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Monday, 30 October, 2000, 16:23 GMT
Political football
Seb Coe, Terry Marsh, Paolo Di Canio and Shaun Edwards
Seb Coe, Terry Marsh, Paolo Di Canio and Shaun Edwards
BBC Sport Online's Pranav Soneji examines when sportsmen start talking politics.

Sport and politics should never mix - or so the adage goes.

Since the days of Olympic boycotts and rebel cricket tours of South Africa, the received wisdom has been that the rarefied world of athletic endeavour should not be muddied by association with political issues.

Sportsmen, with their penchant for non-committal statements and insipid interviews, tend to steer clear of anything remotely controversial.

Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini: Fascist dictator turned footballer's hero
But every now and again, an individual will come up with some "interesting" ideological views.

The latest star to put his head above the political parapet is Paolo Di Canio - a footballer hardly renowned for his subtlety.

Outrageous comments and actions are a speciality of the West Ham striker - which was never better illustrated than his recent admission for an undying admiration for Italy's infamous fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.

In his eponymous autobiography, the Italian star reveals a personal affinity with "Il Duce", believing they have both been punished for their outspoken views.

He says: "I am fascinated by Mussolini. I think he was a deeply misunderstood - basically a very principled, ethical individual."

Il Duce

Di Canio's affection for Mussolini will no doubt cause a few heads, as well as pages, to turn, especially as he equates the dictator's plight with that of Scottish folkhero William Wallace.

"I think there are many parallels between the two. Like Wallace, Mussolini was a patriot who built something out of nothing, step by step, individual by individual," the former Celtic man adds.

As well as owning dozens of Mussolini autobiographies, Di Canio readily admits his right-wing beliefs.

I am fascinated by Mussolini. I think he was a deeply misunderstood - basically a very principled, ethical individual
  Paolo Di Canio
But he quickly distances himself from other extreme right-wing opinions.

"I'm not a Nazi or a racist", Di Canio insists - but Harry Redknapp and the Hammers fans' would be non too pleased if Paolo took to wearing a black shirt over the claret and blue.

Di Canio, though, is not the first sportsman to develop political leanings.

Sinisa Mihajlovic

Yugoslav footballer Mihajlovic has found himself embroiled in the Balkan conflict in recent seasons.

The Lazio defender - who recently apologised to the black Arsenal players for the racist abuse in their 1-1 draw at the Olympic Stadium in Rome - was pictured signing his membership for Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party in April.

Sinisia Mihajlovic: Courted controversy
Sinisia Mihajlovic: Courted controversy
The 30-year-old said he believed he was signing documents to be granted a diplomatic passport given to top Yugoslav sportsmen and he condemned the actions of Milosevic as a cheap publicity stunt.

But this was not an isolated incident.

Mihajlovic was also seen applauding a tribute to Zeljko Raznatovic - better known as Arkan - erected by a group of Lazio fans after the Serbian warlord was assassinated.

This time he defended his actions by saying Arkan was a close personal friend.

"I knew Arkan for 12 years, he was the leader of the fans when I played in Yugoslavia, he always came to our games to support us," he said.

"And I did not clap my hands when I saw the banner but I clapped the fans in Curva Nord like we always do before games."

Imran Khan

Imran Khan: Took to politics after cricket
Imran Khan: Took to politics after cricket
Occasionally sportsmen go further than merely supporting a cause and actually decide to enter politics as a career.

Former Pakistan cricket captain Imran enhanced his reputation as an all-rounder in 1996 when he created his own party, Tehrik-e-Insaaf or Movement For Justice.

Unfortunately for Imran he failed to win a single seat in the 1997 elections and has since disappeared off the political map.

Seb Coe

One former sportsman who succeeded where Imran failed was Sebastian Coe, who in 1992, was elected as a Conservative Member of Parliament for Falmouth and Camborne in Cornwall.

During his five-year tenure, he progressed within the ranks of the party, becoming a Parliamentary Private Secretary in 1994 and a government whip in 1996.

Despite losing his parliamentary seat in 1997 to Labour's Candy Atherton, Coe remains deeply involved in the Conservative Party as opposition leader William Hague's Private Secretary.

Blue is the colour

Coe is not alone among sporting stars to give their public backing to the Conservatives.

Chris Chataway was another track and field international to take his place in the House of Westminster, while England cricketers John Emburey and Bill Athey appeared on stage at the Tory Party conference in the 1980s to try to win some votes among the leather and willow brigade.

Snooker star Steve Davis was a big fan of Margaret Thatcher - while boxer Frank Bruno even threatened to leave the country if Labour were elected in 1997.

Despite Tony Blair's victory, Bruno remains in the UK.

Labour of love

If the Tories are successful in mobilising sporting support, Labour also have their share of backers, with Olympic gold medallist Tessa Sanderson and rugby star Brian Moore both joining the campaign trail in 1997.

Shaun Edwards made a distinct political statement when he refused to shake John Major's hand before a Challenge Cup final at Wembley.

The former Great Britain rugby league halfback believed the then Prime Minister was responsible for the unemployment of many of his friends.

Wicketkeeper Jack Russell was another to express left-wing leanings. He and his Tory-inclined Gloucestershire team-mate Athey once even travelled all the way from Yorkshire to Bristol to vote in the 1987 general election.

It was only when they were almost at their destination that the travelling companions realised it was a wasted journey - their votes would have cancelled each other out.

Liberal achievements

The two major parties have their sporting heavyweights, but the middle way is also not devoid of on-field activity.

One of the most respected Liberal Democrat MPs, Menzies Campbell, is himself a one-time Olympic athlete.

And former boxer Terry Marsh attempted to move into the corridors of power when he was named as the Lib Dem's candidate for Basildon in the 1997 General Election.

Marsh, a former lifelong Labour supporter, stood down soon after - but his electoral ambitions prove that some sportsmen are happy to embrace the political world.

And who knows - perhaps Di Canio might swap his football boots for the ballot box and return to Italy launch a revamped fascist party?

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