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Sunderland turns to Di Canio as manager

SUNDERLAND, England -- Paolo Di Canio signed a 2½-year contract to become Sunderland manager on Sunday, replacing the fired Martin O'Neill and tasked with ensuring the relegation-threatened club retains its Premier League status.

Sunderland lost 1-0 at home to Manchester United on Saturday for its eight straight match without a win, leading to O'Neill's dismissal with the team only one point above the drop zone in 16th place.

"Paolo is hugely enthused by the challenge that lies ahead of him. He is passionate, driven and raring to get started," owner Ellis Short said in a statement. "The sole focus of everyone for the next seven games will be to ensure we gain enough points to maintain our top-flight status. I think that the chances of that are greatly increased with Paolo joining us."

Di Canio is a 44-year-old Italian who scored more than 100 goals in over 500 appearances as a player with Lazio, Juventus, Napoli, AC Milan, Celtic and West Ham among others.

He retired in 2008 and was appointed manager of Swindon in 2011, leading the team up a division into the third tier the following year. He quit in February, citing a number of off-field issues with the club's hierarchy.

Di Canio is a supporter of far-right political views and once received a one-match ban for performing a salute that was adopted by the Italian Fascist regime in the early 20th century.

His appointment Sunday prompted former British politician David Miliband to immediately resign as vice chairman and non-executive director of Sunderland.

"I wish Sunderland AFC all success in the future," Miliband wrote on his website. "It is a great institution that does a huge amount for the North East and I wish the team very well over the next vital seven games. However, in the light of the new manager's past political statements, I think it right to step down."

Di Canio also famously pushed a referee to the ground after being sent off while playing for Sheffield Wednesday in 1996. He received an 11-match ban from the English Football Association and was fined 10,000 pounds.

O'Neill became the fourth manager of a relegation-threatened team to lose his job in the past four months. Queens Park Rangers, Southampton and Reading have changed their managers since the end of November, with only Southampton currently out of the drop zone.

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