It’s sounds almost too easy to dislike Paolo Di Canio, yet so many sing his praises. The little Italian was the ultimate journeyman in his playing days, showcasing his undoubted talent for 11 different clubs. During his stint at Sheffield Wednesday, Di Canio infamously pushed a referee to the ground after getting sent off in a match against Arsenal. This earned him a hefty fine and an 11 match ban. Most controversially of all perhaps, is Di Canio’s fascist leanings and his admiration for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. While at Lazio it was common for him to celebrate goals by making fascist salutes to the crowd. Hard to believe someone who attracted so much negative publicity attainted cult status, but achieve it he did and in perhaps the unlikeliest of places.
Di Canio signed for Lazio at the age of 17, and over the next five years he played 54 games for the Rome based club before transferring to Juventus. He had a mixed time playing for the Italian giants, that eventually seen him take the step down to Napoli. An impressive debut season at Napoli saw Di Canio snapped up by AC Milan. After two years with the Rossoneri a move away from Italian football beckoned.
In 1996, Di Canio swapped the red and black stripes of AC Milan for the green and white hoops of Glasgow Celtic. He scored 15 goals in 37 games for the Hoops, finishing second to Rangers in the league. His passionate and energetic style of play endeared him to fans, but the relationship with Celtic ended when English Premier League side Sheffield Wednesday paid in the region of £4.2 million for his services.
At Wednesday, Di Canio began to show the quality that would see him become revered at West Ham United. He scored 12 league goals during his first season in Sheffield, making him the club’s leading goal scorer. However, he only started six games the following season as his manager repeatedly left him out of the squad after the aforementioned incident against Arsenal. Di Canio was sent off after a mass brawl, he briefly argued with the referee before shoving him. The referee quite comically fell to the ground, and the English FA gave Di Canio an eleven match ban for his efforts. Wednesday never quite trusted Di Canio again and made it clear he was available for sale. BackPageFootball.com can’t condone Di Canio’s unprofessional behaviour or laughing at a referee’s expense, but quite frankly, it was hilarious!
Di Canio was now a figure of disdain in the English tabloid media. His club were desperate to be rid of him and were willing to do so at a fraction of the price they paid for him. And so it came to be that West Ham picked him up for £1.7 million in January 1999.
The cockneys took to Di Canio immediately , and Di Canio repaid them with the best football of his career. His goals helped West Ham to a highly impressive 5th place finish and UEFA Cup qualification. In his first full season he scored 16 goals, including a stunning volley against Wimbledon which was later voted the Premiership’s goal of the decade in late 2009, and was voted club player of the season.
His no holds barred passionate performances won the hearts and minds of West Ham’s working class cockney support. The quality that was hinted at through-out his time with Celtic and Wednesday finally shone through in London’s east end. Harry Redknapp put it best when he said, “He does things with the ball that make you gasp…When he is focused and in form, few can rival his invention, skill and technique.”
In December 2000, Di Canio was involved in another bizarre incident, although unlike the infamous referee push, Di Canio’s behaviour this time around earned him universal praise. During a match against Everton, the ball came to Di Canio in front of an empty Everton net. Rather than head the ball into the goal, Di Canio caught the ball in mid-air as the Everton goalkeeper was lying on the ground with a genuine injury. FIFA awarded him a special fair play award for his selfless act of sportsmanship.
Di Canio’s time at West Ham finally came to an end in 2003, when the club decided not to renew his contract after he had a very public bust-up with manager Glenn Roeder. In total, the Italian scored 48 times in 118 games for the Hammers.
He had a brief spell at fellow London club Charlton Athletic, before moving back to Lazio. His time at Lazio is best remembered for his fascist salutes.
The football world will look at Paolo Di Canio as a feisty little Italian, capable of shoving referees to the ground and promoting fascism, as well as selfless sportsmanship. Some of his great goals will always be shown in clip shows and Sky Sports advertisements. But the West Ham faithful will always idolize him, and remember the passion he brought to the pitch and his love for the club. And just maybe, in dreams governed by sentimentality, the Hammers pray for the day he steps into the Upton Park hot-seat as manager.