Sunderland’s Di Canio controversy won’t deter Mandela Centre

By Ant Sims 4 April 2013

Paolo Di Canio hasn’t even been in charge of Sunderland AFC for a week and he’s already caused a stir. The manager was previously reported to have Fascist sympathies. But one of the club’s partners, The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, believes Sunderland remains firmly committed to the value of human rights and anti-racism. By ANT SIMS.

Newly appointed Sunderland manager, Paolo Di Canio, has in the past been reported to have fascist sympathies. Now, he has come under more scrutiny, particularly over whether he has retained those views. His appointment has caused an uproar in the British media and is also causing a stir in South Africa owing to the club’s link with The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.

The two teamed up in March this year, in a move which was labelled a “first for world football” as the club vowed to promote the former president’s “legacy of social justice outside the purely political arena following his retirement”.

The club had said that it hoped to use the foundation’s expertise to help with off-field work, like  raising awareness about social issues, like diversity and to eradicate racism from the game. (Interestingly, Di Canio was appointed as manager of the club after Sunder lost to Manchester United in a game dubbed “Nelson Mandela Day”.)

The deal is due to last for 18 months and will include fundraising initiatives.

Of course, ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’ are different things, but the club’s vice-chairman David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary, thought the appointment serious enough to quit his position – all while the Sunderland manager insisted his previous statements had been given too much weight. Di Canio said:  “I expressed an opinion in an interview many years ago. Some pieces were taken for media convenience.

“I don’t have to answer any more this question,” the former striker added, pointing to a statement on Monday in which he denied being racist without addressing whether he was a fascist.

“My life speaks for me, so there is no need to speak any more about this situation because it’s ridiculous and pathetic. I can’t every two weeks, every two months, every 10 months answer the same questions that are not really in my area. We are in a football club and not in the House of Parliament. I’m not a political person. I will talk about only football.”

In 2005, Di Canio was condemned by FIFA and banned in Italy in after performing a straight-arm salute – adopted by the Italian Fascist regime in the early 20th century – in front of the fans of his Lazio team. Outrage has been bubbling since his appointment, and the Durham Miners’ Association General Secretary Dave Hopper, who worked in a colliery where Sunderland’s stadium now stands, called the appointment  “a disgrace and a betrayal of all who fought and died in the fight against fascism.”

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Photo: Lazio’s Di Canio celebrates with nazi salute after winning against AS Roma in a Serie A clash at the Olympic Stadium in Rome. January 6, 2005. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

The manager met up with team executives on Monday to talk to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory’s Sello Hatang, who confirmed they discussed “the public debates around Sunderland’s new coach.”

After the meeting, those in charge of deals for the Centre insist everything is fine and they are still content with their partnership. 

“The centre recently entered into a partnership with the club designed to promote the legacy of our Founder Nelson Mandela and to help ensure the future sustainability of the center,” Hatang said in a statement. “At the heart of the partnership is a commitment to our founder’s values with a special focus on human rights and anti-racism.

“At the meeting on Monday, Sunderland reaffirmed its commitment to these values and the ethos of the partnership. It must be stressed that the centre’s relationship is with the club, not with any individual in the club. “

Fascism and working together to eradicate inequality seem to directly contradict each other, but should one individual’s affiliation with a club be the beginning and end of all sponsorships? The reality is complex.

Jonathan Wilson, author and UK football expert, believes the key is a broader approach and that getting hung up on managers is still something still very prevalent in English football – that approaching an overall policy is often difficult.

“Ideally there’d be a holistic approach at clubs, so sponsors and partners work in conjunction with the playing side. That rarely happens at English clubs because we’re still so hung up on the cult of the manager. Swansea have shown the benefit of adopting a policy at board level and appointing a coach to enact that, leading to less wastage in terms of players. Sunderland, though, are incoherent at that level – each new manager brings in his own men. That makes it very hard to create an overall policy. There’s something very disturbing, though, about the notion of sponsors or partners being able to dictate things on the playing side – the playing side must come first,” Wilson told The Daily Maverick.

Wilson also says that the centre having spoken to the coach is a positive sign and while Di Canio might be coy and reluctant to air his views in public, perhaps he is quite happy to discuss where he stands in private.

“What’s encouraging, though, is that the Nelson Mandela Centre has spoken to Di Canio – actually found out what he thinks before making a judgement, unlike Miliband and most of the British media,” Wilson added.

Feverishly jumping to conclusions has never ended well and while Miliband was one of those who upped and left, the Mandela Centre has opted for a different approach, one Wilson believes is positive.

“As far as I’m aware, there’s no evidence whatsoever of Di Canio being racist; quite the reverse, so it then depends what he means by ‘fascism’ and if he still identifies himself as ‘fascist’, which is unclear. The furore seems to result from an over-eagerness to condemn and a reluctance to explain. Nobody comes out of it well,” he concluded. DM

Photo: Sunderland’s new coach Paolo Di Canio poses for photographs during a media conference at the football club’s training academy in Sunderland, northern England April 2, 2013. Di Canio sought to play down the controversy over his appointment as Sunderland manager on Tuesday and said he would bet everything he had on the club staying in the Premier League. REUTERS/Nigel Roddis


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