In the first of a new Friday Premier League football column, Amy Eustace talks Di Canio, hand grenades, and good news for Arsenal fans.
This weekend’s tie between Chelsea and Sunderland at Stamford Bridge is a veritable microcosm of Premier League drama as we know it. Between Rafael Benitez’s flip-flopping fortunes as interim manager at the London club and the seemingly endless political storm that has followed Paolo Di Canio’s appointment as Black Cats boss, no fixture could give you a better snapshot of the off-pitch pandemonium that has topped the menu this season.
Needless to say, despite racism, homophobia and downright idiocy flooding the Premier League this season, I doubt anyone expected to be dining on a dessert of radical nationalism at this point in the year.
Rafa Benitez, who will probably be glad to deflect some of this weekend’s media glare towards his opposite number, is for once perhaps the saner of the two managers squaring off at the weekend, but only just.
Chelsea go into the fixture on a high after Thursday night’s 3-1 Europa League home victory over Rubin Kazan, with Fernando Torres on the score sheet not once, but TWICE, and having knocked Manchester United out of the FA Cup on Monday. After Monday’s win, Benitez asserted that Chelsea have had a “great season”; a sentiment with which most Chelsea fans will undoubtedly disagree. However, with a win over Sunderland, the Blues could jump to third place with a game in hand over Spurs, so maybe there is hope yet that the Spaniard could escape Stamford Bridge with his reputation intact.
As for Sunderland’s share of the drama, if you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, let me summarise. Former West Ham and Celtic playmaker Paolo Di Canio was announced as Sunderland manager on Sunday, with the Stadium of Light hotseat still warm since Martin O’Neill’s departure the day before after a 1-0 defeat to league leaders Manchester United. Di Canio had been at Swindon Town since 2011, whom, with a considerable budget, he led to stylish promotion from League Two.
Swindon were set to move top of League One with a win over Tranmere in February when the Italian walked out of the club, citing ‘broken promises’ from the club’s board amid uncertainty over Town’s future with the sale of the club to new owners still awaiting approval from the Football League.
It’s not his unceremonious exit from Swindon, nor his lack of top flight managerial experience that grabbed the headlines in the days that followed his appointment at Sunderland, however. Di Canio, a one-time self-proclaimed fascist who was partial to the odd straight-armed salute when he played for Lazio towards the end of his playing career, caused shockwaves for his political views. It was a remarkably odd-choice, with the North of England particularly known for its left wing, Labour-voting habits.
In the immediate aftermath, Sunderland’s vice-chairman, Labour MP David Miliband, stepped down in protest of the new manager’s ‘past political statements’, just a day after being quoted in the matchday programme as looking forward to continuing his non-executive functions with the club despite accepting a role with a charity in the US.
The ‘past political statements’ Miliband was referring to is essentially when, after being threatened with FIFA disciplinary action following a right-armed, palm-down salute to Lazio fans, Di Canio is reported to have told an Italian news agency, “I am a fascist, not a racist”.
He’s deeply misunderstood, like Mussolini
It was as if Di Canio had strode into Sunderland in full army uniform, giving Ellis Short the Roman Salute instead of a handshake and proudly displaying the ‘Dux’ tattoo on his arm (Latin for ‘leader’; a nod to Benito Mussolini, whom Di Canio said in his autobiography was ‘deeply misunderstood’).
The outcry was so great and so loud (even Billy Bragg chimed in) that key figures at the club were quick to leap on the defensive, tripping on their own shoelaces to protect the new manager’s, and their own, reputation. Margaret Byrne, chief executive at Sunderland, claimed that to accuse him of ‘having fascist sympathies’ was an ‘insult’, a sentiment which may not have fallen on deaf ears, had the Italian not declared himself as ‘having fascist sympathies’ some years ago.
Di Canio himself has since come out and, somewhat confusingly, back-tracked on his original profession, in a statement on the Sunderland website which read: “I am not political, I do not affiliate myself to any organisation, I am not a racist and I do not support the ideology of fascism. I respect everyone. I am a football man and this and my family are my focus. Now I will speak only of football.”
Enough to put the matter to rest? Probably not.
In any case, Sunderland most likely won’t have to worry about their manager coming over all Mussolini and staging a fascist revolution on Wearside. None of it will mean very much to the less politically principled among them so long as the Italian gets the required results. In that respect, they have greater things to be concerned about.
Who is Di Canio, aside from his political allegiances (or lack thereof, supposedly), and how will he adapt to life as a Premier League manager? Since when has winning League Two been enough to warrant a shot at the big time? He may have done a great job at Swindon, but he stopped just short of elevating them to even Championship status, let alone earning his top tier badges, and he did so with a transfer kitty unheard of at Swindon’s level.
Known for his, ahem, eccentricities (he once substituted Swindon’s goalkeeper after 20 minutes, calling him ‘one of the worst players I have ever seen in a football match’), his idolisation of Mussolini may have translated into a dictator managerial style, and though it got results in Leagues One and Two, it’s unlikely to wash with some Premier League primadonnas.
Swindon’s ex-chief executive Nick Watnick dubbed it ‘management by hand grenade’. Whatever Di Canio has in store for the club, it’s sure to be a bumpy ride, which, if nothing else, makes a welcome change from Martin ‘dull as dishwater’ O’Neill. Languishing in 16th, perhaps Di Canio’s hand grenade management can scare his players into moving the club further away from the dreaded danger zone.
Bale injury is Gunner make someone happy
- Listen up, Arsenal fans — all that praying you did over Easter must have worked. Gareth Bale seemed to sustain a nasty ankle injury in Spurs’ 2-2 Europa League draw with FC Basel on Thursday night. Stretchered off the pitch, the incident was not for the faint of heart, but will have no doubt brought a wry, Schadenfreude smile to the faces of every bitter-hearted Gunner watching. Don’t lie. You know you’re chuffed.
Manchester Derby will be like a ‘cup final’. Really?
- Amidst all of the furore surrounding Di Canio, there’s been barely any talk of Monday night’s Manchester Derby. Vincent Kompany, obviously not too bothered with the north-east, has reiterated the importance of the match, despite United having all but won the League. “It will be like a cup final. There will be everything in it,” said the Belgian defender. “For the neutrals we have enjoyed a couple of great derbies in the last couple of years. I can only wish the same with a happy ending for Manchester City.” Meanwhile, Sir Alex Ferguson has commented on the fitness of Wayne Rooney and Rafael, who should both be ready for Monday’s game, while centre backs Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans are unlikely to be fit to return.
There’s a good catch for Ireland somewhere…
- With Martin O’Neill ousted from Sunderland and probably cackling away to himself in his slippers and dressing gown over what will henceforth be known as ‘Fascistgate’, maybe – just maybe – he could be a candidate for a position another unconventional Italian character will hopefully be leaving in the near future. Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland could probably do with a manager who doesn’t communicate team selection over text and knows his Conor Sammon from his smoked salmon. Anyone with a decent grasp of English would do at this point. Apply here.