1 Apr 2013

Can Sunderland justify appointing Di Canio?

It was only a few months ago that I had the PR folk from Sunderland on the blower – rightly proud that they were launching a new partnership with the Mandela Foundation on social justice projects in the UK and Africa.

Sunderland is not alone in turning to charity campaigns for shirt money.  Ok. the Black Cats are not quite Barcelona – who famously teamed up with UNICEF nearly a decade ago, before accepting oil money in the form of the Qatar Foundation last year.

But one of the biggest British brands of the North East unveiled Invest in Africa as their kit sponsors at the start of the 2012/2013 season.

What does this mean?  It means that clubs do realise they have a social responsibility, and they care about their brand.

Now they are of course also businesses.  And believe it or not Sunderland is one of the biggest clubs in the world.

Global accountancy firm Deloitte publishes something called the “football money league” each and every year.  And according to Deloitte, at the end of last season Sunderland was, at least in cold terms of revenue, in 29th spot.

That’s big by anyone’s measure.

Which is why they can afford to try and do something a little different with their brand.

And it’s also why they’ve found themselves in hot water over the appointment of “I’m a fascist but not a racist” Paolo Di Canio.

Now in pure “football terms” (and where have we heard that phrase before?) who would doubt Di Canio’s prowess, either on the field or indeed from the touchlines in his latter day managerial career.

He’s good at football.  Really good.

But his abilities with a ball are tarnished by his fondness for the kind of raised right arm salute (see below left) that one doubts the Mandela Foundation has little truck with.

Or indeed Sunderland’s shirt sponsors Invest In Africa.

I understand the outgoing local MP David Miliband made it very clear to Sunderland before they appointed Di Canio that he would walk if the Italian came.  And now he has. OK, so that’s hardly a terrifying ultimatum – and in any case one might well wonder how the former foreign secretary would have managed to remain in his position on the Sunderland board given he is soon moving to the US.

But the point is the club have made a curious choice.  The fans will doubtless forgive them if Di Canio brings them trophies.  But will their new found corporate friends stick around – the likes who’ve invested heavily in a brand that appeared, at least for a while, to be about social justice?

Well, it is all about business.  And clearly Sunderland feels the benefits outweigh the risks.

Lord Herman Ousley, chair of the FA’s anti racism campaign Kick it Out, puts it thus: “He’s not a nice person in the context of British football – but he has a right to work here”.

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