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Jan 26, 2012

Paolo Di Canio: The Volcano

As with many football geniuses, Paolo Di Canio made his impression on the game both with the sublime skills he showed on the pitch and his fiery temperament that caused controversy wherever he went. The index to his autobiography, published in 2000, speaks volumes as, alphabetically, in the (a) section under his name come the following: argument with Atkinson; argument with Burns; argument with Capello; argument with Ferguson [not Sir Alex]; argument with Trapattoni; argument with Wilson.

Di Canio's early years saw him push against the tide from a young age. Born into the working-class Quarticciolo district in Rome which was a hotbed of AS Roma support, he chose to follow their bitter rivals: Lazio. An early career in acting was cut short when he passed an audition for a Zorro TV programme, but his family was unable to pay the 50,000 lira needed for a photoshoot and he found his way into football instead.

Still, it was a long road. As a child, Di Canio was overweight, knock-kneed and required to wear orthopaedic shoes, while his addiction to cola drinks earned him the nickname "Palloca" among his friends - a slang term, meaning lard-ball. Suffering from chronic panic attacks and fear of flying, he also wet the bed until the age of 11 (something of a problem given that he was forced to share his mattress with older brother Antonio).

Perhaps it was borne out of this frustration that saw him flirt with the wrong side of the law when, at the age of 12, he stole his brother's bicycle and sold it for 12,000 lira. He spent the cash on ice cream, sweets and video games rather than football memorabilia, but despite his outward appearance there was a young talent bursting to get out. "I never hid," he told The Independent in 2011. "My response was to exercise; to try to become the kind of person I am."

Once he found his focus, his talent for football was evident. Joining Lazio's youth setup, he signed for the club as a 17-year-old in 1985 and, as an active member of the Irriducibili (the Roman club's notorious hardcore supporters) it was a special moment. While on the club's books, if he wasn't in the squad he would still travel to away games and his 2005 memoir Il Ritorno (The Return), reveals: "I've had bricks thrown at me by opposing fans. I've been tear-gassed and beaten by police." He has also admitted that he was just five yards away as he witnessed the Bergamo chief of police getting knifed at a game.

Helping them gain promotion from Serie B, Di Canio lasted five years at Lazio before he was sold to Juventus in 1992, with his volatile personality playing a large part in the decision to let him go. But in Turin, his path crossed that of Gianluca Vialli. Di Canio would later tell FourFourTwo magazine: "Vialli was above them all. We're talking about someone who came from a rich family. He had a 40-room mansion in Cremona but he made sacrifices and never complained. Seeing that helped me develop as a player. He'd stay behind for 40 minutes after training practising his shooting. I'd look at him and say, "F***! He could be living in Monaco and he's shooting at an empty goal in the rain!"

The pair were only together for a single season before Di Canio was involved in a bust-up with then-manager Giovanni Trapattoni. It centred around tactical frustration as when the striker had joined the club they operated a five-man attack under Gigi Maifredi. Trapattoni's focus on defence saw the pair clash and Di Canio declared: "Essentially, he wanted me to be a full-back in midfield. I was assigned a small rectangle to the right of midfield. God forbid I should ever step outside it... It made you feel rather like a dog."

When it eventually came to blows on the training ground, Di Canio was told he was 'finished' at the club and was sent on loan to Napoli. It was a good move, as The Independent's Robert Chalmers wrote: "Under coach Marcello Lippi, he was widely acknowledged as the finest player in Serie A, at a time when the Italian league was as strong as it has ever been" and he was finally giving notice of his talent.

Champions AC Milan took note and brought him into the Fabio Capello-led squad that had won three back-to-back titles since 1991. However, Di Canio found it tough to blend into one of the most successful sides in history and lasted only two years. He picked up his only Serie A title in 1995-96, but after Capello had agreed a move to Real Madrid, he clashed with the coach on a summer tour to Asia against a China XI when the coach took him off at half-time in place of a defender to preserve the lead.

After a violent exchange which included a host of expletives and Di Canio shoving his manager over a bag in the dressing room, he left the stadium and returned to the hotel with the immortal words: "One thing is for sure, I'm not going to hang around here and look at your penis face any longer!"

Capello was soon in Madrid, but Di Canio never played for Milan again and opted to move to Scotland with Celtic paying £1 million for him. Wading into the sectarian rows between the Hoops and bitter rivals Rangers, the striker's history as a sympathiser for fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (he has a DVX tattoo on his shoulder; a Latin appellation for Il Duce) served him well at Lazio and gave him an understanding of the political tensions at play in sport. Even statements designed to downplay his image such as: "Hatred can be good. But you don't hate someone just because they're a Protestant," saw his on-pitch actions overshadowed and his contract was not renewed despite scoring 15 times in 38 appearances and being voted Player of the Year. "I don't play for liars and traitors," he later said of the Celtic board.

A £4.8 million record-signing by Ron Atkinson for Sheffield Wednesday in 1997-98, Di Canio quickly established himself as a fans favourite by finishing his first season in England as the club's top scorer with 14. However, he had not acquired the nickname 'The Volcano' for no reason and his time at the Owls was blighted by one of the Premier League's most infamous moments, as he pushed referee Paul Alcock to the ground after being sent off against Arsenal in September the following year.

Di Canio said in his autobiography: "All I knew was that I was the only one being punished [Martin Keown was also sent off]. So I pushed Alcock away. It wasn't a violent gesture, it was a gesture of disappointment, that's all it was. I was turning my body away from him at the time, as if to say: "Forget it, get out of here!" I didn't insult him. I didn't say anything to him, I just was angry and disappointed that I was being sent off. People described it as an "assault". Believe me, if I had wanted to assault Alcock, if I had wanted to do something violent, it would have been totally different.

"And then he fell over. I've watched the video a million times and to this day. I still don't understand how he managed to fall over like that. I could push my eight year old daughter that way and she wouldn't fall over. But Alcock kept going backwards, dragging his leg along the ground before collapsing on his buttocks. It certainly looked bizarre. When I saw him fall I was as surprised as anyone. My first reaction was that somebody must have been crouching behind him, that is the only way it is humanly possible to fall over like that. There simply is no other way."

Having scared Arsenal defender Nigel Winterburn to within an inch of his life, the result was an 11-game ban and a fine of £10,000. He was hammered in the press and called everything from 'mad' to 'wretched', while it was the late Tony Banks, then Minister for Sport, who said, "Barbarian go home," according to the player himself. "Somebody wrote that what I'd done was worse than [the] Hillsborough [disaster], where 96 people died. I still have the cutting," he told The Independent.

After falling out with Wednesday (and in particular manager Danny Wilson who he labelled 'a cretin') over the handling of the affair, he vented his feeling of betrayal and isolation following his four-month ban from the game and never pulled on the shirt again. Di Canio, though, soon found a home with Harry Redknapp's West Ham in January as the Hammers spent £1.7 million in bringing him to Upton Park. His performances earned him high praise and he scored one of the best goals in the history of the Premier League: an exquisite volley for West Ham against Wimbledon in the 1999-2000 season to seemingly complete his comeback.

While praise was something that was usually followed by condemnation in his career, Di Canio listened to the angel on his shoulder for a change as, in December 2000, he made the decision to catch the ball rather than put it into the unguarded net when Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard was lying badly injured. As a result he won the FIFA Fair Play award and was lauded for his behaviour. Manchester United goalkeeper Fabian Barthez even tried to take advantage of his new persona, but the Italian was not fooled by his efforts to persuade him he was offside a month later and his goal knocked the Red Devils out of the FA Cup.

United would try and sign Di Canio a season later, but while he was flattered, the striker stayed put. "There was no way I could ever have betrayed the fans at West Ham," he told The Independent. "Football has never been a business. Football is a passion." However, his passion, often his biggest downfall, saw another public row with then-manager Glenn Roeder and he was dropped from the first-team after a four-letter tirade directed at his boss when he was substituted in late 2002. Drawing on the stats that West Ham could not win a game without him during that season, he revealed: "With that in mind, I should play even with one leg."

Ultimately, Di Canio was let go at the end of the season as West Ham dropped into the Championship. Joining Charlton for a season, he helped the Addicks to their highest league position since the 1950s (7th), but despite signing a new contract at the end of the season, he was yearning for a return to Italy and reneged on his promise to stay when he was offered a return to Rome. He could only apologise to the Charlton fans for his decision: "This is possibly the most difficult career decision I have ever had to make and I can only apologise to Alan Curbishley and the supporters of Charlton, for whom I have the greatest affection," he said. "The supporters were always right behind me and I hope they will not be angry with me and will understand that, where your family is involved, you sometimes have to do things which are very painful."

Back at boyhood club Lazio, he immediately revealed his love for the Biancocelesti: "When I arrived at the stadium, I had a lump in my throat which I thought would choke me," he wrote in 2005. "I was overwhelmed by the experience. And so I wept. And I trembled. The pounding of my heart tormented me. I felt unable to control my thoughts or my actions. I lost the power of speech. And yet I kept on crying like a baby. I am not a man accustomed to weeping. But here, everything was different." But his volatile nature soon rose to the fore again as, following a 3-1 win in the Derby della Capitale against Roma, he celebrated with the home fans by displaying a fascist salute. It was something he would do in three further matches before the Italian FA gave him a one match ban, although he has always maintained that it was not about politics (he doesn't actually vote), rather his "psychological history, particularly his former compulsive tendencies".

Such episodes saw him, again, criticised in the press and the negative publicity that was generated by his return persuaded the club to release him - the final straw was a public contretemps with the Lazio chairman Claudio Lotito in a restaurant that ended in him turning a table over and throwing anything he could get his hands on in fury. His final club was a step down in 2006 as he moved to Serie C2 to join Cisco Roma for an 18-month spell that failed to see them promoted. It did offer him a chance to act as player-manager though and, on March 10, 2008, Di Canio announced his retirement from football, unusually, without much of a fuss.

For a man who spent the majority of his career falling out and fighting with managers, the road to the dugout seemed a strange transition. But, after failing to get the West Ham job a few years later (even after the opening of the 'Paolo Di Canio Lounge', within the West Stand of Upton Park) he was announced as the boss of Swindon Town following their relegation to League Two. Ironically, given the history between the two, he stated that Capello's is the example he wished to follow most.

With no signs that he has calmed his temper (just ask Leon Clarke), the final word should really be left to man himself: "There are people who still say to me that had I been quieter I could have played for Italy," he said, having only managed nine Under-21 caps for his country. "My answer is this: had I been calmer, I wouldn't even have made it as a footballer. I give my best when I'm pissed off and when I argue with the entire world."

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