To be a fascist or not to be a fascist? How the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Sunderland Football Club dealt with the fascism scandal

South Africa’s ailing former President Nelson Mandela has been caught up in the debate around whether new Sunderland boss Paolo Di Canio is a facist or not. Last Saturday Sunderland celebrated its new partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Before its game with Manchester United, the club had commemorative flags, Mandela T-shirts, specially designed kits and a group of drummers from Burundi.

“This is an honour,” said David Miliband the labour MP, speaking to The Telegraph. “A validation of what we are trying to do as a club.” “The Premier League is one of the leading cultural exports of any country anywhere in the world,” said Miliband. “We’ve had a big push into Africa with our shirt sponsorship, this is the ultimate rocket boost, this is about Sunderland in Africa.”

Miliband was vice-chair of Sunderland up until this weekend. On Sunday he resigned after the announcement of Di Canio as the new manager, who replaces Martin O’Neill. O’Neill was sacked on Saturday. “In the light of the new manager’s past political statements, I think it’s right to step down,” said Miliband in a statement on his website.

Di Canio’s appointment has caused outrage with fans, anti-racism campaigners and the Sunderland City Council. In 2005 Di Canio twice saluted Lazio fans, his team at the time, with a straight-arm salute. He also has Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s nickname tattooed on his bicep. He famously told a newspaper at the time, “I am a fascist, not a racist.”

This week Di Canio was left denying that he was a fascist, but it’s not enough for many Sunderland fans. The Guardian newspaper quoted Martyn McFadden the editor of A Love Supreme, a leading Sunderland Football Club fanzine, saying that the fans are split over the appointment.

“It has been an unbelievable few days for many,” said McFadden. “On Saturday there were African drummers on the pitch at half time and the whole match presentation was themed around the club’s new association with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the next day they employ a manager who has described himself as a fascist.”

Nelson Mandela Arrives At The InterContinental Hotel

Former South African President Nelson Mandela

The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and the management of Sunderland Football Club met in England on Monday, 1 April 2013 to discuss the public debates around Sunderland’s new coach. Di Canio participated in the meeting.

The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory also released a statement this week. “The centre recently entered into a partnership with the club designed to promote the legacy of our founder, Nelson Mandela, and to help ensure the future sustainability of the centre,” said the statement. “At the heart of the partnership is a commitment to our founder’s values with a special focus on human rights and anti-racism.” “At the meeting on Monday, Sunderland reaffirmed its commitment to these values and the ethos of the partnership.” “It must be stressed that the centre’s relationship is with the club, not with any individual in the club.”

Sunderland appears to be backing its man. “Paolo is hugely enthused by the challenge that lies ahead of him,” said Sunderland Chairperson Ellis Short in a statement on the club’s website, adding that Di Canio was the right man to prevent the club from being relegated this season. Sunderland is currently sixteenth in the English Premier League, just one point above the bottom three.

In a statement released this week by the club, Di Canio said: “I don’t have a problem with anyone. I don’t know why I have to keep repeating my story, to be defending myself on something that doesn’t belong to me every time I change clubs. Talk about racism? That is absolutely stupid, stupid and ridiculous.”

The controversy has stirred the same month that talented young Greek midfielder Giorgos Katidis was banned from international football for life after celebrating a goal with what appeared to be a Nazi salute. Appearing before a disciplinary hearing last week, Katidis said; “I am not a Nazi or fascist”. The salute occured after Katidis scored his side’s winning goal in a 2-1 win against Veria earlier this month. The 20-year-old player has been banned from all levels of international football for life and banned by his club AEK Athens for the rest of the season. Greece’s neo-fascist political party Golden Dawn has seen a rapid rise of late, securing 18 seats in the 300 seat Greek parliament.

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