Di Canio reveals all on being a 'barbarian', why Swindon is cool and his life in England
'The first thing I had to do was to fight back the tears,' Paolo Di Canio admitted, 'even though it seemed that they would never stop. When I arrived at the stadium, I had a lump in my throat which I thought would choke me. I was overwhelmed. And so I wept. And I trembled.
'The pounding of my heart tormented me. I felt unable to control my thoughts or my actions. I lost the power of speech, I kept on crying like a baby. I am not a man accustomed to weeping. But here, everything was different.'
Strong words, perhaps, but who knows how a man will be affected when he first arrives at Swindon Town
Heavens above: Paolo Di Canio is the manager of League Two Swindon Town
Actually those recollections come from Il Ritorno (The Return), Di Canio's wonderful but sadly untranslated 2005 memoir. They describe his homecoming, as a player, to his beloved Lazio; the team to which he has dedicated much of his life, both as a player and a member of the Irriducibili, the Roman club's notorious hardcore supporters.
No modern footballer – not even Eric Cantona – has polarised opinion quite so effectively as Paolo Di Canio. A prodigious talent as a player ('Paolo,' said Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, 'did things with the ball that made you gasp. Other footballers would pay to watch him train'), he has been worshipped by supporters of the many clubs he's represented.
As well as the sky-blue of Lazio, he has worn the colours of AC Milan, Napoli, Celtic, Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham United. The length of that incomplete list is indicative of his often turbulent relationship with authority. His history has been punctuated by insurrection, verbal and physical, towards managers.
Fire in the belly: Italian Di Canio is famous for his passion and devotion to the game
And now, at 43, here at this modest League Two club in Wiltshire, he is in charge. In an age in which overpaid, badge-kissing footballers have found loyalty almost as easy to simulate as injury, Di Canio embodies the passion and commitment of another age.
In his playing days, he once kept a Lazio room-mate awake all night, on the eve of a derby against Roma, by playing the DVD of Braveheart over and over again.
Sir Alex Ferguson, I tell the Italian, once told me that he'd attempted to sign the headstrong striker on two occasions.
'I can't pretend that isn't flattering,' Di Canio replies. 'But there was no way I could ever have betrayed the fans at West Ham.'
In his life, he says, 'football has never been a business. Football is a passion.'
Di Canio's ultimate allegiance has always been to Lazio; so much so that, one day in January 2005, while celebrating a goal in front of their right-wing fans, he was moved to raise his right arm to join them in their trademark Roman salute.
The gesture was an ancient practice, Di Canio claimed, even if, to the untrained eye, it was indistinguishable from a more recent, Germanic sign of allegiance. He repeated the salute twice more in Lazio colours, and as a result has been branded by some as a fully-fledged fascist.
When Swindon Town chairman Jeremy Wray showed the initiative (and, it has to be said, the courage) to appoint Di Canio, one of the club's sponsors, the GMB union, withdrew its support, reluctant to be associated with a man some still perceive, mistakenly, as a neo-Nazi.
I first met Paolo Di Canio five years ago at Cisco Roma (now Atletico Roma), a tiny lower league club where he was embarking on what promises to be a distinguished managerial career.
'When we first met,' I remind him, 'you were speaking about your dad in Italian; explaining how everything you ever learned, you owed to him. Then, suddenly, you said four words in English: “He was a brickie.” You have a real bond with this country, don't you'
'You remember how I told you then that my dream was to come back to Britain' Di Canio asks. 'Swindon Town has given me my chance. I love England and I love the people. I just hope I can stay here for many years.'
Welcome to the County Ground: Di Canio was appointed manager of the Wiltshire club in May this year
'You get a sense of the atmosphere at a football club very quickly,' I say, 'from the people who work in the cafe and the souvenir shop; from the players and the office staff. Swindon Town has a very welcoming, yet highly professional feel about it. I'm sure a club acquires its character from the manager. And yet – with no disrespect to this town – there can't be many Italians who would have chosen it over the Eternal City.'
'I love Swindon. It's not a place where you can almost smell the history, like Rome or Florence. It's an industrial town. That may not seem “cool” to some people, but it only makes me love Swindon more.
'You know why Because the people here are proper people; people who work hard, often for low wages. When Swindon people tell you something, you can trust them, because they mean it.
'They still have a lot of the values that we had in Italy back in the 1960s and 1970s. I still love my country. But I've cut the umbilical cord with Italy.'
England, in Di Canio's words, is 'the perfect place to play football. In Italy, you get a goal, then kill the game. In England, it's 90 minutes of battle'.He also believes that cheating, for instance with performance-enhancing drugs, is less prevalent here.
'Doping in English football,' he writes in Il Ritorno, 'is restricted to lager and baked beans with sausages.'
As a player, Di Canio scored arguably the best goal in the history of the Premier League: an exquisite volley for West Ham against Wimbledon in the 1999-2000 season.
In 2001 he won the FIFA Fair Play award following a game in which, seeing the Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard was badly injured, he caught the ball rather than put it into the unguarded net, so that his opponent could get immediate treatment.
Bust-up: Di Canio came through a major test early in his career at Swindon after an altercation with striker Leon Clarke
He received slightly less praise for his decision, having just been shown a red card while playing for Sheffield Wednesday against Arsenal in 1998, to shove referee Paul Alcock in the chest. The official fell to the ground in a slow, spiralling movement.
'Even now, when I watch it, I can't believe the way he went down, like a drunken clown,' admits Di Canio.
'One moment,' Di Canio argues, 'can erase everything else you've accomplished in your career. I didn't kill anybody. I pushed a referee. We all know that's wrong. But it can happen. And if it happens, you take your punishment. I was banned for 11 games. But you remember the press. People said I was a barbarian…'
'And mad,' I remind him. 'And wretched. And “a man with a mind like a blast furnace”. And a gypsy: your former manager David Pleat called you that.'
'I took “gypsy” as a compliment. Pleat made me laugh.'
It was the late Tony Banks, then Minister for Sport, who said 'Barbarian go home', according to Di Canio. 'Somebody wrote that what I'd done was worse than Hillsborough where 96 died. I still have the cutting.'
'Didn't that make you want to leave England'
'No. Because there are people of low intelligence all over the world.'
As a manager, Di Canio appears to have harnessed a ferocious self-belief and rendered it contagious.
'I changed the coaching methods (at Swindon) completely,' says Di Canio, who introduced double training sessions and scrutinises every aspect of a player's welfare, including diet. Lager, sausages and beans are things of the past.
'I can't praise the players enough,' he adds, 'because at the beginning it was very tough for them. In my first seven weeks they had just one day off.'
Every player has his failings; in the case of Di Canio, exaggerated deference towards managers has not been among them. In Il Ritorno, he confesses to an inability to shut up when on the substitutes' bench.
First love: Lazio was Di Canio's boyhood club, and he rejoined the Roman giants after 14 years in 2004
'I wasn't trying to manage the team,' he says. 'I was just shouting encouragement.'
Il Ritorno also describes a contretemps with the Lazio chairman Claudio Lotito, over dinner.
'Inside the restaurant, I feel my anger rising. I start to scream like a
madman. I turn the buffet table over. I start throwing things. The room
is full of flying objects: plates, bottles and forks. Everything is
flying; anything I can lay my hands on, I throw. I go up to the coach's
table and I start kicking it. They look at me as if I am mad.'
Now that Di Canio is in the position of
exerting, rather than defying, authority, he displays scant tolerance
for insolence from players. Last August there was a scuffle with his
striker Leon Clarke following a defeat by Southampton.
Infamy: Di Canio pushes over Paul Alcock in a match between Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal in 1998
'I saw Leon insulting my colleagues. So, as his manager, I put my arm round his shoulder and told him to go down the tunnel.
'He kept on swearing. I had to grab his shirt and put him up against the wall. It wasn't violent. But he'd been saying “**** off” repeatedly to people older than him. Imagine Sir Alex Ferguson in that situation. Eventually I had to say, “OK. Now, you **** off.”
'The chairman was wonderful. I said, “Either he goes, or I go.” He said, “The club is with you.” In that moment, we gelled. I think I have shown that I have matured. I didn't lose my temper.'
'But aren't you the man who, as a player, told Fabio Capello (then of AC Milan) to go **** himself, then pushed him over'
'Not on the field. I pushed him and he lost his balance. He fell over a bag. I'd been challenging his decisions. Capello was saying things to me like “Vaffanculo” (**** you). I understand his point of view better now. I was young.
'The conversation we're having now is unusual because we're talking about everything, which I believe is good for me. I also hope it will allow people to understand the way I really think. I have a family.' (He has two daughters, one of whom is at Southampton University, with his wife Betta.)
'I pay my taxes. My life speaks for me. I am,' Di Canio concludes, 'an ordinary man.'
Paolo Di Canio grew up in a working-class area of Rome. He shared a bed with Antonio, his oldest brother.
'When I needed to go to the bathroom, I simply wouldn't. Bed-wetting is something I had to deal with till I was 10 or 11.'
Such candour illuminates his autobiography, a remarkable book which broaches subjects many in football fear to address, such as the panic attacks he suffered as a young player, his fear of flying, and the help he has had from psychoanalysts, one of whom was – in Di Canio's words – a 'specialist in nervous breakdowns'.
As a small boy, he was addicted to cola and similar drinks. He was called 'Palloca', a slang term, meaning lard-ball.
Happy Hammer: The Italian was adored by the West Ham fans – and he adored them back
'I never hid. My response was to exercise; to try to become the kind of person I am.'
His father Ignazio, he says – struggling
to control his emotion – got up at four in the morning and didn't come
back till five in the afternoon.
'When I think of the sacrifices he made, I feel like crying.'
Even when recruited to Lazio's youth team, Di Canio was still hanging out with the Irriducibili.
'I've had bricks thrown at me by opposing fans. I've been tear-gassed and beaten by police.'
Scissor kick: The forward's strike against Wimbledon in 2000 was one of the Premier League's greatest goals
He'd been at Lazio for five years when they sold him to Juventus, at which point he first began to experience panic attacks.
'It was terrible. You feel that something goes dark. It's as if your eyes can't see any more.'
While Di Canio has previously declared his sympathy with the historical tradition of fascism, such pronouncements don't represent an area of his life he wishes to relive.
There is no denying the DVX tattoo on his shoulder (the Latin appellation for Benito Mussolini). It's the symbolic expression of an opinion expressed in his autobiography, in a passage which has frequently been misquoted so as to appear more incendiary than it actually is.
'I am fascinated by Mussolini,' Di Canio wrote. 'I think he was a deeply misunderstood individual. He was basically a very principled individual. Yet he turned against his sense of right and wrong. He compromised his ethics.'
The truth is that – today at least – Di Canio is not a demented fascista. While he was in Italy, his column in the national sport newspaper Corriere dello Sport routinely ranted against racism. He is a less volatile man now, Di Canio explains, partly through his study of Samurai culture.
'I have read a lot. I like the code they lived by. The loyalty. The honour,' he explains. 'When I see young people showing disrespect to their elders, I go mad. You must respect old people, because they teach you about the true meaning of life.'
Through studying ancient practices, Di Canio says: 'I am more peaceful these days.
'I believe in nature. I believe in earth, sun, fire and water. I believe in the circle of life. When a tree loses its leaves, you think it's dead. But the tree is only resting. It's born again, in the spring. I believe in energy. Positive energy.'
'Has the loss of your father (in October) helped you to bond with the club'
'Definitely. I got the news after we'd played at Accrington. I was in Rome for the funeral; I came back straight away. I wanted to do something special in the next game, for his sake.
Making his point: The Italian says he loves England and wants to stay for many years to come
'We played Plymouth. We won, and the lads were just amazing. They led me up to our fans. What really touched me was that I knew they were doing it not because they felt obliged to, but because they felt my pain. And that's when I realised that, in this squad at Swindon, I don't just have skill and professionalism; I have decency and humanity.
'Because of that, they are very close to me. It was the same with the chairman and everybody else here. I felt I was in a family. They became close to me as a man. That was, and is, very important to me.'
'Some people have expressed a concern that – given your history – you're bound to lose your head sooner or later and punch a referee, or another manager.'
'People who talk that way don't know me. I am calm, and more mature and I am really happy. The board, the players and the fans are fantastic. They all have enthusiasm, commitment and a real bond with the town. I say again, we're like a family. Our ambition may take years to achieve, but I honestly believe that this club is capable, eventually, of promotion to the Premier League.'
Click here to read the full version of this story as it appeared in the Independent on Sunday.