SUNDERLAND were last night forced to deny that new manager Paolo Di Canio is a fascist, while the Italian himself labelled suggestions he was racist as “absolutely stupid and ridiculous”.
Black Cats chief executive Margaret Byrne spoke out to defend the former Swindon boss 24 hours after former foreign secretary David Miliband resigned from the club’s board in protest at Di Canio’s appointment.
Ex-West Ham forward Di Canio was quoted as saying in a 2005 interview “I am a fascist, not a racist”, and described Mussolini as “basically a very principled individual” in his autobiography.
But 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, who has signed a two-and-a-half-year contract as the successor to Martin O’Neill, sacked following Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Manchester United, denied being racist but did not specifically mention fascism.
“I don’t have a problem with anyone,” he said. “I haven’t had a problem in the past and I don’t know why I have to keep repeating my story, to be defending myself on something that doesn’t belong to me every time I change clubs.
“Talk about racism? That is absolutely stupid, stupid and ridiculous. The people who know me can change that idea quickly. When I was in England my best friends were Trevor Sinclair and Chris Powell, the Charlton manager – they can tell you everything about my character.
“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.”
Labour MP Miliband resigned as vice-chairman and non-executive director on Sunday, saying: “In the light of the new manager’s past political statements, I think it right to step down.”
Sunderland sit just one point above the Premier League relegation zone with seven matches remaining.