The right to be Right -- or is Di Canio's appointment a potential last straw?

Posted by Colin Randall

Richard Heathcote/Getty ImagesPaolo Di Canio signed a 2½-year contract to become Sunderland manager.

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Voltaire almost certainly did not say it, but the words commonly attributed to him -- and correctly describing his own views -- apply admirably to the appointment of Paolo Di Canio as head coach of Sunderland. He is charged with the task of saving the club from Championship shame with seven Premier League games to go.

Di Canio is reviled by many for his overtly pro-fascist outlook. He has said he is a fascist but not a racist, a distinction some will find too subtle to be much cause for reassurance.

Having pondered on this long and hard, I am just about with Voltaire (or the French philosopher's ghostwriter). Di Canio has, so far as I am aware, done nothing to incite crime (and let us not forget that incitement to hatred is a crime) and that is the limit I generally place on free speech.

That is not to say I am unconcerned that an individual, however talented in sport, holding views I find abhorrent should now be in charge of the football club I support. In the former foreign secretary David Miliband's shoes, I, too, would have been tempted to leave any formal position I held. Miliband resigned from the board of Sunderland FC because of Di Canio's "past political statements." I have the luxury of holding no such position; I am merely a fan with a platform.

There are nuances to Di Canio's political outlook that perhaps merit consideration, but I leave him to speak for himself.

But while the Sunderland owner, Ellis Short, may not fully appreciate it, this is a matter of real substance. Plenty of perfectly decent Sunderland fans will reject my view and adopt a less even-handed one. They will, like Miliband, be disgusted and vote with their feet. A few of extreme right-wing persuasion --every football club has them and how I pray it but a few -- will heartily welcome the appointment of someone they see, wrongly I hope, as "one of ours."

Sunderland, as the football club that is the object of my own passion, does not depend on this or that appointment, however controversial.

But Short should take heed of the fact that among intelligent fellow supporters there is considerable unease. Before Di Canio's appointment, I read the remarks of several to the effect that they would rather follow Sunderland in the lower leagues than follow them with a man holding such views in charge.

Even before his name was mentioned, a close friend of mine had spoken of his strong temptation not to renew the season ticket he has held for most of the past five decades. That was on purely footballing grounds; I have heard it before and did not take it seriously. But knowing that friend's own political leanings, firm though not extreme, I know precisely what he means when he now says he has "an awful lot of thinking to do."

Dark times for Sunderland AFC have suddenly grown just a little darker.

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