LONDON (AP) -- Amid increasing scrutiny of his past political statements, newly appointed Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio rebuffed questions Tuesday about whether he retains fascist sympathies.
One the Italian's first jobs was to meet with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a partner of Sunderland, to discuss the row following his appointment and for the Premier League club to offer reassurances about its commitment to fighting racism.
Di Canio was hired a day after Martin O'Neill was fired Saturday following a 1-0 loss to Manchester United, which was designated "Nelson Mandela Day'' at Sunderland to mark the new partnership with the anti-apartheid leader's foundation.
Di Canio's arrival at Sunderland prompted vice chairman David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary, to quit because of the new manager's "past political statements.''
Anti-racism campaigners have been urging Di Canio to clarify his 2005 comment that he was "a fascist, not a racist.''
Sunderland tried to prevent any questioning of Di Canio on the issue Tuesday at his first news conference amid persistent attempts by reporters to clarify if he is still a fascist.
"I don't have to answer any more this question,'' the former striker said, pointing to a statement Monday in which he denied being racist without addressing whether he is 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.''
But English football's anti-racism group, Kick It Out, wants Di Canio to be more open and warned that its activities can be "compromised by inappropriate statements.''
"Football clubs have a responsibility to ensure that their employees demonstrate a commitment to anti-discrimination and equality of opportunity,'' Kick It Out said in a statement. "It may be in the interest of both the club and Mr. Di Canio to acknowledge a full and frank commitment to these policies.''
Di Canio was condemned by FIFA and banned in Italy in 2005 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.
Union activists in northeast England are unhappy about the presumed fascist sympathies of Di Canio, who also played for Juventus, Napoli, AC Milan, Celtic and West Ham among other clubs before retiring in 2008.
Durham Miners' Association General Secretary Dave Hopper, who worked in a colliery where Sunderland's stadium now stands, said Di Canio's appointment "is a disgrace and a betrayal of all who fought and died in the fight against fascism.''
"The people who are talking in this way, they don't understand Paolo Di Canio,'' Di Canio responded. "I don't understand this problem.''
Di Canio joined team executives in a meeting Monday with the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory's Sello Hatang, who confirmed they discussed "the public debates around Sunderland's new coach.''
"The center 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 center's relationship is with the club, not with any individual in the club. "
On the pitch, Sunderland is fighting against relegation from the Premier League, sitting just a point above the drop zone with seven matches remaining.
Di Canio, who had a colorful playing career, has limited managerial experience. His only previous job ended at third-tier English club Swindon last month after a turbulent 1 1/2 years in charge.
"It is true that someone called me the `Mad Italian','' he said. "But I am not so completely mad.''
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