• Well Done Michael He's 13

The Perplexing Genius of Paolo Di Canio

If the precise definition of the term ‘cult hero’ is a mystery, then perhaps there is no better player to adorn with the title than Paolo Di Canio. The chubby, bed-wetting boy in orthopaedic shoes, who became the man defying gravity to meet Trevor Sinclair’s 50-yard cross field ball, volleying in a goal shown in every reel of the best Premier League goals of all time. A figure hated by many as much as he is loved by others, who once said he played with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. A player who conjures up memories of referee shoving and temper tantrums, juxtaposed with one of the most sporting moments the Premier League has ever seen. Questionable political celebrations, and moments of sheer magic that few players could pull off, or even attempt. One of those rare players that makes every fan suddenly interested in the fortunes of whatever club he is at.

Di Canio grew up in the working-class district of Quarticciolo, in metropolitan Rome. The public housing, completed after World War 2, was largely inhabited by fans of AS Roma. It is probably an early indication of the siege mentality that coloured his career, that the young Paolo defiantly chose to wear the light blue scarf of Roma’s bitter rivals Lazio around the neighbourhood. As his natural talent became apparent, Di Canio shed the weight that had seen his young peers nickname him ‘lardball’. The seventeen-year-old Di Canio earned a dream deal with Lazio, who he so passionately supported in the face of local opposition. By the time Lazio won promotion to Serie A in 1988, he was deemed ready for the first team. In his breakout season, the single goal he scored was one he wouldn’t have traded for twenty others - his boyhood fantasy coming true with the matchwinner in the Derby della Capitale win over Roma. Being a local teenager and Lazio supporter, Di Canio quickly formed an everlasting connection with the fans on the terraces, which would eventually draw him back to where it all began. In 2004, with Lazio reeling from the financial collapse of the club under president Sergio Cragnotti, Di Canio was drawn back to the eternal city from England – accepting a huge pay cut - where almost two decades after the first time, he scored in the derby again, as Lazio beat Roma 3-1.

It was this relationship with Lazio’s ultras – Irriducible - that captured the polarising nature of Di Canio. The heart-on-his-sleeve passion and unbreakable loyalty all that was good about the man - his alignment with the far-right, fascist faction of supporters, part of why he was so often shrouded in controversy. His right arm, tattooed with a tribute to Benito Mussolini, straight and raised in celebration was a gesture Di Canio insists has been misunderstood. Merely an ancient Roman salute, he reasons, rather than any acknowledgment of its 20th century associations. The young Di Canio was eventually poached by Juventus, then AC Milan via Napoli, and he won a UEFA Cup and Serie A title during his first spell in Italy. Dissatisfied with a limited squad role under Fabio Capello in Milan, Paolo looked abroad, one of few Italians willing to leave Serie A behind.

Tommy Burns coaxed Di Canio to Celtic in the summer of 1996, joining the likes of Brian Laudrup, Paul Gascoigne and Pierre Van Hooijdink in a golden era for the Scottish premier division. He ended the season with the SPFA player of the year award and 15 goals. After just one season in Glasgow, an offer of almost three times what Celtic had paid for Di Canio was made by Sheffield Wednesday. It seemed an unlikely move for a man who had played for Lazio, AC Milan, Juventus and one of the Old Firm, but in many ways, it was a perfect fit. The same boy that chose to wear the Lazio scarf ahead of their more illustrious neighbours, was at home in the role of underdog. Di Canio moved to the Premier League somewhat under the radar, the same summer that saw Overmars and Petit join Wenger’s Arsenal revolution, Paul Ince return from Inter Milan to join Liverpool, and Ince’s old club Manchester United sign Teddy Sheringham as they sought to fill an Eric Cantona shaped hole in their squad. Sir Alex Ferguson would later try to sign Di Canio, to fill that same talismanic role. It isn’t difficult to imagine di Canio emerging from the Old Trafford tunnel with his collar popped, full of the same swagger as the Frenchman. Nor is it difficult to imagine him bounding over a Selhurst Park advertising board to kung-fu kick a fan in the chest.

Paolo Di Canio's first interview after being officially unveiled as a Celtic player.

For all of their maddening hypocrisies and biases, football fans can be an easy lot to please. Di Canio instantly endeared himself to Wednesday supporters through his work rate and intensity, not to mention glimpses of brilliance not often seen at Hillsborough in the 90s. He scored 14 goals in his first season as The Owls avoided relegation, and started the following season in similar form. Then came one of the most unforgettable flashpoints of his career. In an early season battle with Wenger’s aggressive Arsenal side, Di Canio rushed to the support of his teammate Wim Jonk, who had been upended by Patrick Vieira. After shoving the Frenchman from his path, he came face to face with a snarling Martin Keown, who he kicked in the shin, before sinking his fingers into Keown’s face. Paul Alcock, the referee, issued a red card to a visibly enraged Di Canio, who pressed his palms into Alcock’s chest and shoved him with all the force of an adult pushing their child on a swing for the first time. Every football fan would have a go imitating Alcock’s hilarious shuffle to the turf, falling, in Di Canio’s words, like a ‘drunken clown.’ Alcock’s theatrics aside, the ‘devil’ had spoken, and Di Canio had broken one of football’s golden rules in laying hands on an official.

As he strutted off, retro sideburns only missing a leather jacket and cigarette tucked behind his ear, Nigel Winterburn raced across the pitch to taunt him.

Di Canio turned in a flash, fist raised and feigned to swing for Winterburn, who flinched more spectacularly than a frightened kitten, and ran away humbled. A lengthy ban allowed soul searching back in Italy - more similarities to Cantona and his philosophical time in exile. At the turn of the year, West Ham manager Harry Redknapp sniffed a bargain. It was a move that felt something like rescue for Di Canio, who felt unsupported by Wednesday, at what he described as the lowest time of his life.

Di Canio’s arrival bolstered a talented Hammer’s side and his form helped to propel them to their highest ever Premier League finish of 5th. They were halcyon days for the Upton Park faithful, as Di Canio spearheaded a team consisting of burgeoning talents Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard, older heads Neil Ruddock and Stuart Pearce, as well as fellow January recruit, the tireless midfielder Marc Vivien Foe, who would so sadly lose his life during a Confederations Cup tie years later.

Rarely has a foreign import so seamlessly fit at an English club. Cantona at United, Juninho at Middlesbrough, Zola at Chelsea and Di Canio at West Ham. Special relationships between men who kick a football for 90 minutes a week and thousands of people from their adopted city. West Ham fans were happy to bind their weekend dreams to Di Canio’s talents and the Italian was one of those rare athletes with the strength to shoulder the expectation.

West Ham can make a strong case for being the ultimate underdogs of British Football. A huge club, surrounded by even bigger ones in the English capital. For all their history, they have never managed to win the title, and their trophy cabinet holds just three F.A Cups, the most recent of which came in 1980, followed a year later by a League Cup. That Di Canio could deliver the only trophy West Ham have won in four decades is fitting, lifting the 1999 Intertoto Cup. The fact that Di Canio could only return a trophy of such little consequence is a poignant consequence of his loyalty to the underdog. His relationship with the club went beyond trophies. When Di Canio launched himself through the air for example, to perfectly meet that Sinclair pass with a scissors kick, he was giving West Ham fans something they would still talk about decades later, a moment of magic on an otherwise grey Upton Park afternoon. When Di Canio came on as a substitute, with West Ham desperately trying to salvage their Premier League status in their final home game of the 2002/2003 season, the Italian sensed it was a farewell to his beloved stage at Upton Park. Di Canio smashed in the winner, resulting in one of the most emotional celebrations you are likely to see, the tear-soaked face of Di Canio buried under a mob of teammates, before embracing Jermain Defoe for what seemed like a long time. It proved not to be enough, with West Ham relegated a week later. The tearful interview in the Upton Park tunnel after the Chelsea win, likely still moves Hammers fans to claiming somebody is chopping onions.

The unpredictable genius of the man was best captured on what should be the defining memory of Di Canio’s controversial and magic dusted career. Away at Everton one afternoon a week before Christmas in 2000, West Ham, chasing the European spots were being held at 1-1. With a couple of minutes left, Everton keeper Paul Gerrard raced from his box to the right wing where he injured himself and collapsed in pain. Trevor Sinclair picked up the loose ball, crossed to Di Canio, surrounded by Everton defenders desperately trying to protect the empty net. With a win at stake, the keeper down and the opportunity to stick it to the Everton fans who had been on his back all day, Di Canio caught the ball, wagged a finger in the air and pointed to the stricken Gerrard. The act of sportsmanship would lead to a FIFA fair play award and to the assertion from his manager Harry Redknapp, that he ‘didn’t know whether to kiss him or kill him.’ A suitable dilemma when describing the man with the angel and devil on his shoulders, the chubby kid who went on to score the most graceful, balletic goal in Premier League history, and the born winner who turned down guaranteed success in Manchester, to stay at the club who stood by him.

Every goal Paolo Di Canio scored for West Ham.

Love or loathe Di Canio, his presence enriched the game in a way many robotic, media trained players simply can’t. Should he soon find himself as manager anywhere from Woking Town to Wycombe Wanderers, the club in question will suddenly find themselves in the international spotlight. Di Canio has been off the radar since his stint as Sunderland manager five years ago. Even that doomed 13-game reign managed to produce an unforgettable moment of frenzied celebration away at local rivals Newcastle. After half a decade of silence, when he is quite likely to be continuing his education in the way of the Samurai, it’s about time he exploded back onto the scene. Directors of football, it’s over to you.

Neil Tully

Football Writer

Well Done Michael, He's 13

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