Sunderland took a gamble by hiring Paolo Di Canio as its new manager on Sunday, empowering the inexperienced and outspoken Italian with the tough task of ensuring the relegation-threatened team retains its Premier League status.
The appointment came a day after Martin O'Neill was fired following a poor run of results and sparked immediate controversy, with former British politician David Miliband resigning from his positions as vice chairman and non-executive director of the club because of Di Canio's openly fascist leanings.
Di Canio had a colorful playing career in the top divisions of Italy, England and Celtic, marked by sublime goals and headline-grabbing antics — notably when he pushed a referee to the ground after being sent off while playing for Sheffield Wednesday in 1996.
Then there was the straight-arm salute — adopted by the Italian Fascist regime in the early 20th century — that he performed in front of the fans of his Lazio team in 2005, earning him a ban, a fine and condemnation by FIFA.
"I am a fascist, not a racist," Di Canio said at the time, and he has praised Mussolini in his autobiography, calling the former Italian leader as "basically a very principled, ethical individual" who was "deeply misunderstood."
Di Canio has limited managerial experience, with his only previous job ending at third-tier English club Swindon last month after a turbulent 1 1/2 years in charge. It is a big call by Sunderland owner Ellis Short at this stage of the season.
"Paolo is hugely enthused by the challenge that lies ahead of him," Short said in a statement. "He is passionate, driven and raring to get started."
Miliband, who contested the leadership in 2010 of the Labour party in Britain, stood down within minutes of the 44-year-old Di Canio's appointment.
"I wish Sunderland AFC all success in the future," Milliband 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."
Sunderland's 1-0 loss at home to Manchester United on Saturday extended its winless run to eight matches and left the team in 16th place, just a point above the relegation zone with seven matches remaining.
"The sole focus of everyone for the next seven games will be to ensure we gain enough points to maintain our top-flight status," Short said. "I think that the chances of that are greatly increased with Paolo joining us."
Di Canio, whose first match in charge is at Chelsea on Sunday, scored more than 100 goals in over 500 appearances as a player with Lazio, Juventus, Napoli, AC Milan, Celtic and West Ham among other clubs before retiring in 2008.
In his managerial stint at Swindon, he led the team up a division into the third tier but courted controversy by criticizing some of his players in public. He quit in February, citing a number of off-field issues with the club's hierarchy but had made a big impression by that time.
A technically excellent player, Di Canio will forever be remembered in England for his shove on referee Paul Alcock that resulted in an 11-match ban. But also for his sporting gesture in 2000 while playing for West Ham against Everton in which he caught the ball rather than attempt a volley or header on goal because injured Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard had slumped to the ground. FIFA described it as "a special act of good sportsmanship."
O'Neill became the fourth manager of a relegation-threatened team to lose his job in the past four months, with Premier League owners becoming twitchy with the prospect of a huge windfall of TV money on offer over the next three seasons following a new domestic deal. Queens Park Rangers, Southampton and Reading have changed their managers since the end of November, with only Southampton currently out of the drop zone.
Di Canio has a difficult task ahead, with games against Newcastle and Everton coming up after Chelsea. Only four games remain after that, and worryingly many of its relegation rivals are starting to pick up points.
Wigan has begun its typical end-of-season recovery and Aston Villa has had a more resilient look to the team during the past two months.
Di Canio will be without top scorer Steven Fletcher for the rest of the season because of injury and has a backup striker in Danny Graham who hasn't scored a goal in seven games since joining from Swansea in January.