Paolo Cocco/AFP - Getty Images, file
Paolo Di Canio gives a straight-arm salute to toward Lazio soccer fans after a game against Roma in Italy in January 2005.
The Anti-Defamation League has called for American businessman Ellis Short to fire the newly appointed head coach of his English soccer team amid claims he is a fascist.
Paulo Di Canio was put in charge of Premier League team Sunderland AFC this week despite previously praising Italy’s World War II dictator Benito Mussolini, reportedly declaring himself a “fascist” and giving straight-arm salutes to fans in his home country Italy.
The former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband resigned on Sunday as vice president of the club “in the light of the new manager’s past political statements.”
Amid growing uproar, Di Canio has previously declined to answer questions about his political views, but Sunderland issued a brief statement Wednesday in which Di Canio denied being a fascist or a racist.
"I feel that I should not have to continually justify myself to people who do not understand this, however I will say one thing only -- I am not the man that some people like to portray," he said. "I am not political, I do not affiliate myself to any organization, I am not a racist and I do not support the ideology of fascism. I respect everyone."
Di Canio poses for photographs after taking over as Sunderland's new coach on Tuesday.
However, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, dismissed the statement and said Wednesday that Di Canio should be fired, comparing him to sacked Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice.
"I would say sports is a very special category. Sports plays a very important role with young people," he said. "I would say racism or bigotry reverberates in a greater way, so the standard needs to be much higher than, I would say, the manager of a garage."
"Our society uses athletes and sports figures not only to sell Wheaties and sneakers, but also because they are looked up to as role models," he said. "Here [with Di Canio], I think firing is appropriate."
'His job is at stake'
Foxman said he believed people could have "an epiphany" about past mistakes and be given a second chance if they had genuinely changed.
"This is not one of those. He [Di Canio] is very clear what he is. He's both a fascist and a racist and he's proud of it," he said.
"For the moment, he denies it [being a fascist and a racist] because his job is at stake," he added.
A spokesman for Sunderland AFC said the club and Short would not be making any further comment when told of Foxman's call for Di Canio to be fired. Short said Monday that Di Canio was "passionate, driven and raring to get started."
Short made his fortune in the financial industry, previously working for companies including Lone Star Funds, an international, Dallas-based private equity firm.
In 2005, Italian news agency ANSA reported Di Canio had said he was “a fascist, not a racist.” In a statement issued by Sunderland on Monday, Di Canio appeared to suggest his remarks had been taken out of context.
Di Canio was fined twice in 2005 by soccer authorities for giving the straight-arm fascist salute, ANSA said.
The U.K.’s Guardian newspaper also noted that in his autobiography Di Canio wrote that Mussolini’s actions “were often vile. But all this was motivated by a higher purpose. He was basically a very principled individual."
In May 2012, Di Canio, then in charge of Swindon Town soccer club, dismissed a complaint of racism made by a black player at the club, Jonathan Tehoue, as a "non-story," BBC News reported. Swindon Town, however, said in a letter to Tehoue's lawyers that it "does not condone" what it described as "inappropriate" remarks made to the player by Di Canio and apologized.
Di Canio's appointment to the Sunderland job prompted a leading clergyman, the Very Rev. Michael Sadgrove, the Dean of Durham, to write an emotional open letter to him.
Sadgrove, writing before Wednesday’s statement was issued by the club, said he was a Sunderland fan and "the child of a Jewish war refugee who got out of Germany and came to Britain just in time."
"Some of her family and friends perished in the Nazi death camps. So I find your self-confessed fascism deeply troubling,” he said.
“Fascism was nearly the undoing of the world. It cost millions of innocent lives. Mussolini, who you say has been deeply misunderstood, openly colluded with it,” he said.
“You say that you are not a racist, but it needs great sophistication to understand how fascism and racism are ultimately different,” he added.
Sadgrove said that “unless you clearly renounce fascism in all its manifestations, you will be associated with these toxic far-right tendencies we have seen too much of in this region.”