Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Somewhere, Mussolini is smiling

But politics shouldn't affect coach

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On Sunday, Paolo Di Canio will mark the end of a turbulent week when he manages his first match for relegation-threatened Sunderland against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

The Italian's appointment, which came after last Saturday's dismissal of Martin O'Neill, was greeted with a firestorm that was only put out -- most likely temporarily -- when the Premier League club compelled their new bench boss to release a statement denouncing right-wing extremism.

You could almost see the pistol being pointed at his head, but you could most certainly sense the hurt that dripped from his remarks.

"To read and hear some of the vicious and personal accusations is painful," Di Canio said. "I am an honest man; my values and principles come from my family and my upbringing. I feel that I should not have to continually justify myself to people who do not understand this."

He's right. Although the hysteria that met his hiring wasn't down to the questions asked of his political persuasion so much as the knee-jerk reactions of people who are, themselves, ideologues -- just of a different kind.

We all have our political leanings. Some of us arrived at them after serious, intentional reflection; for others the process was more instinctive. Each of us, however, is beholden to the ideas that shaped our experience, and in that we are no more entitled to our beliefs than the person next to us is to theirs, or Paolo Di Canio is to his.

And while we certainly have the right to ask questions if another's politics make us uncomfortable, we do the process far more credit if our reactions are measured and mature.

Di Canio, as he has previously admitted, is a fascist. He has a tattoo of Benito Mussolini on his arm, and in 2005, while playing for Lazio -- Mussolini's former club -- he was photographed giving the straight-armed Roman salute to hardcore Lazio supporters -- an image that was no doubt conjured up time and again in the paranoia following his unveiling at Sunderland.

It is paranoia, after all, that prevents logical, intelligent discourse -- that creates a space for Fox News and the Daily Mail and a culture of suspicion and mistrust.

There are few things more unbecoming than paranoia, but that didn't stop it from lacing the reactions to Di Canio's appointment from folks who should have known better than to think the 44-year-old was on a one-man mission to turn the union town of Sunderland into the fascist capital of the United Kingdom.

Colin Wakefield, a Sunderland counsellor and leader of the Independent Party, told the Sunderland Echo he was worried about the "potential for football violence," as if right-wing politics were somehow more encouraging to fisticuffs in the stands than left-wing ideology.

He continued: "I would hate to see politics invading into football."

Because football has been free of politics until now?

Even in Sunderland, midfielder James McClean has been disparaged for his IRA sympathies, and upon Di Canio's arrival the Durham Miners' Association demanded the removal of a permanent banner in the stadium out of protest.

The universality of football dictates that politics will continually intersect with sport, and to suggest they won't isn't only naive--it's choosing to be naive. It's paranoia.

On Thursday the paranoia surrounding Di Canio's appointment finally became too much for Sunderland, and so they obliged their new manager to sooth the fear-mongers with a press release separating him from beliefs he not only holds and has every right to hold, but that have absolutely nothing to do with his ability to manage a football team.

Needless to say there will still be those whose protests will be made weekly, childish and shrill, but then again a certain set of fans will always find something to moan about.

At Sunderland they don't like Di Canio because he's a fascist; at Chelsea they don't like Rafael Benitez because he's fat.

One makes about as much sense as the other.

jerradpeters@gmail.com Twitter @jerradpeters

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 C7

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