Lazio Legends: Paolo Di CanioBy: Cristiano | March 2nd, 2010
In 110 years of Lazio, there have been many passionate players, those for whom wearing the blue and white meant everything. Lazio fans respect nothing more than a player who gives body and soul to defend the shirt. The player who best embodied this fighting spirit was without a doubt, Paolo Di Canio.
Paolo Di Canio is laziale born and bred. A native of the city’s Quarticciolo district, he grew up supporting the club which first brought football to Rome. This despite the fact that most of the inhabitants of Quarticciolo, including many of Di Canio’s relatives, were fans of the city’s other club, Roma.
Di Canio was more than just a fan, though. He was an ultra, a regular on the Lazio terraces alongside the legendary Eagles Supporters and, in 1987 was greatly impressed by the newly formed Irriducibili, whom he joined.
While he provided fanatical support for Lazio in the stands, Paolo honed his footballing talents on the streets of Rome, as well as with Lazio’s youth system. The club he supported as a boy identified him while he played for a minor junior club. From a young age, his footballing ability was as extreme as his love for Lazio. The young Di Canio would play on a Saturday, and then leave with the IRR at night to travel to away games. While he was at times unruly on the pitch, his dedication to the cause was beyond limits.
Like most promising talents in Italy, Di Canio got his first taste of senior football on loan. He was sent to Ternana, who were then coached by Mario Facco, one of the ‘74 scudetto heroes. Another man from ‘74, Vincenzo D’Amico, was also at Ternana, enjoying his final years as a player. Di Canio first entered the world of professional football alongside two of Lazio’s heroes of a past era.
In 1988, he returned to the newly-promoted Lazio and made his Serie A debut in a 0-0 draw away to Cesena. In January 1989, the first Derby in three years took place. Lazio had spent time in Serie B, and this Derby would be a big one. It finished 1-0 to Lazio. The goalscorer? Well, it could only be Paoletto, and he celebrated his goal in true Lazio fashion taunting the Roma curva.
Di Canio did not follow the path he probably would have wanted, though. In 1990, president Calleri opted to sell Di Canio to Juventus. At Juve, Paolo won the ‘93 UEFA Cup but a difficult relationship with coach Trapattoni saw him head on loan to Napoli shortly afterwards. Napoli is one of Lazio’s fiercest rivals, yet much like at Lazio, the partenopei fans are passionate and demand the same passion from their players. Di Canio thrived there, with the highlight of his time at the club being a wonder goal against champions Milan. When the loan spell ended, Di Canio did not want a Juve return and it was Milan than he joined on a permanent deal. Again though, he clashed with his coach, this time Fabio Capello. After two seasons at Milan, with a scudetto and a European Supercup under his belt, Di Canio left the peninsula in search of a new experience.
In 1996, Di Canio arrived in Scotland where he joined Glasgow giants Celtic. His one season there was extremely successful on a personal level, as he scored in the Old Firm derby and was awarded the Player of the Year. However, the team didn’t win any titles. A contractual dispute saw him swap Scotland for England at season’s end. Di Canio signed for Sheffield Wednesday, where he proved that he was more than good enough to be a force in English football. He also famously received an 11-match ban for pushing referee Paul Alcock to the ground.
West Ham took notice of his talent and signed him in 1999. Paolo remained with the Hammers for four and a half seasons; a much longer period than his experiences with previous clubs. Di Canio quickly became a legend of the London club, and when their Team of the Century was revealed, he was the only foreigner in the side. At West Ham, Paolo put his immense talent on display. The volley he scored against Wimbledon in 2000 (below) is a contender for the best ever scored in the Premiership. That same year, Di Canio also won a FIFA Fair Play award, due to a remarkable display of sportsmanship. West Ham were playing Everton at Goodison Park and after 90 minutes, the scores were tied at 1-1. Trevor Sinclair put a cross in for Di Canio who caught the ball rather than heading it in, as Toffees custodian Paul Gerrard had gone to ground injured. In 2003, Di Canio left Upton Park as one of the most popular players the Hammers have ever had.
Paolo spent a season at Charlton, before leaving the UK in 2004. He had spent a total of eight years there and had made more than 200 appearances in Scotland and England. However, it was time for him to return to his one true home.
In the summer of 2004, Lazio had narrowly avoided being cancelled from Italian football due to financial problems. Claudio Lotito found himself running Rome’s oldest football club and he needed desperately to put together a squad capable of preserving Lazio’s status in Serie A. Di Canio was contacted and the 36-year old sacrificed three-quarters of his wage to join on a free transfer. After almost 15 years, Paolo had returned to where he belonged.
The season started, and Lazio were struggling badly. No longer were they the title contenders of the Cragnotti days. Not for the first time, Di Canio clashed with the coach, Mimmo Caso, who was duly sacked after a poor run of results. Giuseppe Papadopulo took over, and he duly guided Lazio to safety. The highlight of Di Canio’s return came on the the 6th of January 2005. The stage was set for not only a relegation battle between Rome’s two teams but Paolo’s first Derby for fifteen years. It didn’t take long for history to be written. In the first half, talented regista and romanista-at-heart, Fabio Liverani, played a perfect ball from deep in the midfield. Di Canio latched onto the ball, volleying past ‘keeper Pelizzoli. Just as he did 15 years earlier, Di Canio ran to the Curva Sud and celebrated. It was a moment of pure lazialità. The commentary in the Roman dialect from renowned Lazio fan, Guido De Angelis, is etched into the memory of every laziale.
Paoletto mio!! Te vojo bene, Paolè! Paolè te vojo bene. E ancora ‘na vorta. J’hai fatto male ancora ‘na vorta Paolè. Paolè j’hai fatto male!
At the end of the match, Paolo raised controversy when he gave a Roman salute to the Lazio ultras in Curva Nord. This act of aligning himself to the ultras he had once stood with cost him a one-match ban. To the British football public who had once admired him, he was condemned as a fascist. Taking his salute in context; while it was a questionable act, it was not as much a show of support for right-wing extremism, as it was a show of belonging to the Lazio people, the people of Rome.
His season was a success on the pitch though, as he scored six times and Lazio survived.
For the 2005-06 season, Papadopulo was replaced on the bench by Delio Rossi. Lazio finished in a European place, however for Di Canio it was the end of his time at Lazio. In the two seasons of his biancoceleste comeback, he had proudly defended the colours on every occasion. Ultimately though, his style and his close connection with the ultras in Curva Nord proved incompatible with Claudio Lotito and his club management. Di Canio’s contract was not renewed and at 38, his career at the highest level was over.
Despite links with a move to countries such as Australia, Di Canio remained in Italy and played another two seasons with Cisco Roma in third division. Following a series of injuries, Di Canio decided to retire. His last game as a footballer came in a 4-2 loss to Benevento at the Stadio Flaminio, the traditional home ground of Lazio. Di Canio scored both of Cisco’s goals.
He will forever be remembered as the man who best embodied lazialità and the fighting spirit expected of everyone who wears the Lazio shirt.