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“England is the perfect place to play for a footballer. There is education and there is passion. I love English supporters and I love English people. What I love about England is that it is 90 minutes of battle, run, fight. English football is my favourite football.”
– Paolo Di Canio
Cult heroes are always that little bit more interesting when they have an edge to them, and that edge was never far from the surface when it came to Paolo Di Canio, the Italian who arrived in Britain as just another journeyman foreign flair player, but left it having carved his name into Premier League history. Never truly appreciated in his homeland, where he played in the same teams as – and was often overshadowed by – the likes of Fabrizio Ravanelli, Zvonimir Boban and George Weah, Di Canio’s skills and Italian flair were positively encouraged in the Premier League, into which he arrived in a £4.2m move to Sheffield Wednesday from Celtic – where he first fell in love with the British game – in 1997.
Immediately striking up a relationship with fellow Italian Benito Carbone, Di Canio played a large part in transforming Wednesday into one of the Premier League’s most watchable sides, finishing as the Yorkshire club’s top scorer as they stayed up by four points in 1997/98. Di Canio possessed an almost perfect balance when running with the ball, his relatively low centre of gravity allowing him to embarrass defenders with just a drop of the shoulder. He could finish too, as his goal record proved. It was his second season at Hillsborough that Di Canio’s time at the club is remembered for though, and his push on referee Paul Alcock that, looking back now, only seems to add to the Italian’s legend. At the time, however, it was deadly serious – once you’d stopped laughing at Alcock’s comedy fall – and Di Canio was banned for 11 games. It took a huge leap of faith for Harry Redknapp to sign him in January 1999, at a time when the vilified Italian was in hiding in his homeland, but Di Canio and West Ham United seemed made for each other, and neither party would regret the decision.
Hammers fans have always responded well to two things – good, entertaining football and passionate, loyal players, and in Di Canio they got the epitome of both. His goal against Wimbledon in March 2000 during the Italian’s first full season at Upton Park is worthy of an entire article on its own. The almost balletic way with which he leapt and hovered in the air before cleanly, crisply volleying Trevor Sinclair’s driven cross into the far corner of the net was mesmeric. If ever anyone doubted football’s place amongst the art forms then they need only witness that goal to be proved wrong. It combined majesty, invention, originality and a little bit of madness. In short it was pure Di Canio.
If the Paul Alcock incident showcased Di Canio the sinner, then the Paul Gerrard incident revealed Di Canio the saint. The Italian earning a FIFA Fair Play award in 2001 after catching the ball instead of nodding it goalwards when Everton goalkeeper Gerrard writhed in agony outside of the Goodison Park penalty area. Di Canio’s act of sportsmanship – which allowed Gerrard to receive treatment more quickly – was one of the more remarkable moments in Premier League history, and finally rid him of that bad-boy image he had acquired at Sheffield Wednesday, but hadn’t quite shaken off in the eyes of many.
While many eulogies have been written about him as a player – and his catalogue of great goals and performances make that inevitable – less is spoken about Di Canio the Captain. No-one was more devastated than the Italian when West Ham were relegated in 2003. Di Canio, restored to the side by Trevor Brooking after being exiled under the convalescing Glenn Roeder, lay prostrate on the turf at Birmingham City’s St. Andrews’ – the venue of the Hammers’ demotion – as four and a half years of West Ham memories were ended in the worst possible manner. A season at Charlton followed, but he never felt the love and freedom there that he experienced at West Ham, and a move to his boyhood club Lazio ended his time in England in 2004.
Di Canio is an idol for an entire generation of Hammers, and probably some Sheffield Wednesday fans as well. While his political thoughts and actions have often been debated and discussed elsewhere, we football fans only care about matters on the pitch, and in the Italian we saw one of the game’s great mavericks, entertainers and characters all rolled into one. It’s unlikely we’ll see one like him again.
Di Canio Factfile
Name – Paolo Di Canio
Age – 41( July 9, 1968)
Position – Forward
West Ham United
Club level honours – UEFA Cup (1993) – Serie A (1996)
Nationality – Italian
Caps/goals – None