With a fiery attitude on the pitch, the work rate of a pitbull terrier and the infamous assault upon an official after a dismissal for Sheffield Wednesday, Mr Di Canio was never far from the back page headlines as a player. Currently a manager he is just as dramatic and passionate, notably having a love-hate relationship with his former players at Swindon Town to an extreme extent. Now gaffer for relegation candidates Sunderland under the intense spotlight of the Premier League, the Italian has been receiving a fair amount of attention concerning such topics as extreme political views to his credentials as a coach. Is Di Canio a fascist? Can he handle the Premier League? Will he be a success?
“I am not a racist and I do not support the ideology of fascism” the 44-year-old, while his tattoo of notorious fascist leader Benito Mussolini and symbolic eagle of the fascism movement pulled a bemused face. Since his appointment, Di Canio has encountered a surplus of pressure from various groups to open up about his ideological beliefs, causing reaction in the form of an official club statement addressing his critics. An infamous incident when the Italian was a player under contract at Lazio where he gave a one armed salute to a section of the home fans has haunted him ever since he has returned to England and has caused the vultures to be circling. At the time, Di Canio defended his action by confirming himself as a fascist instead of a racist. “But hang on here”, the critics say with a gleeful smile, “how can you call yourself a fascist one minute and say you don’t support the ideology the next?” At the end of the day, Di Canio probably still holds some extremist beliefs, but this is football, not parliament. As long as the Sunderland manager doesn’t turn up to a Saturday kick-off in his finest Nazi suit while shouting orders from the touchline there should not be a problem where that is concerned, so let us draw a line under the whole episode…
In his first managerial post at Swindon Town, the former West Ham United front man impressed by guiding his side to the League 2 Title while also leading them to the final of the Football League trophy, quite admirable achievements for a coach just starting out in the world of football management. However, this giant leap from third/fourth tier to one of the most competitive leagues in the world will be a stern task for Paolo Di Canio. The last manager with an inflated ego to grace the Premier League was one Jose Mourinho, and the new Sunderland manager offers something similar when it comes to aggression and a defiance in getting his point across. He is certainly not a megalomaniac but can sometimes push the boundaries of professionalism. Three months into his job at Swindon, Di Canio had a tussle with Leon Clarke following a league match, causing him to say that Clarke would never play for the club again and eventually shipping the striker out to Chesterfield after a mere two appearances.
His attitude as a player is clearly reflected by his demeanour on the touchline. At his previous post he was sent to the stands a total of three times for either aggressively disputing decisions or exuberant celebrations, behaviour that would be uncommon for most managers in the Premier League. Following his third dismissal from pitch side in January 2012, he proceeded to take out his frustration in a heated post match conference. “I do what I want in the technical area” said Di Canio “If they want to send me off every game, no problem, I will win this league anyway”. The Italian did indeed win the league, but under more scrutiny from the England’s top tier and the prospect of undoubtedly harsher bans and fines, he may need to compose himself a bit more to avoid running into too much trouble.
Finally, what is the magnitude of the task he faces? Sunderland are certainly involved in the relegation dogfight this season with six games to go. Following a 2-1 defeat to European champions Chelsea, they sit just above the relegation zone on goal difference having played a game more than 18th placed Wigan, who often produce and inspired run of form towards the end of the season. They have games against two sides directly above them in the table, Aston Villa away and Stoke at home, as well as a trip to local rivals Newcastle in the coming week. Avoiding defeat from the first two games mentioned is crucial if the Black Cats want to have a chance of securing their top flight status. Other games against Everton at the Stadium Of Light and a trip down to mid-table Southampton are certainly winnable if they have the right mentality, and it is up to Di Canio to use his ability as a manager to make sure the players are as prepared as possible for the final stretch.
In summary, it doesn’t really matter if Paolo Di Canio is a fascist, he is now alive and kicking in his Premier League occupation. Once all the fuss has died down and if he can keep the Wearsiders in the Premier League, he will surely go on to impress everyone in years to come, provided he doesn’t push over any more referees…
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