Love him or hate him, Paolo Di Canio is one of Italian football’s greatest characters. A fiery temper, controversial moments and pure attacking talent, his aggressive style caught the headlines first on the peninsula with Lazio, Juventus, Napoli and Milan before he moved to the UK in 1996 joining Celtic.
The Premier League came calling after one season in the SPL, and he would join Sheffield Wednesday in a deal worth £4.2 million. 14 goals in his first season saw him become the club’s top-scorer that year but – as always with the Italian – controversy was never very far away from his brilliance.
Early in the following campaign, Di Canio would grab the headlines for pushing referee Paul Alcock in the aftermath of a melee with Arsenal at Hillsborough. The way the official fell down became infamous, something that the player himself noted in his autobiography.
“I could push my eight-year-old daughter Ludovica that way and she’s wouldn’t fall over,” he wrote. “It certainly looked bizarre. My first reaction was that somebody must have been crouching behind him, like in one of those old slapstick comedies.”
There was no joke about the subsequent ban he received, though, with three matches for the red card and eight for the push, in addition to a £10,000 fine. Di Canio was in disgrace and frozen out at Wednesday, who would never play him again. Rather than move back to Italy with his tail between his legs, he moved on to West Ham United, the London club offering him a lifeline with which to redeem himself in January.
He would fare better with the Hammers after having publicly apologised for the incident, and it was on this day 17 years ago when the former Lazio man was in the spotlight for the right reasons. West Ham played Everton at Goodison Park on 18th December 2000, and with the scores tied at 1-1 in the 90th minute, the Italian forward had the chance to bag the winner.
Toffees goalkeeper Paul Gerrard was on the ground, and all the West Ham man had to do was put the ball in the net. Realising the ‘keeper was injured, instead of doing so he caught the ball to check on his opponent, who was writhing in pain due to a dislocated knee.
Not only did over 31,000 fans gathered inside the stadium give Di Canio a standing ovation, but he would receive the FIFA fair play for a “special act of good sportsmanship”. But how does the player himself remember the incident?
“I want to tell you the truth: I could never have scored. I've always been a good person,” he told Sky Italia. “It is no surprise that during this period we remember the 17th anniversary of such beautiful gesture of fair play. In that game against Everton, with the goalkeeper lying on the ground, I chose to catch the ball with my hands and stop the game. Why? Because during the Christmas period everyone is better.
“The docile, gentle and polite side of Mr. Paolo Di Canio emerged right there. It is a beautiful memory because I still get a lot of messages from Everton fans who fondly remember that gesture. They were young then, but today they are grown up. Sometimes it’s good to be remembered for something good.”
This exciting, vibrant and controversial player will always be remembered for both bad and good, but he certainly never failed to entertain audiences both in Italy and abroad.