A leading Reform rabbi and the dean of Durham have attacked Sunderland AFC’s appointment of Paolo Di Canio as head coach.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain, of Maidenhead Synagogue, called on Sunderland chairman Ellis Short to resign for overlooking Mr Di Canio’s apparent fascist beliefs when hiring him this week.
The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, the son of a Holocaust survivor, said he was “baffled” by Mr Di Canio claiming not to be racist, despite having a tattoo that pays tribute to Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator.
Mr Di Canio made a straight-arm fascist salute to far-right fans while playing for Rome club Lazio in January 2005.
After making a similar gesture in December that year, he reportedly said of complaints from the Italian Maccabi Federation: “If we are in the hands of the Jewish community, it’s the end. If action is taken because one community is up in arms it could be dangerous.”
Mr Di Canio, who has written in the past of his “fascination” with Mussolini, issued a statement on Wednesday saying he was “not a racist”.
“I do not support the ideology of fascism. I am not the man that some people like to portray,” he said.
He also told journalists to “call Phil Spencer, he’s Jewish”, for a character reference. Mr Spencer, who is Mr Di Canio’s agent, said: “I’ve known him for 14 years. Paolo is aware of my Jewish heritage. I would not represent anyone who I thought was racist or antisemitic.”
Former Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband resigned from the Premier League club’s board on Sunday, citing the former West Ham United striker’s “past political statements”.
Rabbi Romain said: “If Mr Di Canio chooses to mix sport and politics by giving fascist salutes, then he turns a football game into an ideological rally and compromises supporters who came for the former. So whether or not Sunderland stay in the Premier League, the club’s reputation has been relegated by appointing Di Canio as manager.”