Legend of Calcio: Paolo Di Canio
Paolo Di Canio, love him or hate him, is a legend in the Italian game. There simply isn’t a list of adjectives long enough to describe this man. Crazy, gifted, passionate, fiery, genius, tempremental, unyielding, skillful, the list goes on.
He has scored some of the most sublime strikes ever seen on a football pitch, pushed referees, came to blows with managers, teammates and his own players, become idolised by hoards of fans all over Britain and Italy and claims to make the “ultimate tiramisu.” This is all just part and parcel of the Paolo story.
These days, mention the name Di Canio and the image that instantly comes to mind is of the attacker striding off the field after a game teeth clenched, purposeful glint in his eye and right arm outsretched in the typical fascist salute to “those in the crowd who share my ideas.” It may be a negative image but Paolo Di Canio was certainly much, much more than an outsretched arm inciting hatred and acclaim in equal measure.
He was one of the most gifted players to come out of the peninsula in the 90s and this belief is shared by fans of the many clubs who were fortunate enough to witness him across his colourful career in both Britain and his homeland. People can accuse the striker of being many things but one thing that he can never be accused of in his career is a lack of effort. In fact after one dreadful showing by his team in a bore draw Rome Derby in which the side were booed off by the ultras upon the final whistle, Di Canio threw his jersey into the curva to show that “my shirt is wet with sweat.”
Di Canio was born in the Quarticciolo area of Rome, and like most in the district, grew up a die-hard Lazio fan. His skill at an early age was evident as he displyed great technique and awareness and his quick feet and flashy dribbling was enough to see him signed for the club he loved as a 17 year-old. He remained at the Olimpico for five years at the beginning of his career and even managed a goal in the Derby della Capitale but the bright young talent realised that if he were to forge a successful career in the game he would have to his leave his hometown heroes behind. It was to be a clever move and the striker would return to Lazio before he hung up his boots in 2008.
The attacker enjoyed decent goalscoring spells at a lot of the country’s biggest clubs at this time scoring goals for Juventus, a declining Napoli and an extremely strong Milan side. He had shown exactly what he was capable of at this time and had played rather well for all of these clubs. However, the striker could not settle anywhere for a regular run in the side and was resorted to substitute appearances and sporadic runs for a great deal of time. This time, the forward decided that his future would lie outside of his homeland and so it was that, for the 1996-97 season, he joined Scottish side Celtic for £1m and he didn’t take long to become a cult hero in Glasgow. Di Canio was worshipped in Glasgow in much the same way that the West Ham fans would take him to their hearts during his time at Upton Park years later.
The enigmatic striker took little time to settle and under the attacking guidance of Celtic manager Tommy Burns he played some sensational football during his solitary season in Scotland. His audacious and sublime skill during games was combined with his fiery temprament off the field. In fact, so seriously did the man known as ‘D-I’ to the Celtic support take his football that he once stormed off the training ground saying he would not play with such inferior players after one too many slack passes from his teammates.
However, his popularity endured with a penalty in the infamous Glasgow Derby against Rangers and hit stranger heights when he released a CD with the Celtic fans in which the main track took popular 80’s hit D.I.S.C.O. and amended it to praise the Italian striker. Bizarre yes, but just one of many such incidents that occurred in Di Canio’s career. He did not get long to enjoy his sojourn in Scotland though and despite some magnificent performances and picking up a Player of the Year award, he was forced out by the club’s chairman who he branded a ‘liar’ and ‘traitor’ for refusing to award him a new contract and soon found himself south of the border with Premiership club Sheffield Wednesday.
Di Canio was terrific at Hillsborough and his outstanding performances brought him to the attention of a larger audience who marvelled at his tricky feet and goalscoring ability. In just over 40 games for the Owls he managed to score on 23 occasions to keep his club in the Premier League. In fact a great many of these goals were stunning strikes showcasing the technique that the player had to pull off something out of the ordinary. In fact, the striker was just very unlucky around this time when he was playing so well that he did not receive a call-up to the Italian national team due to the abundance of attacking talent that was available to La Nazionale’s selectors during this period.
Attackers like Francesco Totti, Alessandro del Piero, Christian Vieri, ‘Pippo’ Inzaghi and Marco Delvecchio all featured in the squads at the time and the England-based Di Canio suffered from the class of these players as well as his location as it is often tougher for players who ply their trade abroad to make their way into the Azzurri set-up. Unfortunately though, he would have bigger problems when, in September 1998 during a game against Arsenal, his determined mentality got the better of him and he was shown the red card. Livid at the decision, the Italian responded by shoving referee Paul Allcock although the referee’s exaggerated fall was perhaps worse than the push itself. His punishment amounted to an 11 game ban and a fine of £10,000 which all but numbered his days in Sheffield and in January he joined West Ham where his career would go from strength to strength.
His impact and influence on the squad was felt instantly and the inspirational Italian helped haul his team to 5th place in the league and thus secure European football for the following season. Also, despite his lengthy ban earlier in the season he would still wind up as the OPTA Stats Player of the Season. Impressive indeed. Despite the fact that he was not as prolific the following year for the London club, one moment in particular stands out as being above anything else he accomplished in his career in terms off sheer footballing abililty. West Ham were at home to Wimbledon when Trevor Sinclair sent a long diagonal ball to the back of the penalty box where Di Canio stood waiting. He seemed to hang suspended in the air as he waited for the ball to arrive and when it did he met it perfectly with the outside of his right foot with a terrific scissors kick and the unstoppable effort hit the back of the net to allow the Italian to pick up the gongs for both Goal of the Season and Premiership Goal of the Decade.
That year he also picked up the West Ham fan’s award for Hammer of the Year and he showed his gratitude to the supporters by having a West Ham tatoo inked on his arm. The Di Canio enigma continued to rise the following season when he picked up the FIFA Fair Play award. Many fans and pundits thought they may have had the player all figured out as an ill-tempered, selfish player but one incident in a game against Everton changed these opinions for the better. The player had a chance to easily slot the ball into the empty net but, after noticing opposing goalkeeper Paul Gerrard lying on the ground injured he picked up the ball in an outstanding display of sportsmanship instead of scoring the goal.
Di Canio was to remain at West Ham for the next two years despite repeated advances from Manchester United (Alex Ferguson was reputed to be a big fan of the player who always turned in excellent displays when he came up against the Red Devils) but left the club following their relegation in 2003. A dispute with manager Glenn Roeder resulted in his being dropped from the team but when Roeder left after illness, he was brought back in for the final few games of the season and despite scoring in both the club’s final games of the campaign, he could not save them from relegation and that summer he left to join fellow London club Charlton Athletic.
His time at the Addicks was eventful and he still played to a high level despite his now advancing years but he would only score four goals that season and decided not to stay at the Valley at the end of the year, thus paving the way for a return to his boyhood heroes. After Lazio came calling for his services, there was only going to be one port of call for Di Canio and the player unselfishly took a huge pay cut to return to Rome. He immediately signed for the Biancolesti upon leaving London and his fiery mentality immediately came to the fore on his second debut for the club. With the score poised at 0-0 he won a penalty and pushed Simone Inzaghi aside in order to take it himself. It proved a wise decision as he scored the kick and Lazio went on to win the game.
The controversy continued throughout his second spell at the Olimpico because even though his on-field antics were still impressive for a 37 year-old when he scored once more against Roma in a 3-1 win and went on to captain the club but his fascist salutes in the Derby and after a game against left-wing Livorno but that is just Paolo at his best. Often outstanding, but always unpredictable. His second spell at Lazio though was to end on a low point when Di Canio’s contract was not renewed by President Claudio Lotito and he was forced to find a new club.
He did find a new club though within the city when he joined Roman Serie C2 club Cisco Roma (now known as Atletico Roma) for two years for a final swansong to his illustrious career. He retired from football in 2008 and two years later he was honoured at Upton Park with the Paolo Di Canio Suite within the stadium to acknowledge his achievements for the club.
Follow Padraig Whelan on Twitter: @PWhelan88