial new field boss, attacking those like Miliband who're "trying to turn the appointment of a head coach into a political circus."
"[Di Canio is] an honest man, a man of principle and a driven, determined and passionate individual. To accuse him now, as some have done, of being a racist or having fascist sympathies, is insulting not only to him but to the integrity of this football club," Byrne said of her coach.
Di Canio’s fascist sympathies came to light in 2005 when he played for the Lazio club near Rome. Twice he performed the infamous straight-arm salute to Lazio fans and declared to the Italian news agency ANSA: "I am a fascist, not a racist."
According to FARE, Di Canio also has the word "Dux" (Latin for "Il Duce," the nickname of Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini) tattooed on his right biceps. He also stated in his autobiography that he was fascinated by Mussolini, whom he called "a very principled individual" who was “deeply misunderstood.”
Di Canio once explained the notorious stiff-arm salute for which he was once fined 10,000 euros, but not suspended.
"I made the Roman salute because it's a salute from a comrade to his comrades and was meant for my people,” he said.
"With this stiff arm I do not want to incite violence or racial hatred."
In that autobiography, Di Canio also attacked immigrants in Italy.
"In Italy, too many immigrants come over and act as if they were back in their own countries,” he wrote.
“They make little effort to fit in and, to be fair; we Italians make little effort to integrate them. Our government does little for immigrants, so they simply do things their way. If we're not careful, in 10 years' time, Italy could be a Muslim country. I have nothing against Muslims, but I don't want my Italian culture to disappear."
Di Canio has a long association with British football, having first joined Celtic in Glasgow in 1996, followed by tenures with Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham and Charlton. After stints with various Italian clubs, Di Canio retired as a player in 2008.
In the U.S., sports and politics have also endured an often stormy relationship.
During the 1920s, prominent Major League baseball players like Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Rogers Hornsby were reportedly members of the Ku Klux Klan. However, since the Klan had some five or six million members at the time, their links to the group hardly batted an eye. (Big league baseball was all-white, anyway).
In the 1960s, black athletes including Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Lew Alcindor, who later became known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, openly espoused radical political views, resulting in a measure of public censure.
In the current environment, largely due to the immense salaries and contract endorsements involved in both the U.S. and Europe, most athletes refrain from making any political statements, much less the promotion of extremist ideologies like Di Canio.
"While most people still believe that sport and politics are or should be separate, they have been intertwined for many decades,” Professor John Nauright, co-director of the Center for the Study of Sport and Leisure in Society at George Mason University, told International Business Times.
“Activists have used sports as vehicles for resistance. In recent times, however, there have been fewer cases of athletes and officials making overt political statements due to the nature of contracts, sponsorships etc and clauses about bringing leagues and sports into disrepute. In the USA such contracts are common.”
Indeed, in the U.S., the most prominent athlete of recent times, basketball superstar Michael Jordan has steadfastly refused to involve himself with any political causes. During the early 1990s, when a liberal black Democrat named Harvey Gantt ran for U.S. Senate against the rabidly right wing Jesse Helms in his native North Carolina, Jordan refused to endorse Gantt, saying that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Some American athletes have endorsed mainstream political candidates, but almost no one will risk their lucrative compensations by adhering to any remotely extremist views.
“Extreme political views draw attention and it is doubtful that an admitted fascist or communist would be tolerated as a manager or coach of a major team in part for the possible alienation of a large share of spectators," Nauright added.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.