There’s no denying that, on his day, Joey Barton, is a top class player. On the other hand, someone who has achieved everlasting notoriety by stubbing out a cigar in a young kid’s eye is clearly not a nice person. Let me put my cards on the table. I’m relieved that he didn’t join West Ham.
I didn’t go so far as to sign online petitions and tweet my disapproval when a prospective move was being mooted, but I was pleased that the deal fell through. Th e question remains, however, should a man’s behavior off the field make a crucial difference to the way supporters feel about what he does on it? I understand the ‘who are we to judge’ argument all too well, having done a number of things in my life that I’m none too proud of.
I also believe that everyone is entitled to a second chance if and when they face up to their mistakes. However, there is more to supporting a football club than the number of games you win (unless you’re Chelsea) and the integrity of those players who are lucky enough to wear claret and blue at some time in their careers matters to me. No one says footballers have to be saints. But they are held up as role models – and they represent the club they play for in the eyes of supporters and detractors alike. It’s one thing when a player who is already on a club’s books steps out of line.
No doubt James Tomkins seriously regrets the incident in December 2013 that resulted him being fined more than £7,500 aft er admitting being drunk and disorderly and assaulting a policeman. He paid his penalty, just as any other member of society would be expected to do, and it would have been wrong for him to be punished twice for the same offence by being sanctioned by his employer. But it’s a different matter when it comes to signing a player who has been dogged by controversy all his career – that sends out a totally different message.
Even if inviting someone to play for you doesn’t actually condone previous bad behavior (which in Barton’s case includes two convictions for violence resulting in 77 days behind bars) it certainly says a club is prepared to turn a blind eye in its direction. By the same token we never should have signed Lee Bowyer, not once but twice. An on-field punch-up with a teammate is bad enough – a racially motivated attack on McDonald’s staff is far worse. Paolo Di Canio is possibly the most intriguing character ever to be on West Ham’s books.
Many supporters would like to see him back at the club in the manager’s office. He himself believes it is his destiny. He was a wonderful player for our club – one of the best we’ve ever had. Anyone who has ever seen his astonishing goal against Wimbledon as he morphed into Neo from the Matrix to volley home Trevor Sinclair’s cross will know instantly what I’m talking about. Goal of the season? That was the goal of a lifetime.
There are so many Di Canio memories: the fantastic moment of sportsmanship that won him the Fifa fair play award when, rather than head home into an empty net, he caught the cross and demanded that play be stopped until the prostrate Everton keeper was restored to full health; the time he wrestled junior Frank Lampard for the ball when we were awarded a penalty in the amazing comeback game against Bradford City in which we turned a 2-4 deficit into a 5-4 victory.
And there’s no doubting his love of West Ham; he’s even got the tattoo to prove it. The trouble is, he’s got other tattoos as well, and they are a good deal less savoury. His back alone is a tribute to fascism, featuring a symbolic imperial eagle and a portrait of Italian wartime leader Benito Mussolini, complete with military helmet.
Mussolini, Adolph Hitler’s closest ally and architect of one of the most repulsive ideologies mankind has dreamt up, liked to be known as Il Duce – ‘The Leader’. If the picture on Di Canio’s back wasn’t enough, his arm carries a tattoo that says Dux, the Latin translation of Duce. In his time at West Ham, from 1999 to 2003, Di Canio wisely kept his political thoughts to himself.
Neither did he celebrate any of the 48 goals he scored in 118 appearances by hailing the crowd with a straightarmed fascist salute. But he did just that when he returned to Lazio – the club he supported as a boy and notorious for its links to extreme right-wing politics. And he did it more than once.
Di Canio is adamant that he’s not a racist, which rather suggests he doesn’t fully understand what fascism is all about. A political movement that is based on the idea that the people of one nation are inherently superior to those of other countries and continents is inherently racist – and it doesn’t become any more palatable when the believers of this idiocy try to implement their way of thinking with extreme violence.
Politics has no place in football, say Di Canio’s supporters. I disagree – politics and money go hand in hand, and there’s a lot of money in Premier League football. But even if they were right, there are some things that are just wrong. To appoint a man who has aligned himself so closely to fascism as club manager would do untold damage to the credibility of West Ham.
The East End has a proud tradition of resisting fascists. The Battle of Cable Street sent Oswald Mosely and his blackshirts packing as they tried to spread their message of fear. And the people of the area withstood the worst Hitler and his airforce could throw at them as the bombs rained down during the blitz.
They even coined a phrase to encapsulate their defiance – ‘We can take it.’ I think there is something in the DNA of every West Ham supporter that yearns for one of our great players to return as manager and create a side in his own image. But I’m sorry Paolo, it can never be you. You see, if you were to get the job it would send out the message to those who want to intimidate anyone they dislike because of their colour, their religion or their sexuality that it is somehow all right to do so. And that we couldn’t take. B