Paolo Di Canio’s appointment at Sunderland this week has caused a stir, not because some fans do not believe him to be capable of saving the club from relegation, nor because some fans see the sacking of Martin O’Neil as futile, but because of the Italian’s past comments involving the value of fascism under Mussolini.
David Miliband, former British Foreign Secretary, resigned from the Sunderland board this week because of Di Canio’s comments and the Durham Miners’ Association have requested their banner back from the Stadium of Light, citing that the Italian’s appointment is a “disgrace and a betrayal of all who fought and died in the fight against fascism”.
It is worth pointing out that for all the resignations, condemnations and campaigns from authorities such as Kick It Out, no one is willing to stand up for Di Canio’s freedom of expression. Miliband and the DMA have both clearly been allowed to express their political convictions and as long as the new Sunderland manager doesn’t discriminate or oppress, as he hasn’t, then surely he can believe what he likes?
The controversy once again brings up the debate as to whether football is the forum in which to take a stance and stand up for moral values, supposedly reflecting the convictions of its supporters, or if pure pragmatism should be implemented in the search for sporting glory.
There is no doubt that football in Britain has all the attributes in which to stage a significant and valuable protest against a cause, due to the undying support that it enjoys from huge parts of the population. Unlike politicians, football clubs can make statements and carry out actions which in some cases are blindly supported by fans and do not result in a club being thrown out of the football world.
However, taking a political stance is not rewarded in the sphere of sport. If Sunderland had passed up on hiring Di Canio and went on to be relegated from the Premier League, I cannot see David Miliband or the Durham Miners’ Association propping up the club financially next season in the Championship.
The bad image that football has in some parts of the media and within certain communities is down to the cold ruthlessness with which it strives for success.
Marlon King, who was jailed for sexually assaulting a woman and breaking her nose, has enjoyed huge success at Coventry and Birmingham since leaving prison. When King originally joined Coventry the supporters were in uproar over the message sent to female fans by the signing; by the time he left after a successful season (scoring twelve goals in twenty eight games) the same fans were angry that he had been allowed to leave.
King, along with Watford’s Troy Deeney (jailed for his part in beating up a group of students), have both been embraced by their respective clubs and have this week been named in the Top 50 Football League Players by football magazine FourFourTwo, so their attributes aren’t just enjoyed by bias supporters who may be more willing to forgive.
In the increasingly financial world of British football, where the drive for victory is handsomely rewarded, you cannot expect clubs to take the moral high ground for which there is no trophy or prize money. There is no doubt that if chairmen, supporters and the authorities made the most of the influence they have to become good role models then their communities would benefit immeasurably, but that seems a long time off yet.