Political Football: Paolo Di Canio
Updated on 26 February 2008
Notorious for his fascist salute when Lazio beat Roma, Paolo Di Canio inspires love, fear and loathing. And he makes it into Simon Kuper's Political Football First XI.
It was a bizarre sight - as if it were 1938 again, and English and German footballers were performing the Hitler salute before their international in Berlin. But it was 2005, and Paolo Di Canio, the Lazio forward, was bringing the stiff-armed "Roman salute" to Lazio's fans.
Di Canio's salutes - I count at least three at different Lazio games - earn him a place in our political footballers' XI. In this lean and balding figure, many themes of modern Italian history come together.
The salute "did not have any meaning," said Italy's former and possibly next prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who added that Di Canio was "a good lad".
Berlusconi was wrong on at least the first count. Perhaps he assumed that Di Canio shared his own politics of empty show. In fact, the player's salutes locate him on one side of Italy's unfinished civil war.
Di Canio, who turns 40 in July, grew up in a working-class and mostly left-wing Roman neighbourhood, notes Gabriele Marcotti, ghostwriter of his autobiography*. As a child, he could therefore shock by becoming a rightist. The right-wing and left-wing terrorism of the Italian 1970s touched his childhood.
His salute 'did not have any meaning,' said Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, adding that Di Canio was 'a good lad'.
But so did Lazio. Di Canio was a Lazio fan before he became a player, and in the 1970s, many of Lazio supporters (and a few of their players) were weekend fascists.
Simon Martin, author of the wonderful history Football and Fascism**, told me that when the fascists actually ruled Italy, from 1922 to 1943-1945, Lazio weren't a particularly fascist club.
Their rivals Roma, by contrast, were founded by a leading fascist. Martin said that fascism "really comes in at Lazio in the 1960s or 1970s. It's difficult to pinpoint where it comes from."
But it's definitely there. The club itself backed Di Canio following his salute after Lazio beat Roma. "The result on the field was well deserved and celebrations by players and fans were absolutely legitimate," a Lazio statement said.
Of course many Lazio fans abhor this sort of thing. One told me that Di Canio's salutes had turned him into a supporter of Roma, the arch-enemy.
When football fans shout fascist rubbish, it doesn't necessarily mean they are fascist. Hardcore fans simply like symbols that will shock. Many wouldn't recognise a real historical fascist if one bit them on the leg.
Within Italian fan culture, Di Canio's salute (to saluting Lazio fans) meant first of all: "I am a devoted Lazio fan, just like you." Lazio fans, like millions of people today, treat football symbols as more meaningful than political symbols.
A very political man
But political symbols do mean something to Di Canio. When he said, "I am a professional footballer and my celebrations had nothing to do with political behaviour of any kind," it was a ludicrous statement. He is a very political man, if a weird and stupid one, who has thought a lot about fascism.
Marcotti says: "I think what appeals to Paolo about fascism is the authoritarian nature. He likes the idea of the strong man."
Hence Di Canio's self-confessed "fascination" with Benito Mussolini. A tattoo on his right biceps reads "Dux" - Latin for "leader" - in honour of the late fat clown. Of course, Di Canio combines his authoritarianism with an anti-authoritarianism that attracts him to the offensive gesture.
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Simon Kuper is in the process of nominating his Political Football First XI - 11 footballers whose lives have acquired a dimension outside the sport they play.
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But in his flirt with fascism, Di Canio is not alone in Italy. The country has never quite resolved the fighting that raged between partisans and fascists in the final years of world war two.
"We fought a vicious civil war," notes Marcotti, "and some of the people who fought in it are alive today." Martin points out that Mussolini's birthplace Predappio is now a site of fascist pilgrimages, where fascist paraphernalia are sold as souvenirs.
And the Alleanza Nazionale party, whose origins are partly in neo-fascism, served in all three coalition governments under Berlusconi. If a German footballer had given a Nazi salute, every sane person in Germany would have condemned it. But Italy's relationship with fascism is more complex.
Fear and loathing in Lazio
Left-wing Italy did condemn Di Canio. But then, of all western European countries, Italy may be the one most polarised between right and left.
If a German footballer had given a Nazi salute, every sane person in Germany would have condemned it.
This divide will be a theme in the country's elections in April: Berlusconi likes to call his opponents "communists". Defenders of Di Canio say that the "communist" clenched-fist salutes by the former Livorno player Cristiano Lucarelli are just as bad as the fascist salutes.
These squabbles will last much longer than Di Canio, who now plays for Cisco Roma in Italy's Serie C2 and is expected to retire this summer. So much Italian fear and loathing comes together in this one man.
In our Political Football XI he plays up front with Matthias Sindelar, the Austrian forward who retired and then swiftly died after the Nazis invaded his country. But perhaps they'd better not room together.
Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times
Channel 4 News Political Football XI (so far)
Defence Franz Beckenbauer
Midfield Walter Tull, Neil Lennon, Diego Maradona, Zvonomir Boban
Forwards Matthias Sindelar, George Weah, Paolo Di Canio
* Paolo Di Canio and Gabriele Marcotti, Paolo Di Canio (CollinsWillow, £6.99)
** Simon Martin, Football and Fascism: The National Game under Mussolini (Berg, £17.99)