After a lifeless home defeat to Manchester Utd Saturday, Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill was sacked for the first time in his 26-year managerial career.
At Leicester in the 1990s, the Ulsterman was treated like a God after two League Cup wins and three top-10 Premiership finishes. The former law student—famed for his forensic approach—also won multiple titles at Celtic and was at various stages in his career tipped to be both England manager and a successor to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester Utd.
Yet after defeat to the Red Devils—The Black Cats' fifth loss in a winless run of eight games—O'Neill finds himself with no job and the wilting remains of a reputation he has worked so hard to build.
While O'Neill's dismissal has evoked some controversy and disputation, it is nothing compared to the circus that is currently revolving around his replacement.
Late Sunday night, Sunderland announced a two-and-a-half year deal with Paolo Di Canio.
In his first year of management last season, the Italian guided Swindon Town to the top of League Two but resigned in February following financial disputes. He was, by all accounts, pretty successful at the County Ground.
Yet while some may doubt he has the credentials and experience to survive a Premier League relegation battle, most of the headlines have been dominated by Di Canio's political leanings.
The former West Ham and Sheffield Wednesday forward is an outspoken fascist. On several occasions while playing for Lazio, he celebrated with a Roman salute, known better as a Nazi salute. He has a tattoo dedicated to Benito Mussolini, and praises the fascist dictator at length in his autobiography.
When asked to defend his Nazi salute celebrations, the hot-tempered Italian simply said "I'm a fascist, not a racist."
Fascism—or any kind of extreme political belief—is not compatible with the beautiful game. FIFA has a ban on any kind of political gesture on the field, and Di Canio once received a £7,000 fine for his salute antics. More recently, a Greek midfielder was handed a national team ban for a Nazi salute but has continued to insist he has no political affiliation in subsequent disciplinary hearings.
Di Canio is not the only man in the game with fascist beliefs—Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati is one example of a similarly minded footballer. It should also be noted that there was very little fuss when he was handed the reins at Swindon Town.
Yet his appointment at Sunderland feels particularly ill judged due to the traditional socialist leanings of the club. Tyne and Wear is a working class area and a stronghold for the Labour Party. Fans will often sing a version left-wing protest song "The Red Flag."
Minutes after Di Canio's appointment, Labour Member of Parliament David Miliband resigned from his position on the Sunderland board, stepping down "in light of the manager's past political statements."
Miliband isn't the only one being driven away by the Italian's arrival. Bob Hudson, an academic at Durham University has been attending Black Cats games since 1955 but now describes himself as a "former Sunderland AFC supporter."
Ellis Short has made one of the worst decisions in the history of #SAFC. Ripped the heart out of the club as far as I'm concerned.— Bob Hudson (@SAFCBOB) March 31, 2013
Elsewhere on Twitter, it has been pointed out that Sunderland signed a partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation the day before they appointed a fascist manager. The Foundation may not be entirely pleased with this apparent hypocrisy.
Aside from his political beliefs, Di Canio might prove to be a volatile presence at a time of crisis at the Stadium of Light. This is a man who rarely contained his temper on the pitch—just ask referee Paul Alcock. This is a man who ranted after getting sent off from the dugout at Swindon and who punched one of his own players.
Is a manager with such a short fuse and an utter disregard for invoking controversy the type of person to lead the club out of such a sticky situation?
Di Canio now has seven games in which to prove himself, including visits to Chelsea, Tottenham, Aston Villa and the Tyne-Wear derby. That's away days at two Champions League contenders and two fellow relegation battlers.
If he manages to turn the club around to winning ways, owner Ellis Short's gamble of bringing in a relatively inexperienced manager at such a crucial time will have paid off. Provided he is not overt in political discussion, perhaps Sunderland's socialist contingent will even tolerate his presence in time.
Yet his appointment is definitely a gamble and one that has undoubtedly struck a sour note at the club. Sunderland are now losing the public relations battle, hopefully at the expense of surviving the relegation one.
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