Saturday, 27 January 2007

One-on-One With Paolo Di Canio

On this date in 1999 West Ham completed the signing of Paolo Di Canio. The temperamental Italian had been banned for 11 matches for pushing referee Paul Alcock and was working in a clothes shop in Ternana when the Hammers paid the £2 million needed to bring him back to England. Harry Redknapp said at the time: “He’s the only one I ever wanted. A million people were thrown at me but I wanted Paolo Di Canio. That’s how strongly I feel. The bloke is a genius, just wait until you see what he can do. Players of his class don’t turn it on all the time, but when he does just sit back and enjoy the show.” West Ham fans did just that, for four and a half eventful seasons. What follows is an extract from an interview carried out by Martin Mazur in which Di Canio reflects on some of the memorable moments of his Upton Park career...

It’s a glorious morning in
Rome and as Cisco Roma’s training session draws to a close Paolo Di Canio, having lead the way in every exercise and every drill, rushes into the small dressing room to get changed. Minutes later, he emerges wearing a commemorative T-shirt of Lazio’s 1973-74 champions. We jump into his blue Mini Cooper and he attempts to run over a couple of team-mates. They curse him and he returns the gesture with interest.

Where do you get your passionate personality from?

It’s generic. Certain circumstances- like growing up in a tough neighbourhood- can bring out that passion, but I’ve been like it since I was a boy. When I see something bad, I say so. I prefer an uncomfortable truth to a beautiful lie and I get incredibly annoyed when people try to sell a false image of themselves. I may be more reflective as my daughters grow up, but if calming down means not saying what I think, I’ll never, ever change.

Who’s the best player you’ve played with?

Vialli, a natural-born champion. Van Basten, Gullit and Baresi, who was the epitome of charisma, were great, but 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. He’d stay behind for 40 minutes after training practising shooting. I’d look at him and say; “Fuck! He could be living in Monaco and he’s shooting at an empty goal in the rain!”

Now that eight years have passed, how do you view the Paul Alcock incident?

I met him again a year later and I still wonder how the hell he managed to fall like that from such a soft push. But I’ve got no excuses. Pushing the referee is not something I recommend, even if all the decisions go against you. Kids are watching and that’s an awful example to set, even if he deserved more than a push. It would have been better to say, “piece of shit” or something just between us.

After you pushed Alcock, you made Nigel Winterburn shit himself. Why didn’t you hit him? You’d already been sent off…

You wanted me to get a 100-match ban, didn’t you! The truth is, I was very annoyed and he approached and started bullying me. I pretended to hit him and he ran away like a sissy. What could I do? Chase him all over the pitch and end it like a bar fight? And I’m sure he was quicker. But today we’re close friends!

Why on earth did you sit down on the pitch and ask to be subbed when West Ham beat Bradford 5-4 in 2000?

Because the ref was completely against me. He should have given me two penalties and I didn’t have the will to carry on playing. Harry told me: “No, Paolo, please, we need you!” A minute later, I said to myself, “Why the fuck should I give up? This referee will not beat me!” Harry wanted me to play, the fans had never deserted me, so I couldn’t give up in return. It was an awesome victory.

Was the catch you made to sacrifice a goal against Everton in December 2000 really intentional? You’re not known for your sporting behaviour.

Of course! And I would have done it with any other player in the same situation. It would have been his ball, so there was evidently a problem and I couldn’t go on. It’s not that he dropped the ball and faked an injury. In that case, I wouldn’t have stopped.

You had altercations with Frank Lampard and Simone Inzaghi over taking penalties. Who was supposed to take the penalty: you or them?

I’ve always accepted orders because I’m a comrade, but if you think that by doing something different a better result can be achieved, I’ll do it. But there weren’t even managers’ orders. With Lampard, I’d missed a penalty a week earlier and perhaps he thought he should take it. Wrong. I’ve never shirked my responsibilities.

At West Ham, you seemed frustrated at Joe Cole not fulfilling his potential. What do you make of his progress now?

I’m incredibly happy for him. Now he’s disciplined, plays for a big club and understands what sacrifice means. And I take 0.001 percent responsibility for that. It seems he listened to me a bit, even if my words dawned on him later. At West Ham I was seen as the ball-breaker in the dressing room. Then when Lampard and Rio Ferdinand left, they said: “Now I understand the things Paolo used to say.” I’m proud of that. They understood that it was a positive for their careers, not mine.

Is it true Harry Redknapp used to fix the five-a-sides in training at West Ham if you turned up in a bad mood?

The only lie about that is that they weren’t five-a-sides, but seven-or eight-a-side. It was true that if I lost I’d leave the pitch smashing everything, so I guess he wanted to keep me calm. But I didn’t know about that trick until he told me. And I quickly understood something he used to say before those games: “I bet Di Canio’s team will win today.”

Why did you wear your shorts backwards for one Charlton game?

Charlton? No, it was West Ham v Arsenal. The reason? Simple. If you notice that you’ve accidentally put something on backwards, you should leave it that way because it’s a symbol of good luck. That day, when I was warming up, someone told me my shorts were backwards. Before the game, the boss said: “Come on Paolo, put them right.” ”No way!” I told him. I knew it was a sign. We won 2-1, I scored both and we beat Arsenal for the first time in 14 years. So if you see you’re wearing something backwards, leave it!

Who’s the craziest person you’ve come across in football?

Razor Ruddock’s antics during training were absurd, but John Moncur wins easily. Once, in winter, in temperatures below freezing, he appeared on the field completely naked, his dick dancing here and there, and splash-landed in the water. He came into the dressing room trembling.

Did you fancy joining Portsmouth when Harry became manager?

Playing for Harry again? I’d run there to sign. He always says, “Come with me Paolo” and when I hang up my boots, I’ll definitely consider working with him. I’m very grateful to him, because he had patience with me and in return I gave my best. We argued so much, but always for the good of the team. He understood me.

What will you do when you finally retire?

I’ll probably be a manager or help the kids in some way. I’ll be a good manager. If I find a player like Di Canio, who arrives early, tries to integrate rather than disrupt, likes to train hard, thinks of the team rather than himself, and accepts that I give the orders, we wouldn’t collide, because I like players with character. Give me 11 Di Canios and I’ll be a happy manager!

Taken from FOURFOURTWO magazine


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