April 01, 2013
Paolo Di Canio takes over a Sunderland club one point above relegation.
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio and his employers strongly rebutted suggestions he is racist after a club executive quit in protest at the Italian's past support of fascism.

Former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband quit as Sunderland vice chairman soon after Di Canio was hired on Sunday, citing "the new manager's past political statements.''

But Sunderland indirectly accused Miliband of creating a "political circus'' since Di Canio succeeded the fired Martin O'Neill and dismissed the criticism as "insulting.''

"Talk about racism? That is absolutely stupid, stupid and ridiculous,'' Di Canio said in a statement. "The people who know me can change that idea quickly ... of course it hurts me because people try to take your dignity, and that is not fair. I believe in my pillars and I have values.''

Di Canio was fined and condemned by FIFA in 2005 for performing a straight-arm salute, adopted by the Italian Fascist regime in the early 20th century. He said at the time: "I am a fascist, not a racist.''

The Italian said the comments that led to Miliband's resignation were from an interview "many years ago'' and said his "expression (was taken) in a very, very negative way.''

"What I can say is that if someone is hurt, I am sorry,'' Di Canio said. "But this didn't come from me, it came from a big story that people put out in a different way to what it was.

"I never have a problem in my past. ... I don't have a problem with anyone. I haven't had a problem in the past.''

As criticism mounted from anti-racism groups, Sunderland chief executive Margaret Byrne said the club is satisfied with Di Canio's explanation.

"It is disappointing that some people are trying to turn the appointment of a head coach into a political circus,'' Byrne said.

Byrne said the American-owned club held "in-depth'' discussions with Di Canio before hiring him on a 2 1/2-year contract.

"He is an honest man, a man of principle and a driven, determined and passionate individual,'' Byrne said. "To accuse him now, as some have done, of being a racist or having fascist sympathies, is insulting not only to him but to the integrity of this football club.

"Paolo has spoken emotively and at length in order to clarify some of the misconceptions that surround him and historical comments and actions attributed to him in the past.''

Di Canio maintains he is not a "politics person,'' although his autobiography discussed issues such immigration in Italy.

"When I was in England my best friends were (black players) Trevor Sinclair and Chris Powell, the Charlton manager) they can tell you everything about my character,'' Di Canio said. "I don't want to talk about politics because it's not my area. We are not in the Houses of Parliament, we are in a football club.

"I want to talk about sport. I want to talk about football, my players, the board and the fans.''

Di Canio, whose first match in charge is at Chelsea on Sunday, scored more than 100 goals in over 500 appearances as a player with Lazio, Juventus, Napoli, AC Milan, Celtic and West Ham among other clubs before retiring in 2008.

In his managerial stint at Swindon, he led the team up a division into the third tier but courted controversy by criticizing some of his players in public. He quit in February, citing a number of off-field issues with the club's hierarchy.

Di Canio has now arrives at Sunderland engulfed in fresh controversy, with anti-racism activists calling on him to distance himself from fascism.

"I think there is no place in a sport, which seeks to draw out a positive impact on social relations and community, to have someone who says: `I am a fascist and I admire Mussolini','' said Piara Powar, who is from Football Against Racism in Europe.

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