I liked Paolo Di Canio when he played for Celtic in 1996-97.

I met him via the usual press facilities and found him - yes, here is this language again - “colourful” and “engaging” and “entertaining”.

In recent days, such adjectives have come to represent a verbal sop to Di Canio, a camouflage for his more extreme traits. By this, I mean, his fascism.

Politics and football make for a complicated brew. Don't we just know this in Scotland, in our endless gridlocked debate about the Old Firm, political and religious expression, and a Scottish government’s laboured attempts to get a purchase on it all?

But I would hope that some things for most people stand clear of the grey area - such as any footballer or manager who espouses something as evil as fascism.

Sunderland are quite rightly in the doghouse over their appointment of Di Canio as their new manager. This Italian has many likeable qualities and is also an eccentric, a “bit of a character”.

But, unless he is a clown who has merely been playing to the galleries, Di Canio is also a fascist, a fact he has made perfectly plain. In which case, this is one English football club which has scored a very embarrassing own goal.

The evidence for Di Canio? It’s not good.

On three separate occasions in Italian football, in the latter stages of his career, he made the straight-armed fascist or “Roman” salute towards supporters of SS Lazio, his boyhood team. Di Canio backed up these antics with the most dubious self-defence imaginable by saying: “I am a fascist, not a racist.”

He may actually be too stupid to know this, but the history of fascism is the history of racism. The history of fascism is also the history of hatred, killing, persecution and intolerance.

Indeed, I’ve scarcely heard or read of a fascist who otherwise eschewed this political movement's more extreme views. The ritual of hatred, on the contrary, is germane to fascism.

Perhaps, among other firsts, Di Canio is also this: a fascist who deplores racial, religious and political intolerance. In which case he would be a walking oxymoron.

But I doubt it.

Sunderland’s blundering attempts to smooth over their decision to appoint Di Canio has been a side-show in itself. Did no-one actually brief Margaret Byrne, the club's chief executive, on the Di Canio back-story, as she issued statements which were either contradictory or senseless?

"To accuse him [Di Canio] now, as some have done, of being a racist or of having fascist sympathies, is insulting both to him and to the integrity of this football club," proclaimed Byrne.

Eh, Margaret…it is Di Canio himself who said: "I am a fascist." And so far - though this might come - the Italian has yet to make any clear statement renouncing these views.

Some are trying to claim that this controversy is a contrivance - that when Di Canio was at Swindon Town for 22 months all this seemed to matter not a jot.

This is no counter-argument at all. This is how the world works: out of sight, out of mind. By definition, the higher profile a personality gains, the more his or her character will be exposed to scrutiny.

The fact that, in the West Country, the mad Di Canio was not exposed to this jarring public inspection, is no more shocking than any public figure becoming more accountable the higher he rises in the spotlight.

Should we have been more critical of Di Canio when he was playing football in Scotland? Perhaps, yes. Though my honest answer is, I cannot recall any hint back then of his love of fascism or of Benito Mussolini, a man he has subsequently called "a very principled, very ethical individual".

Paolo di Canio is either a fascist or a clown. He either meant what he said, or his craving for publicity led him to act like an idiot.

Either way, he is rightly facing his comeuppance on Wearside, where Sunderland FC must somehow dig itself out of a large hole.

Footnote, Wednesday April 3

Since this column was written, Paolo Di Canio has issued the following statement:

"I am not the man that some people like to portray. I am not political, I do not affiliate myself to any organisation, I am not a racist and I do not support the ideology of fascism. I respect everyone.

"I have clearly stated that I do not wish to speak about matters other than football, however, I have been deeply hurt by the attacks on the football club."