Sunderland Coach Di Canio Denies Being a Supporter of Fascism

Sunderland’s new coach Paolo Di Canio today denied he supports fascism, amid rising pressure on the Italian to explain his political views.

The 44-year-old replaced Martin O’Neill, who was fired four days ago as the northeast England team struggles to avoid relegation from soccer’s Premier League.

In a 2005 interview with Italian news agency Ansa, Di Canio described himself as “a fascist, not a racist.” His appointment at Sunderland led to fan protests and the resignation of former U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband as club vice-chairman. Today Di Canio issued a second statement on the matter, following a news conference yesterday when he refused to answer questions about whether he was a fascist.

“I feel that I should not have to continually justify myself to people who do not understand this, however I will say one thing only -- I am not the man that some people like to portray,” Di Canio said in today’s statement on the Sunderland website. “I am not political, I do not affiliate myself to any organization, I am not a racist and I do not support the ideology of fascism. I respect everyone.”

Di Canio’s political views have overshadowed coverage of how he plans to steer Sunderland clear of the Premier League relegation zone. The three teams that fall into the second tier face missing out on a cash bonanza of at least 60 million pounds ($90.8 million) from the league’s new television contract next season. Sunderland is one point and two places above the bottom three with seven games left.

Open Letter

Earlier today the Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove, head of Durham Cathedral’s ruling body, released an open letter calling on Di Canio to renounce fascism. His request came after Durham miners called Di Canio’s appointment a “disgrace and a betrayal of all who fought and died in the fight against fascism.” They demanded the return of a trade-union banner that’s been displayed at the team’s stadium.

The club and Di Canio attempted to defuse the situation two days ago by releasing a statement that addressed previous comments and actions. They included his being pictured making a fascist-style salute to fans of his former club Lazio.

“I expressed an opinion in an interview many years ago. Some pieces were taken for media convenience,” Di Canio said in the initial statement. “They took my expression in a very, very negative way, but it was a long conversation and a long interview. It was not fair. Sometimes it suits their purpose to put big headlines and a big story.”

Di Canio went on to say claims he was racist were “stupid and ridiculous,” citing his friendship with Trevor Sinclair and Chris Powell, two black former English national team players.

Di Canio, whose playing career included spells in England with West Ham, Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton, has never managed in the country’s top two divisions. He quit as coach of third-tier Swindon Town in February.

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