UEFA, the European football (soccer football for the course of this discussion) organization, has been working for some time to stamp out racism. I’ve discussed it before, but it’s been a very real and very severe problem. Before a recent match between Liverpool and Zenit St. Petersberg, which was to take place in Russia, the head of one of Zenit’s largest fangroups wrote an open letter to the team saying that they shouldn’t allow opposing teams to bring black or gay players. Some organizations take suitably harsh steps: English Premier League teams have numbers all over the stadium that someone can text if they see racist behavior, and that will often result in a lifetime ban for that fan. One player, actually, faced criminal charges when it was thought he used a slur on the field.
That’s just a little background for the next bit.
One of the Premier League teams is Sunderland FC. Sunderland hasn’t recently performed terribly well, and this year they’re facing relegation. Saturday, after another loss, they fired their manager. Sunday evening, they hired a new one, Paulo di Canio, a former Italian player who has managed a few teams now. Nobody really paid attention with the previous teams, but then something interesting happened: One of Sunderland’s board of directors, who happens to be a very big name in politics, abruptly resigned from the board over the appointment.
Why? di Canio made a stir back in 2005 when, as a player, he threw the Nazi salute at some fans. On its own that might not be an issue… misinterpreted gesture possibly. But at the time it led the media to ask him about whether this was seen as racist. He said no, of course he’s not racist… he’s Fascist. Then folks read his autobiography in which he described Mussolini as a great man… deeply misunderstood (although he did decry some of his acts as a dictator). Ah, and then there’s the fact that he has a Mussolini tattoo.
Nobody would have noticed this time, either, if that director hadn’t resigned. And now there’s a firestorm over whether this implies racism, whether this is appropriate for the club, whether this flies in the face of the town’s bombing in WW2, and what message this sends to the racist fans who have been getting banned.
And I’m loving every minute of it. It’s probably easier that it’s a team I really don’t care for of course, but the response is so hilarious. The team released a statement saying it was “insulting” to call the guy fascist, even though he self described as such. Hardcore fans are damning David Miliband, the director, for standing up for his principles and resigning. Some have even decried it as fascist to not support his fascist views, oddly.
At any rate, on the 14th of April, Sunderland will play their bitter, bitter rivals Newcastle United (for whom I have a soft spot) in the traditional Tyne-Wear Derby which is traditionally a properly ugly match. I’m really very much looking forward to that one.