THE BLOG
04/05/2013 05:07 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2013

Fascism and Soccer

"I am a fascist, not a racist," said Paolo Di Canio in 2005, the new head coach of English Premier League club, Sunderland, after he was photographed giving a straight-arm salute to supporters of Italian team, Lazio. Di Canio sports a tattoo admiring Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator who ruled Italy from 1922 until his assassination in 1945.

Di Canio is indignant about the furor over his appointment. He now claims not to support fascist ideology although he has no plans to visit the dermatologist and have Mussolini painfully scraped from his skin. The 44 year-old Italian perhaps fantasizes about himself as a strong man given the task of saving Sunderland, currently threatened with the humiliation of relegation from the most prestigious league in the world. Is that not what a fascist would think? No doubt fascists across Europe will be wishing him success.

Europe's main triumvirate of 20th century fascists and Nazis -- Mussolini, Hitler and General Franco of Spain -- employed soccer as a credibility brand for their brutal regimes. Mussolini fixed matches to push Italy to the top of international glory, winners of the 1934 and 1938 World Cups. Hitler assimilated the talented pre-war Austrian team into the weaker German side after the political unification of the two countries in 1938. General Franco supported Real Madrid as a counterbalance to the restive Catalan region wrapped in the colors of FC Barcelona. None of the dictators liked soccer. But they knew its value as a propaganda weapon to the masses.

In the early 90s, top-flight English soccer rebranded its identity as a multi-cultural, global force for profit with tolerance and inclusion featured as the values. The package included new stadiums and high-ticket prices that drove out many working class attendees. Soccer got richer. Society got poorer.

Today, Europe is in economic crisis. The wealth gap is accelerating between rich and poor while state institutions are under pressure to provide services with diminishing resources. Xenophobia and immigrant bashing are becoming casually accepted. Extremists are cooking the broth of discontent. Fascist political parties are on the rise politically in Greece and elsewhere. You just have to watch a soccer game on TV to see the "No to Racism" message frequently flashing on the advertising boards that surround the field. Soccer delivers messages more effectively than governments ever will.

This is why the image of Di Canio's fascist style salute at a soccer game should be a reminder for the lookouts to be vigilant. Demonstrations such as his should not be ignored. It is disingenuous of Di Canio to complain about his treatment in the press when he is the one who brought his fascist symbols to the sport. Tell him that fascism has much to answer for.