New Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio on Tuesday faced a barrage of questions about his support for fascism, after his appointment prompted a club director to quit and outrage among many fans.
The club in northeast England, a former industrial area built on coal mining, ship-building and heavy industry, also provoked the ire of one trade union, which has demanded that they remove its banner from their Stadium of Light ground.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
Di Canio, facing the media for the first time since succeeding Martin O’Neill on Sunday, was repeatedly asked whether he was a fascist, in reference to a statement he made in 2005 when he said: “I am a fascist, not a racist”.
The former Lazio, Celtic and West Ham United striker, who was also once banned for giving a raised-arm salute to hardcore fans of the Rome club, responded: “I don’t have to answer that anymore.
“There was a very good statement from the club, very, very clear words that came from me. I don’t want to talk anymore about politics. We’re not in the Houses of Parliament. I’m not a political person.
“I only want to talk about football… In 45 years, I’ve never had a problem with anyone.”
The news conference in Sunderland was not broadcast live by television channels, apparently in response to fears about stoking further controversy.
A media officer for the struggling English Premier League club repeatedly tried to prevent questions about Di Canio’s right-wing political leanings, referring reporters to his previous statement.
Di Canio said then that talk about racism was “absolutely stupid, stupid and ridiculous”, while Sunderland chief executive Margaret Byrne denounced the claims of racism and fascism as “insulting not only to him but to the integrity” of the club.
Britain’s former foreign secretary David Miliband, though, announced his resignation as vice-chairman and non-executive director of the Black Cats because of Di Canio’s “past political statements”.
The director of Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), Piara Powar, also warned that the appointment was “worrying” given Di Canio’s refusal to clarify or renounce his views at a time of an apparent increase in racism incidents in the game.
Sunderland’s shirt sponsor, the not-for-profit business initiative Invest in Africa, refused to be drawn on whether Di Canio’s political stance might affect their relationship with the club.
“It is a football-related matter and under the remit of the club,” said a spokesperson.
In February, Sunderland announced that they had signed a partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation to help promote the former South Africa president’s “legacy of social justice”, including support for football’s quest to eradicate racism.
Meanwhile, late on Monday, the Durham Miners’ Association, which represents former coal workers, including those who worked at the old colliery where Sunderland’s ground is located, voiced their anger.
“The appointment of Di Canio is a disgrace and a betrayal of all who fought and died in the fight against fascism,” the union’s general-secretary, Dave Hopper, was quoted as saying by the Northern Echo newspaper.
“Everyone must speak out and oppose this outrage and call on (chairman) Ellis Short and the Sunderland board to reverse their decision,” added Hopper, who worked for 27 years at Wearmouth Colliery.
The GMB, one of Britain’s largest trade unions and a key donor to the country’s opposition Labour Party, in 2011 pulled its sponsorship of Di Canio’s former club, Swindon Town, when he became manager.
Di Canio developed a reputation as a hothead during spells as a player with British clubs Celtic, Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham and Charlton Athletic.
He was banned for 11 matches for shoving a referee in September 1998 and also had several run-ins with players during his successful 21-month stint at Swindon.
However, he said he was not worried about bruising egos at Sunderland, who sit a point above the Premier League relegation zone with seven matches to play.
“It’s better to have 15 players ready for the fight than 25 players that are completely lazy,” he said. “It would be better to find a different situation, but I think I have enough quality to work with.”