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Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio and his employers strongly rebutted suggestions he is racist after a club executive quit in protest at the Italian's past support of fascism.
Former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband quit as Sunderland vice chairman soon after Di Canio was hired on Sunday, citing â€œthe new manager's past political statements.â€
But Sunderland indirectly accused Miliband of creating a â€œpolitical circusâ€ since Di Canio succeeded the fired Martin O'Neill and dismissed the criticism as â€œinsulting.â€
â€œTalk about racism? That is absolutely stupid, stupid and ridiculous,â€ Di Canio said in a statement. â€œThe people who know me can change that idea quickly ... of course it hurts me because people try to take your dignity, and that is not fair. I believe in my pillars and I have values.â€
Di Canio was fined and condemned by FIFA in 2005 for performing a straight-arm salute, adopted by the Italian Fascist regime in the early 20th century. He said at the time: â€œI am a fascist, not a racist.
The Italian said the comments that led to Miliband's resignation were from an interview â€œmany years agoâ€ and said his â€œexpression (was taken) in a very, very negative way.â€
â€œWhat I can say is that if someone is hurt, I am sorry,â€ Di Canio said. â€œBut this didn't come from me, it came from a big story that people put out in a different way to what it was.
â€œI never have a problem in my past. ... I don't have a problem with anyone. I haven't had a problem in the past.â€ As criticism mounted from anti-racism groups, Sunderland chief executive Margaret Byrne said the club is satisfied with Di Canio's explanation. â€œIt is disappointing that some people are trying to turn the appointment of a head coach into a political circus,â€ Byrne said.
Byrne said the club, which is owned by American businessman Ellis Short, held â€œin-depthâ€ discussions with Di Canio before hiring him on a 2Â½-year contract. â€œHe is an honest man, a man of principle and a driven, determined and passionate individual,â€ Byrne said. â€œTo accuse him now, as some have done, of being a racist or having fascist sympathies, is insulting not only to him but to the integrity of this football club.
â€œPaolo has spoken emotively and at length in order to clarify some of the misconceptions that surround him and historical comments and actions attributed to him in the past.â€
Di Canio maintains he is not a â€œpolitics person,â€ although his autobiography discussed issues such immigration in Italy. â€œWhen I was in England my best friends were (black players) Trevor Sinclair and Chris Powell, the Charlton manager) they can tell you everything about my character,â€ Di Canio said. â€œI don't want to talk about politics because it's not my area. We are not in the Houses of Parliament, we are in a football club. I want to talk about sport. I want to talk about football, my players, the board and the fans.â€
Di Canio, whose first match in charge is at Chelsea on Sunday, scored more than 100 goals in over 500 appearances as a player with Lazio, Juventus, Napoli, AC Milan, Celtic and West Ham among other clubs before retiring in 2008.