Random image of a football game. Not necessarily Sunderland! :)
Paolo Di Canio is a troubled man.
Since being appointed manager of Barclays Premier League club, Sunderland AFC, he's had to field intense media questioning about his political views.
The focus is on his self-proclaimed allegiance to fascism.
Not surprisingly, his club has backed him, insisting allegations that he has racist or fascist sympathies are: "insulting to both 'the integrity of the club' and their new manager."
These are fighting words.
However, Di Canio's vehement denials that he is racist - and the assertion that having black friends is proof of this - is not hitting the target with his critics.
The "some of my best friends..." argument seems to have failed because he has refused to confirm or deny whether he is a fascist. This is significant, as many people would not be able to tell the difference between racism and fascism. Quite frankly, the fundamentals are very similar.
Reputation-wise, Paolo Di Canio did not help his case by his defensiveness in response to questions during the first major press conference since his appointment. He eventually walked out, leaving many questions unanswered and unwittingly fueling more speculation and comments.
I think his main challenge is that he doesn't appear to understand why there's such a fuss. He seems genuinely frustrated that journalists are unwilling to take him at his word. Perhaps he might benefit from checking out the Wikipedia entry on fascism to understand why passions are running so high.
Neither he nor the club can dismiss their perception problem. The resignation of former Foreign Secretary David Miliband from Sunderland AFC's board and the Durham Miners' Association's demand for the return of an historic banner - which has been on permanent display at the Sunderland's Stadium of Light - are embarrassing and very public examples of the disquiet some feel about his appointment.
This isn't going away just yet.
Piawar Powar director of the Football Against Racism in Europe network says that Di Canio's appointment could encourage the far right.
Meanwhile, the Kick it Out campaign also has a few pointed words about his new job:
“When fascism is referenced within the context of English football, there is a wider concern.
The spectre of the rise of far-right groups in some parts of Europe cannot be allowed to undermine the progress made in the game domestically, and the increasing number of incidents involving both neo-Nazi and Ultra (Right) groups which have happened in places like Italy and Greece, must not be replicated here.
“Kick It Out and its partners have held concerns for some time about similar groups operating in the UK. Now is the time to reinforce this vigilance.”
Some fans may say that politics has no business in football, but to me, that's naive. Politics is in virtually every aspect of our belief system and decision making. Football is no different.
For Sunderland supporters, Di Canio will inevtiably be judged on results. For rival fans, the situation has presented a 'weak spot' to exploit on match days and a tool with which to disrupt the manager's and team's concentration. For the media, every utterance, facial expression, gesture and loss on the pitch will be analysed to within an inch of its life.
For the sake of his career and for the health of football, Di Canio would do well to put the fascism issue to bed once and for all.
Thoughts on customer service, communication and, of course, reputation management.