Whenever a high-profile sports team hires a new head coach, the move prompts heated debate among fans. But since Britain's Sunderland soccer team announced it had hired an avowed fascist as coach over the weekend, the debate has been far more intense and widespread than the club expected.
On Sunday, the Northern England club replaced its coach with Italian Paolo Di Canio, a former star player who once gave a fascist salute after scoring a goal and once called Benito Mussolini "basically a very principled, ethical individual." The appointment has prompted outrage across Britain with several anti-racism groups, including Football Against Racism in Europe, saying his hiring is a setback for campaigns to fight fascism and racism in soccer.
Former foreign minister David Miliband also immediately resigned from the team's board, citing Mr. Di Canio's extreme views and adding, "I think it right to step down." Mr. Miliband had resigned his seat in the British Parliament only last week to take up a position with a charity in New York, but he had planned to remain on Sunderland's board.
Mr. Di Canio and club CEO Margaret Byrne tried to play down the controversy on Monday, insisting the new coach's comments had been taken out of context and that he was hired for his ability to win soccer games and not for his political opinions.
"I expressed an opinion in an interview many years ago," Mr. Di Canio said in a statement. "Some pieces [of the interview] were taken for media convenience. They took my expression in a very, very negative way – but it was a long conversation and a long interview. It was not fair."
He added: "I don't have a problem with anyone. I haven't had a problem in the past and 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."
Ms. Byrne defended the choice of Mr. Di Canio. "Anyone who has met Paolo and spoken with him personally, as we did in depth before making this appointment, will know that he is an honest man, a man of principle and a driven, determined and passionate individual," she said. "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."
The statements won't likely ease the concern among some about Mr. Di Canio, 44, who has a colourful history on and off the field.
Born in Rome, Mr. Di Canio has written about his rough childhood, which included stabbing his older brother in the back with a barbeque fork during a fight. He became a decent soccer player, earning stints with several Italian teams before jumping to Britain's Premier League and becoming a star at West Ham United between 1999 and 2003.
He returned to Italy and played for Lazio, his favourite club growing up, and gained infamy in 2005 when he offered a fascist salute to fans after a goal. The league suspended him for one game and fined him $10,000 for the salute, considered a racist taunt. Afterward, Mr. Di Canio told an Italian news agency: "I am a fascist, not a racist." In his autobiography, Mr. Di Canio also expressed support for Mr. Mussolini, who adored Lazio, saying he was fascinated by the Italian dictator who had been "deeply misunderstood" and was "basically a very principled, ethical individual."
This won't be Mr. Di Canio's first coaching job. He spent nearly two years at Swindon, a lower-division club in England, boosting its fortunes but leaving in a huff two months ago after a string of controversies. His appointment there also led a major union to pull its sponsorship of the club because of his fascist views.
Sunderland, which is owned by American Ellis Short, is hoping Mr. Di Canio's no-nonsense coaching style can help the club avoid relegation, whereby the last three teams in the Premiership are demoted to a lower league. Sunderland is just one point out of the bottom three with seven games remaining. Relegation can be financially ruinous to clubs, as the lower leagues generate a fraction of the revenue of the Premiership.
Avoiding relegation "is a crucial cause," Mr. Di Canio said in an interview posted on the club's website. "Not just for Paolo Di Canio and the staff but more importantly for the thousands and thousands of people who care about this club."