At half-time during the Saturday lunch-time kick-off at the Stadium of Light between Sunderland and Manchester United, Sky Sports briefly showed some African dancing in the centre circle, not just a novel alternative from the old days when a brass band came on to play, but taking place, as Sky explained, due to Sunderland’s first ‘Nelson Mandela Day’. Suddenly, a club that had been playing largely dour football for much of the season seemingly based on the organisation and motivation techniques of Martin O’Neill, aroused positive interest in the split second of that news.

Sporting and artistic boycotts of an Apartheid South Africa previously raised the profile of Mandela when he was a political prisoner on Robben Island and were a key instrument in change, arguably more so than economic sanctions; Sunderland’s recent partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation which aims to pursue social justice, was a positive reminder of the part sport, and popular culture, plays in shaping a wider society.

So, the announcement last night, the day after SAFC’s very own Mandela Day, that self-confessed fascist Paolo Di Canio was the club’s new Manager, to replace O’Neill, who had been relieved of his duties the previous evening, was particularly bizarre.

On three separate occasions in 2005, after he had finished playing in England and during his time with Lazio, Di Canio made fascist salutes to a right-wing crowd, before openly stating he was a fascist. It was not a throw-away remark that was latter taken out of context as Sunderland and Di Canio are now trying to day; in his autobiography Di Canio had previously expressed admiration for Benito Mussolini, a proud racist, one of the founders of fascism and an ally of Hitler’s Germany, and Di Canio also has a tattoo in tribute to Mussolini.

When Di Canio returned to England to manage Swindon, the local GMB branch withdrew its sponsorship of the club in protest, and last night David Miliband sacrificed the position he treasured as Vice-Chairman of Sunderland AFC due to the Di Canio appointment.

In a city where the British far-right of today were exposed as organizing and operating out of as recently as on Saturday, Di Canio himself is now symbolic. And coming days after some followers of the national side sang about throwing a victim of racial abuse, Anton Ferdinand, on a bonfire, and in a season where European fascists have twice attacked Spurs fans on the continent because of the club’s Jewish association (a community Di Canio has already shown his disdain for), the appointment is surprisingly blinkered to the wider responsibilities football clubs have.

From the defiance of Jessie Owens at the 1936 Olympics to the movement that sought justice for the victims of Hillsborough, via South Africa’s post-Apartheid Rugby World Cup triumph and the acts of dissent at the 1968 Olympics, sport has long been a force in politics.

As the national sport, Football in England should be leading the way, yet Liverpool acted with belligerence when it had a chance to act over Luiz Suarez, the FA continues to look the other way as a minority of nationalists spread hate at its events and now Sunderland are banking on Di Canio to ignite their team to avoid a financial costly relegation, while ignoring the bigger picture.

It is the sort of prioritization, with short-term success considered more important than ethics, that led to Swindon glossing over this bit of behaviour by Di Canio, which in any other walk of life in a civilised society would have been recognized as Gross Misconduct, as a Manager physically attacks a sub-ordinate. Whether Sunderland survive in the Premier League this season is not the issue; it is how the club crisis manage the situation they have now created for themselves.


Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley

The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is available to download from Amazon and Smashwords, documenting high-level football and the journey of travelling around Europe in a sport where money is now valued alongside trophies. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.