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Soccer Coach And Self-Proclaimed Fascist Runs Into Trouble Again In U.K.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You don't often find events that equally combine politics, history and sport in equal measure, but one is unfolding right now in England. It involves a historic soccer club and Mussolini.

Here's NPR's Philip Reeves.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Look at a map. Find Great Britain. Run your finger up the country's eastern edge. Stop half way by the river Wear. There you'll see the city of Sunderland. London is a few hundred miles south though it could be on another planet. Sunderland people are different. They're northern folk proud edgy and famous for speaking their mind. If they don't like you, they tell you.

They're not sure they like the new head coach of their beloved soccer club. He is, after all, a self-proclaimed fascist.

Sunderland's soccer club has been around since Queen Victoria. The club has a cabinet stuffed with old trophies. It plays in England's prestigious premier league and even has fans in the U.S. This year is not going well. The club's facing demotion to a lower league.

Soccer - or football, as everyone else calls the sport - is ruthless. Sunderland has done what football clubs usually do when they're in trouble: They've booted out the head coach, or manager, and appointed a new one.

The new man's an Italian called Paolo Di Canio. He's played for top teams including Juventus, Milan and West Ham, and was honored for fair play. He's also managed a lowly club in England. He knows English football and English football knows him.

The problem here, though, is about politics. A few years back, Di Canio was quoted saying he's a fascist, a fascist but not a racist, he said. In his autobiography, he describes the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini as principled and misunderstood. Di Canio was photographed giving a fascist salute to a football stadium full of his countrymen.

Now you understand why people in Sunderland are a little worried. History matters in Sunderland. Hitler's bombers obliterated much of the place and killed several hundred people. The city is in what was coal country. The football stadium stands on top of what used to be the region's last coal mine. The local miners union has a big banner there, honoring men who spent and some times lost their lives digging the depths below.

In their heyday, mining union leaders were outspoken champions of the radical left. Right-wing fascists were the enemy. The union wants its banner back.

Another issue's in play. The far right's been a worrying presence within English football for years. The sport is struggling to stamp out racist conduct. A general rise in Europe of intolerant nationalism isn't making that easier.

Di Canio dismisses questions about his politics as irrelevant. He'll only talk football. That hasn't stopped people here asking some intriguing questions: Can you be a fascist and not also a racist; should we care about the politics of a sports coach; is that not his or her private business; does history matter that much.

The answers will vary. But we can rely on the people of Sunderland to speak their mind.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

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