You probably didn’t realise this, but circa 1998 Di Canio became an adjective in the English dictionary. For example: “We’re worried about him, but at the same time, intensely fascinated by what he might do. He’s looking very Di Canio.”. It’s a way to describe the face of an unhinged individual who’s either on the verge of committing a serious war crime, or painting the Sistine Chapel.
That is the very essence of Paolo Di Canio. The little Italian footballer who became a headline-generator in English football at the turn of the millennium (and beyond). He arrived in Britain in the summer of 1996, when he signed for Celtic after he had run out of Serie A club managers to fight with. Luckily, Celtic would be playing Rangers four times a season, so Paolo had plenty more fisticuff opportunities in the city of Glasgow.
After a year, and him unable to broker peace between Protestants and Catholics, Di Canio left to join Sheffield Wednesday. It was the summer of 1997 and the country was awash with the news that Tony Blair, our new Prime Minister, was a pretty cool guy, and not the usual scumbag leader who’d get us into wars and stuff. Everyone was excited about things only getting better, and failed to notice a 5ft 10in Roman, who was leading a one-man fascist army into the steel city. He may have jovially ate pizza in uneasy, stereotype-portraying, photo shoots, but he meant serious business. Serious Di Canio business.
You have to remember, the Premier League at this time had only just realised that non-British footballers were actually good. In some cases, many times more good than 80% of British footballers. There was a dramatic increase of foreign players arriving in England who were mistaken in their belief that our streets were paved with gold, when it was actually just an unholy mixture of Hooch and urine.
Di Canio was one of those players. And if nothing else can be said about him (and plenty of things can and will be said about him), he was an undoubted genius with a football. He was a superstar for Sheffield Wednesday, and then came that point when he properly went full Di Canio for the first time in England…
It’s September 1998, and Paolo had largely gotten away with being a madman in England for well over a year. Then came a game against Arsenal. In a rare move for him, he’d acted as an unruly antagonist and gotten himself sent off. But Di Canio wasn’t done, and set his laser sights on referee Paul Alcock. And then, like the moment you lost your virginity, the world changed:
Two years later Martine McCutcheon would release the hit song “Perfect Moment” which was rumoured to have been written about this incident. Because it was an undeniably perfect moment. It was beautiful, like a pivotal scene from an opera. The angry villain of the piece violently shoves the mild-mannered accountant/referee, who theatrically falls to the ground whilst screaming in baritone. And if you zoom in on Alcock’s face as he tumbles, you’ll see a face that represented English football at that time – a shocked look of realisation that Di Canio was here, and we were now all fated to fall over like idiots because of him.
And if you zoom in on Alcock’s face as he tumbles, you’ll see a face that represented English football at that time – a shocked look of realisation that Di Canio was here, and we were now all fated to fall over like idiots because of him.
“Substitute Me! Oh Wait, Don’t Bother. I’ll Win The Game For You Instead”
Like magnets, Di Canio and West Ham United were irreversibly drawn to each other. He made camp at Upton Park in January 1999, and just over a year later, on 12 Feburary 2000, he would usher in the new millennium with some Di Canio fireworks. It was an unassuming fixture, not one that you might have guessed would be epoch-making. West Ham vs. Bradford City, huh? OK, it might have a goal or two in it. Wrong, bucko. Because it’d have nine goals and in 90 minutes, you’d be privileged to witness a full Di Canio monologue.
The Italian was uncontrollable at the best of times, but when he came up against the defensive might of Paul Jewell’s Bradford (Gunnar Halle and David Wetherall), he would go nuclear. Breaking their line at least 1,296 times (metaphorically, not actually), there were three occasions when Di Canio fell to the floor in the penalty area. At least one of those deserved a penalty, but that didn’t matter to Paolo. After the third incident, the Di Canio mist descended, and he went full Di Canio. He began to make “take me off” signals to the West Ham bench. He was ignored. A fatal mistake, as he would then wander off to the halfway line, and sit down in protest. The passive aggressive nature of such a motion was clear to everyone in the ground, except Harry Redknapp, who only worked in binary emotive displays (happy, sad, confused etc).
Di Canio was kept on, and miraculously helped West Ham come back from being 4-2 down with 25 minutes to go, to win the game 5-4. It was insanity, it was incredible, it was Di Canio.
The ‘Keep Your Chin Up’ Managerial Years
In March 2008, Di Canio retired from football. No, wait. Football retired from Di Canio. Within three years though, he pulled us kicking and screaming back into his world. This time, as the manager of struggling Swindon Town in League Two. For some, this was unexpected. For those that understood Di Canio, it made perfect sense though. You see, you don’t begin a military invasion by trying to take over a super-power. That’s suicide. You start with a small country, like Poland, and then move your way up to America. Swindon was Di Canio’s Poland, and after two years, he had moved onto America. Well, Sunderland anyway.
Six months into the job at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland itself had gone full Di Canio. Chaos reigned in the dressing room and on the pitch. No-one was getting pushed over this time, except the Sunderland defence on a fairly regular basis. It’s OK though, because Di Canio knew what to do. He’d wander over to angry Sunderland fans and stand in front of them after games. And he’d do that ‘keep your chin up’ gesture, which, in his head, was the international sign-language for “I am Di Canio. I am your leader. Shut up now.”
It was at this point, that we all finally understood the biological way in which Di Canio worked: he was powered by negative energy. In order to be re-charged, he needed to be exposed to pure 100% hate (which explained his love of fascism). So he’d stand directly in front of the full glare of Mackem malevolence, like a solar-powered car on an angry sunny day. Re-fueling himself for another week of being Di Canio.
He was sacked of course at Sunderland, and since then, he’s only made brief appearances in our real, non-Di Canio world. Every now and again though, with his batteries running low, he’d pop up again to fill up the tank. Like in 2016, when he was on Italian television in a short-sleeve shirt which revealed his Benito Mussolini tattoo. Presumably, off the back of that negative recharge, the full Di Canio will be powered until around space year 2163.