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Caution needed in Di Canio storm

Lee Wellings questions belated reaction to the fascist roots of Sunderland's new manager Paolo Di Canio.
Last modified: 3 Apr 2013 15:08

I didn't think I'd be returning to the subject of racism in football quite this quickly.

But the stories are coming thick and fast as is the political manoeuvring from football's leaders.

So the last thing that is needed is anything that threatens to dilute the very real, very serious issue of racism in football 2013. Anything that is grey - not black and white - poses a big problem. And yet it seems for each disgusting act from the terraces or on the pitch there is now an inconclusive allegation. Incidents that are leaving some room for misinterpretation and dispute. NO wiggle room can be afforded. Ask Anton Ferdinand.

We'll come back to the alleged chants against his brother, the Al Jazeera pundit (and Manchester United and England footballer) Rio Ferdinand.

But first the case which has compelled me to write about racism again. That of the new Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio.

The headlines and the facts paint a clear picture of a man who is fascist and proud, brash and unrepentant in his political and historical choices.

- as a boy he was initiated as an Ultra, an extreme supporter of Lazio with fascist overtones
- he has a tattoo of the latin word dux (leader), the nickname of Mussolini. He was quoted as calling Mussolini a 'principled, ethical character who was basically misunderstood'
- in 2005 things came to a head when he repeatedly raised his right arm to Lazio supporters in a fascist salute
- he compounded this by saying: 'I am a fascist not racist'.

His politics are questionable at the very least. But there is an important aspect of this story that is being ignored and it's bothering me. Why now? Why is this a big issue because he is taking charge of an English Premier League club?

Because as far as I can see there hasn't - thankfully - been a fascist-related incident in the last few months, days, hours, years. So why does his appointment as Sunderland manager change the situation from 2005? Because what does that make Swindon Town Football Club in English League One? An irrelevance? A figment of the Football Association's Imagination? Or a football club with every bit as much right to be respected as Sunderland.

Di Canio in a new job is not the time to be dealing with this. 2005 was.

If you want some active football racism from 2013 to tackle and take action trust me it's there, you don't need to look hard for it.

It's been there with the continued disgusting incidents in Serie A, heaping shame on a league that needs to take crisis action, or let FIFA take it for them.

More bananas waved at Mario Balotelli at club level while he continues to show admirable restraint and fire in goals for his country (terrible how that's less newsworthy than him reacting or causing trouble). Even Milan's President's relations have racially abused him and he's managed to rise above it.

More fines for Lazio, for their abuse of black players, for their anti-semitism, basically anything they can show Ultra-contempt for. A club whose banners should by now read 'time to ban us from European football'.

And elsewhere another confused, complicated racist storm in English football involving alleged racist chants at Rio Ferdinand from England fans. Or were they? I promise I'll get to that.

So why did Di Canio's appointment at Sunderland open such a can of worms in the UK? Well largely through the actions of David Miliband, the man who lost out to his brother Ed in a political party leader battle (a story that reads like a political thriller but with two less than thrilling male leads.)

Miliband quit as vice-chairman of Sunderland within minutes of the north east English club announcing Di Canio would replace the sacked Martin O'Neill.

All very exciting for casual football observers trying desperately to get an understanding of what makes the game newsworthy. But David Miliband is to football what Wayne Rooney is to politics. His decision to quit, while very possibly noble, is almost entirely irrelevant to the running of this EPL club and this racism story. With respect, he's not important enough.

And so I say again - why is Di Canio being a fascist okay when he was Swindon manager but not Sunderland?

What is the end game for those making a stand? For him to do a u-turn and not manage Sunderland? To apologise for his politics? To be removed from football? Those who expect him to turn his back on the past have clearly not met him, or been near him...or read his autobiography. Don't hold your breath for him to cave into pressure. Ellis Short and the Sunderland board, rightly or wrongly, have made their decision so what's the most likely outcome?

I'll tell you. Sunderland will play a few games under him. They will win some, lose some and be relegated or stay up. And that's what people will then talk about. This will blow over.

And that's why it's a concern - because racism must stay in the headlines. Current cases. Active cases. I am worried this is the wrong case to pursue, however shocking Di Canio's actions. And if anyone wants to be pompous and pious enough in the media - plenty of them - to show incredulity at his appointment then I want to see what they wrote when he was appointed Swindon manager. Or was that not big time enough for them? The GMB (a general trade union) had a problem with it and withdrew sponsorship. But who else highlighted/challenged it?

In my previous column on racism I explained why this was such a vital time for tackling the incessant racism in the game. How Blatter has become a wannabe crusader, how desperately FIFA and UEFA need proper sanctions. How pivotal some of the high profile cases might be. The relegations and expulsions that feature in Blatter's rhetoric need to become reality because fines and closed stadiums don't work. We'll see how far FIFA carry through their threats when their Congress meets in May.

I talked about the excellent work of FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe).

But now I see danger. FARE did not have observers at San Marino v England yet reported the 'racist chants' about Rio Ferdinand to FIFA because of media reporting of the comments. Their intentions may be pure but they must know by now they are on unstable ground with this kind of allegation.

Remember how the Terry/Ferdinand case came from a complaint made by a retired police officer rather than Anton Ferdinand. Anyone who thought that would stand up in court clearly wasn't across English law.

Remember how the Society of black lawyers reported something they didn't hear first hand. The alleged abuse of a Chelsea player by an English referee. Guess what? It didn't happen. Dangerous, dangerous times. Hung by hearsay, trial by twitter.

I am not saying all those being accused are all innocent. The Football Association Independent tribunal certainly didn't think Terry was innocent of all charges and found him guilty of using "abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour, which included a reference to ethnic origin and/or colour and/or race" .

I am saying the accusations and indignation of people who didn't hear racist abuse is a dangerous thing. Kevin-Prince Boeteng? There's a man who heard it. Poor Jozy Altidore, horribly abused in Dutch football. He heard it. Mario Balotelli has every right to report incidents. But I worry FARE may have got this one wrong. Unless they know they can get proof that chants happened AND prove the FA have a case to answer. Which is debatable.

I don't dispute that some England fans had a racist element in their venom towards Ferdinand. Others may not have. The evidence is not on the same level as the racist Serbian chants against black England players in Krusevac that UEFA have failed to act on properly.

I have spent over 20 years covering England matches abroad and I know that an element of the fans are moronic losers. Giving themselves some form of identity by heading to a small European country with their mates and chanting pointless rubbish to try and look big.

But my fear is there is too much doubt about the racist motive for it to be a compelling case. The song about throwing him on the bonfire has been used in other non-racist contexts. It's the mention of Anton - with the John Terry link - that arouses most suspicion but imagine trying to prove it in a disciplinary hearing within football, let alone in a court of law.

So I was pleased to see Ferdinand show some restraint and common sense on this occasion, despite the dramatic headlines claiming he 'blasted back' at the fans etc. Good on him.

"You expect+accept banter from fans on the terraces as its part of what makes the game great, but racism is not banter,& from ya own fans. WOW," Ferdinand tweeted.

"Always a small minority who ruin it for others. Let's not jump to conclusions + assume though as it might just have been banter. We'll see after the investigation."

The emphatic undoubted cases of racism in European football are there and it's these on which action must be taken. This may be frustrating for those who heard the chanting from England fans but I'm afraid life isn't always fair and the law can be an ass for sure. You have to be clever and discerning - yes I wish it wasn't the case too but I've covered all of the court cases and hearings around racism in English football and this has become clear to me.

There is too much history and spite in the Ferdinand case and too much distance in the Di Canio case for these to be the right cases to squash racism in football. Be more judicious with the campaigns and the battles and there is more chance of tackling it.

The target should not be Paolo Di Canio, the eccentric, temperamental, misguided, confusing, narcissistic fascist, one of the greatest players I've ever seen but a man whose autobiography too often reveals a nasty side. Don't try and target him for his actions in 2005. A little too late in this case I'm afraid.

A first target should be his beloved Lazio and other hotbeds for racist fans. It's going on again and again. Repeat offenders United. Kick them out of European football for a while, relegate them from Serie A and we'll see who wants to wave a banana at a black player or like Di Canio did eight years ago, raise his right arm in sinister fashion.

Let's make sure Di Canio wouldn't dare do this in 2013, not question his right to manage a new club two years too late.

This column appears on the Insideworldfootball.com website where Lee Wellings represents Al Jazeera.