Evening Standard

The controversy surrounding Sunderland’s appointment of Paolo Di Canio as manager is turning into a classic soap opera. It emphasises how the hype the Premier League generates means some supporters do not understand that while football springs from society it does not represent all of society. Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly may have said football is more important than life and death but he meant it as a joke. The Di Canio froth shows the problems caused when Shankly is taken literally.

Not that there is any doubt that Di Canio is an admirer of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. This was emphasised to me in November when I interviewed him for the Standard. He was managing Swindon Town and I asked him about the references in his autobiography to Mussolini as “basically a very principled, ethical individual” who had been “deeply misunderstood”.

He did not like the question but said: “You have to read the story to understand. People claim to be communist who don’t follow exactly what the communist regime in Russia under Stalin did. I don’t take everything from one regime. I am talking of leadership. It is in my book. I don’t say I want fascism. These ideas, they begin to help people, the pensioners, to make new schools, build new cities for the people. That was good at the beginning. Then, at the end, everything went wrong for many reasons. I don’t want to go through it now because I am not a political person. I have not had one problem with anyone. I have friends who are black, Jewish.”

I accept that Di Canio’s claim of having black and Jewish friends means nothing. Many a racist uses the fact that they have a solitary black or Jewish friend as a cover to propagate their vile ideas. What would matter is if Di Canio brought his political views, however he now defines them, into his work as football manager. There is no evidence that he does.

And here we come to the nub of this ridiculous situation. A manager’s job is to train his team so that they perform to the best of their ability. The job is stressful and precarious but the idea that a football manager can shape our lives is ridiculous.

This first began to be mooted when, with Brian Clough at the height of his powers, it was suggested he could manage the country better than the then prime minister. It was an entertaining soundbite but Clough, for all his managerial gifts, would have been a disaster in No 10. No manager, not even Sir Alex Ferguson, has the sort of power to change our lives that a prime minister can through his policies.

What makes this ironic is that Sunderland are sponsored by Invest in Africa, which seeks to promote investment in that continent. And in February the High Commissioner of Uganda used Sunderland’s match with Arsenal to drum up investment in his country.

Now if Di Canio did anything to disrupt that arrangement that would be a different matter. But, I suspect, he will have his hands full keeping the club in the top flight to worry about investing in Africa. That is how it should be. To make managers into role models is elevating them to a status that they do not deserve and cannot sustain.


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