Fascism and Football Collide at Swindon

Posted by on Jun 1, 2011 in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Returning to these pages for the first time since reviewing Hunting Grounds back in April 2010, NUJ member Niall Slater ponders over the recent controversy at Swindon following the arrival of new manager Paolo Di Canio.

Any visitor to the County Ground on a Saturday afternoon is virtually guaranteed to hear fans in the Town End chant their Oxford-baiting song ending in the following couplet: “Keep the red flag flying high/Cause Swindon Town will never die”. Only an incredibly naïve attendee would think this only refers to the team’s home shirt. After all, Swindon represents a heritage rooted in the industrial working-class that is somewhat at odds with the rest of predominately rural county of Wiltshire, thanks to the town’s former status as the home of Brunel’s Great Western Railway. A visit to the town’s STEAM museum, clearly displays the social history of the railway’s impact locally, as well as the collectivist trade-unionism that the industry forged on broader community.

And despite the railway works ceasing production in the late 80s, the town remains an industrial hub, the home of the large Honda and Mini car factories, as well as many business headquarters. And fans of the football club maintain a strong hold on these working class roots, particular in order to snipe at the perceived posher neighbours up the A420.

Swindon Town FC’s link to this heritage has been displayed more directly than a terrace chant half inching the tune of the Red Flag – the club received an annual sponsorship from the GMB, the UK’s third largest union to sponsor players and to use the club’s conference facilities. But that was until a fortnight ago, when Paolo Di Canio was appointed as the club’s newest manager which resulted in the withdrawal of the sponsorship from the outraged local branch.

You needn’t look too far to find out why. Di Canio has made no secret of his right-wing political beliefs, openly describing himself as a fascist, indulging in a Nazi-style straight arm salute to fans whilst at Lazio, and being open in his admiration for Benito Mussolini in his autobiography (currently available for the princely sum of 1p from Amazon Marketplace for any Robins who want to read up the new boss – his description of ex-Town boss Danny Wilson as a “frustrated nobody” may well endear him to a few fans).

The local GMB might be open to accusations of manipulating the appointment for their own publicity, and it’s also difficult to imagine their £4,000-a-year sponsorship made a massive difference to the club finances (especially when the £1.8million transfer fee received for Charlie Austin does not appear to have been enough to help strengthen the squad), but the decision does raise the question of how the owners of a club which trades off a proud working-class tradition and promotes community inclusion and cohesion square their decision to endorse a man with such questionable leanings. The appointment has certainly led to disagreement between supporters online, but we’ve yet to hear the classic ‘It’s a business decision’ from the club’s owners and rightly so, this is an area that goes beyond business. After all, Swindon is a club which lost three of its players – Alan Fowler, William Imrie and Dennis Olney – during the fight against fascism in the Second World War, and who still play at a ground which was used as British prisoner of war camp during this period.

Also concerning for Town fans is the fact that Di Canio has never managed anyone and is launching his career in the guts and grind of fourth-tier English football. It’s not a massive leap to ask whether Di Canio’s appointment is a publicity stunt by the bosses worried that relegation to League 2 will be accompanied by a fall in match day attendances.

Perhaps the big issue is that Swindon fans actually know what Di Canio’s political beliefs are and that, as a former professional footballer, he has any at all. Recent Twitter scandals have led Joe Public to acquire an unflattering view of the private lives of the players representing their clubs, but a footballer acknowledging far-right political tendencies is somewhat uncharted territory. But how many fans could confidently say that they know whether their team’s boss is a card carrying SWP member or whether he’s always felt Maggie Thatcher was the best PM the country ever had? Perhaps none of this matters, and it’s unlikely that Town fans will maintain much socialist ire if Di Canio leads their club to the league title, whilst playing beautiful football (and beating Oxford United on the way).

Where most managers either don’t ‘do’ politics or at least would rather fans believed they’re too bust to read the front pages of the papers, with Di Canio that particular genie is already out of the bottle. All this writer can hope is that he’ll show Swindon’s broad and varied fan base the same respect the club have shown him by giving him his first break in management, ensuring that he keeps his politics out of his post-match comments.

The Two Unfortunates
The non-partisan website with an eye on the Football League

7 Comments

  1. bibliopolis
    June 1, 2011

    The problem is that the word “fascism” is abused and misused to the point where it's hard to know what it means any more? Does Di Canio believe in the “corporate state,” for example, or is it merely an extreme form of nationalism for him? Does he hold racist or anti-Semitic views or is it just a kind of tribal loyalty? Perhaps if he keeps his political views to himself, it will be all right, but he hasn't done so in the past.

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  2. Gerschenkron
    June 1, 2011

    A fine post. Whilst I agree that “fascism” has become a widely confused term from its roots in Italy, Di Canio's political beliefs are clearly abhorrent and the potential for them to spill into selection decisions is deeply worry. When you add this to the current manager of England and his statements about there being too many blacks in Italy, the French quota nonsense and the general air of despair that surrounds employment and the economy for all but “high net worth individuals” you other side of the equation equals worrying times ahead.

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  3. tictactic
    June 1, 2011

    Nice piece, really interesting.

    Di Canio was a wonderful player – totally unique in every way. I think largely his talent came from his extraordinary passion, and this is an area I think he egged up. He seemed to feed from the crowd, at whatever club he’d act not only as an incredible footballer but an entertainer. When things were going right he’d play up to the fans and stepped this up by adopting their values. The hatred of Rangers while at Celtic, getting that Hammers tattoo and worst of all *those* salutes at Lazio, etc.

    But this is what makes him a complete idiot. Fair enough, playing up to fans but the minute he embraces fascism for this purpose alone (and I hope that is the reason), is the minute his credibility dies.

    The panel on BBC with Harry Redknapp reminiscing about Di Canio’s time at West Ham also tells a lot of his personality. Like a spoilt, attention seeking child throwing the toys out the pram (like the old ref push).

    He’s a fool and I’d be surprised if he’s suited at all to management – dealing with people. On the pitch he had the brilliance to force his bosses into accommodating him. But with no track record of management, this isn’t going to work the other way round.

    I try to remember him for the genius at Celtic Park, and what a player he was. Sadly tarnished by his political (and personal) stupidity.

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  4. Better Red than Dead
    June 1, 2011

    The interesting subtext to this very good article is the question of how far a fan will go to turn a blind eye to the dubious (or in this case, disgusting) politics of their owner or manager especially if this coincides with a period of success. I would personally applaud and identify with Bill Shankly's famous dictum that “The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It's the way I see football, the way I see life” but as recent events at FIFA have made clear, this is a hopelessly romantic view of a game that long since sold its soul to the highest bidder.

    As football fans and as moral individuals we often operate in two different universes. I despise Hedge Funds yet my club is owned by one; a regular on this site dislikes the Tories and yet his club is owned by a major donor to their cause. Although we are uncomfortable with this, we have not stopped supporting our respective teams but we justify this with the argument that the owners are not the club, the players and the fans are. BUT I do think it's far more difficult to make those ethical somersaults when the question is about your MANAGER'S politics. The Manager is the spiritual leader and the representative of the club and I could never ever stomach the manager of my club being someone who openly declared his support for fascism. That really would be a step too far.

    It's also impossible to somehow justify fascism and ignore racism as the two have always been intertwined. (Google Abyssinia, Italian race laws, Salo Republic, Primo Levi etc)

    I suspect as our wise OP suggests, that the appointment owes much to expedience (get the fans on board with a big name) but it leaves as bad a taste in the mouth as the castor oil used by the thugs admired by Di Canio

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  5. Lanterne Rouge
    June 2, 2011

    John Madejski saved my club in the early nineties so, despite the Conservatism referred to by Better Red than Dead, I have had to swallow my pride a bit as a Reading fan. Similarly, if an objectionable individual is a player, it's easier to dissociate oneself from his off pitch views (Russell George explored this for us in another guest post this Spring; but as has been said, the manager is in many ways the public face of one's club and it can be hard to escape his shadow – to other fans, he becomes its embodiment – not helped by terminology such as “Mick McCarthy's Wolves” or “Keith Hill's Barnsley”. That's why I worry about this appointment.

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  6. bhappy
    June 2, 2011

    As an aside and by coincidence, I re-read an old match report today which described Di Canio, in his West Ham days, as “Basil Fawlty in Italian”.

    Which is still very funny and, if you're a Swindon fan, horribly accurate.

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