Mussolini tattoos and fascist salutes: The troubling political history of former Sheffield Wednesday forward Paolo Di Canio
On January 6 2005, Paulo Di Canio made his political beliefs known to the world. Caught up in the post-match hysteria of a 3-1 win for his beloved Lazio over bitter rivals Roma, the Italian, with hate in his eyes, outstretched his hand and lifted his arm to the sky.
There was no mistaking the gesture – it was a passionate and unapologetic fascist salute. The movement would be repeated several times throughout his Lazio tenure as he developed relationships with members the club’s far-right supporter groups.
The former Sheffield Wednesday forward has a tattoo on his right arm spelling ‘DVX’, a latin derivation of ‘Il Duce’, the nickname given to former Italian leader Benito Mussolini, who’s role in positioning Italy as the Nazis’ most closely-held ally during the Second World War is a matter of fact. He has made no secret of this tattoo, and in 2013 was suspended from his role as a football pundit on Sky Italia for displaying it on-screen.
In 2010 a national newspaper published photographs of a large tattoo on Di Canio’s back, which appeared to display a portrait of Mussolini beneath an imperial eagle holding the fasces, the original symbol of fascism in Italy in the 1920s.
Mussolini, who’s biggest known issue with Nazism was that it ‘lacked sophistication’, is on record describing Hitler as ‘an old sentimentalist’ and described how Nazi Germany and fascist Italy shared ‘a common destiny’. Di Canio’s 2001 autobiography describes Mussolini as “basically a very principled, ethical individual” who was “deeply misunderstood”.
Di Canio is understood to have a friendship with Mussolini’s granddaughter and in 2010 was photographed at the funeral of a Paolo Signorelli, a convicted neo-fascist convicted of his involvement in the Bologna Massacre of 1980, a terrorist attack on a train station that killed 85 people.
In the months after his first Rome derby salute, Di Canio attempted to offer clarity of his political beliefs, but delivered more questions than answers.
“I am a fascist, not a racist,” he said.
“I give the straight arm salute because it is a salute from a ‘camerata’ to ‘camerati’,” [Italian words for advocates of Mussolini's fascist movement]
“The salute is aimed at my people. With the straight arm I don't want to incite violence and certainly not racial hatred.”
It’s as clear as he’s managed in the intervening years. A whirlwind of controversy follows Di Canio wherever he goes and when he was unveiled as Sunderland manager back in 2013, he refused to deny his fascist beliefs, telling reporters he didn’t think it was necessary to explain himself.
Days later, in a storm of exit-bound sponsors and the resignation of prominent Labour politician David Miliband from the club’s board, he backtracked, releasing a statement that said: “I am not political, I do not affiliate myself to any organisation, I am not a racist and I do not support the ideology of fascism. I respect everyone.”
One thing Di Canio did deny with more gumption is the alleged racial abuse of his player Jonathan Tehoue, reportedly in front of his team mates, while manager of Swindon Town a year earlier. The FA investigated the matter but it came to nothing.
The Italian’s last public statement on his beliefs came in 2016. Speaking to British GQ, he said: “I am the least racist man in the world.
“I treat black guys, Jewish guys, Arabic people, Catholics, exactly the same. If I called somebody a ‘stupid black guy’, to me that betrays stupidity in the same way that if you call me a stupid ‘eye-tie’,” he said.
“Black. White. Red. Stupid green. Stupid white. Stupid f***ing Chinese. Stupid f***ing Canadian. The common point in all that is not the racism, but the stupidity.”
He claimed he is ‘not a political person’. He spoke not of his Mussolini tattoos.
Speaking in the days after Di Canio’s appointment at Sunderland, A Love Supreme fanzine editor Martyn McFadden said: “Some are saying why bring politics into it, but others, including people whose parents and grandparents fought and died in the second world war, disagree strongly with that.” Quite.
Less than two weeks ago, Hillsborough fell silent in solemn remembrance of the men and women that died protecting these shores from the threat of European fascism during the Second World War. Yesterday it welcomed Paolo Di Canio back through the doors.
Forget the Alcock push, forget the goals, the glamour and the rose-tinted vignettes of his time at Sheffield Wednesday. Forget the tantrums and the manner of his departure from S6.
There are much bigger, much more difficult questions to ponder when it comes to Paolo Di Canio.