Di Canio began his career in the Italian Serie A, playing for Lazio, Juventus, Napoli and A.C. Milan, before a brief spell with the Scottish club Celtic. He subsequently spent seven years in the English Premier League with Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham United and Charlton Athletic. He returned to Italy in 2004, playing for Lazio and Cisco Roma before retiring in 2008. He played for the Italian under-21s, making 9 appearances and scoring 2 goals, and was notably a member of the squad that finished in third place at the 1990 UEFA European Under-21 Championship under manager Cesare Maldini, but was never capped for the senior team.
Among the individual awards he received as a player, Di Canio was named SPFA Players' Player of the Year in 1997 and West Ham's player of the season in 2000. However, his career was at times characterised by controversy: he received an eleven-match ban in 1998 for pushing a referee and attracted negative publicity over his self allegiance to fascism.
In 2011, Di Canio entered football management in England with Swindon Town, guiding them in his first full season as manager to promotion to League One. He was appointed as the Sunderland manager at the end of March 2013. His controversial appointment lasted 13 games until he was sacked on 22 September after Sunderland had won only three games under his managership.
Di Canio was born in Rome, in the district of Quarticciolo, a working-class area populated mainly by A.S. Roma fans. However, Di Canio was drawn to their local rivals S.S. Lazio. As a young boy, he was addicted to cola and similar drinks and called Pallocca, a slang term meaning lard-ball. He was fat, and knock-kneed, and needed to wear orthopedic shoes – "But I never hid. My response was to exercise; to try to become the kind of person I am."
He signed for Lazio in 1985 and remained there until 1990. Lazio won promotion to Serie A in 1988, having narrowly escaped relegation to Serie C1 the year before. He finally made his first-team debut in October 1988 and went on to play 30 games during the 1988–89 season. Di Canio scored the winner in the first Rome derby of the season, a goal which contributed to Lazio's survival in Serie A that season and earning him hero status. In 1990, he was sold to another of Italy's biggest clubs, Juventus; although he won the UEFA Cup with the Turin side in 1993, he struggled to gain playing time during his tenure with the club, due to the presence of other forwards and creative midfielders in the team, such as Roberto Baggio, Salvatore Schillaci, Pierluigi Casiraghi, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Gianluca Vialli, and Andreas Möller. He left Juventus after an "animated exchange" with then manager Giovanni Trapattoni and spent the 1993–94 season with Napoli. Two seasons followed at A.C. Milan, where, despite winning the Serie A title in 1996, he once again struggled to gain playing time due to heavy competition from his team-mates, culminating in another row, this time with Fabio Capello.
In July 1996 he joined Celtic in Scotland, and enjoyed a successful season in Glasgow, scoring 15 goals in 37 appearances and winning the SPFA Player of the Year award. His time in Glasgow was dogged by controversy though; sent-off during a 2–2 draw against Hearts in November 1996 and heavily involved in an acrimonious league match against Rangers in March 1997 where he behaved aggressively towards Ian Ferguson and gestured in the direction of Rangers’ bench as he was led from the field by team-mates. The Italian was called to the referee’s room after the teams had returned to the dressing room and was shown another yellow card in addition to the one he had received earlier in the game. Di Canio then demanded a large wage rise at the end of the season, but this was rebuffed by Celtic. He then refused to join the Celtic squad in the Netherlands for their pre-season training during July 1997.
On 6 August 1997, Di Canio moved to the English Premiership as he joined Sheffield Wednesday in a transfer deal valued at around £4.2 million. Whilst in Sheffield, Di Canio was the club's leading goal scorer for the 1997–98 season with 14 goals and he became a favourite of the fans.
In September 1998, Di Canio pushed referee Paul Alcock to the ground after being sent off while playing for Sheffield Wednesday against Arsenal at Hillsborough, which resulted in an extended ban of 11 matches and him being fined £10,000.
In January 1999, Di Canio signed for West Ham United for £1.5 million. He had not played football since his ban following his push on Paul Alcock. West Ham manager, Harry Redknapp on signing Di Canio admitted he was taking a chance but said of the player "He can do things with the ball that people can only dream of". Di Canio said of his ban, "I made a mistake and I'm sorry, West Ham have given me a big chance and I'm very happy" He scored his first goal for West Ham on 27 February 1999 in his fourth game. Playing against Blackburn Rovers, Di Canio made the first goal in a 2–0 win, for Ian Pearce in the 27th minute and scored the second in the 31st minute. He helped them to achieve a high league position (5th) and qualify for the UEFA Cup through the Intertoto Cup. He was also the OPTA player of the season 1998–99. He scored the BBC Goal of the Season in March 2000 with a flying volley against Wimbledon, which is still considered among the best goals in Premiership history and was named as the Premiership's goal of the decade in a December 2009 Sky Sports News viewers' poll, scoring 30% of votes. In this season he was also voted Hammer of the Year by the club's fans.
In December 2000, late in a game against Everton and with both sides vying for the winning goal, Di Canio shunned a goal-scoring opportunity and stopped play, grabbing the ball from a cross inside the box, as the Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard was laying injured on the ground after he twisted his knee attempting a clearance on the edge of the box. The Goodison Park crowd reacted with a standing ovation. FIFA officially lauded Di Canio's gesture, describing it as "a special act of good sportsmanship," and awarded him next year the FIFA Fair Play Award.
Sir Alex Ferguson tried to sign him for Manchester United halfway through the 2001–02 season, but his attempts were unsuccessful and Di Canio remained in East London for another season and a half.
In 2003, with the Hammers struggling at the bottom of the league, Di Canio had a very public row with manager Glenn Roeder and was dropped from the first team. However, he returned at the end of the season (after Roeder, stricken by a brain tumour, was replaced by Trevor Brooking) and scored a winner against Chelsea in the penultimate game of the season, a game that boosted West Ham's chances of staying in the Premiership. However, they were relegated on the final day of the season after a 2–2 draw away to Birmingham City, where Di Canio scored an 89th-minute equaliser. He was released on a free transfer and signed with Charlton Athletic for the start of 2003–04.
In his only season at The Valley, Di Canio helped the Charlton Athletic secure 7th position, its highest league finish since the 1950s. However, he only scored four league goals for the Addicks, all of them from the penalty spot (one of them scored from a rebound). These penalty kicks included an audacious 'Panenka' style penalty kick against Arsenal. Di Canio however continued to be a provider of goals as well, notably in October 2003 when he came on as second-half substitute with Charlton trailing 0–1 away at Portsmouth. He provided most of the spark for Charlton's much-improved second-half display, and after Jonathan Fortune had equalised for Charlton, it was from Di Canio's corner kick in the last minute that Shaun Bartlett headed home the winning goal.
Even though he had already signed an extension to his Charlton contract, in August 2004 he returned to his home team of Lazio taking a massive paycut in order to return to the economically stretched Roman team. Lazio fans were happy to have a Rome-bred Lazio supporter in the team again, something missing since the departure of Alessandro Nesta in 2002. He scored in the Rome derby, just as he had in 1989, leading the team to a 3–1 victory over A.S. Roma in January (6 January 2005). However the negative publicity that Di Canio generated for Lazio, including his intimate relationship with club's ultras and their increased influence thanks to his presence in the team, coupled with problems with some teammates and coaches, exasperated club president and majority shareholder, Claudio Lotito, with whom he already had a difficult relationship. As a result, Di Canio's contract was not renewed in the summer of 2006. During several of his games for Lazio, Di Canio made a fascist salute to their right-wing fans. He subsequently signed with Cisco Roma of Serie C2 on a free transfer. In his first season with Cisco Roma, his team failed promotion to playoffs, despite a runners-up position in the regular season. He subsequently agreed to stay with Cisco for another season, in a second attempt to win promotion to Serie C1 with the Roman side.
On 10 March 2008, Di Canio announced his retirement from football, ending his 23-year playing career before the end of the season due to physical issues. It was his intention to begin coaching lessons at Coverciano to gain a coaching position. In an interview he revealed that his dream would be to manage former club West Ham, and applied for the position after the resignation of Alan Curbishley in September 2008. Di Canio played in Tony Carr's testimonial game at Upton Park on 5 May 2010, which featured a West Ham team against West Ham Academy old boys. He played for both sides during the match. The West Ham team won 5–1. In July 2010, in honour of Di Canio, West Ham announced the opening of the Paolo Di Canio Lounge, within the West Stand, at their Upton Park ground, which was formally launched by the unveiling of a plaque by Di Canio himself, on 11 September 2010.
On 20 May 2011, Di Canio was appointed manager of Swindon Town on a two-year contract, following the club's relegation to League Two. Di Canio began his career as a manager with a 3–0 win over Crewe Alexandra on 6 August 2011. On 30 August 2011, Di Canio was involved in a pitch-side altercation with Swindon striker Leon Clarke after their defeat in the League Cup to Southampton. In January 2012, Swindon caused a FA Cup shock by defeating Premier League club Wigan Athletic 2–1. Di Canio stated that he believed his players deserved to have their names put on the stadium and dedicated the victory to his father, who died late in 2011. He was sent to the stands later in the month in a league game against Macclesfield Town for vociferously venting his frustration at his side not being awarded a free-kick. Swindon won the match 1–0 and with over half the season gone, his team were fighting for promotion to League One.
Under Di Canio, Swindon reached the 2012 Football League Trophy Final, where they were defeated 2–0 by Chesterfield.
On 21 April 2012, Swindon were promoted to the League One after Crawley Town's 1–1 draw with Dagenham & Redbridge and Torquay United's 2–0 loss to AFC Wimbledon, despite Di Canio's side having lost 3–1 to Gillingham on the same day. He dedicated the promotion to his parents, his mother having died shortly after his father in April of that year. One week later, Swindon won the Football League Two thanks to an emphatic 5–0 victory over Port Vale. Swindon finished the season on 93 points.
Although in the 2012–13 season, Swindon were knocked out of the FA Cup and the Football League Trophy in their first game against opposition from lower leagues, they did have a solid run in the League Cup in which they won against three teams from higher leagues. They beat Brighton & Hove Albion 3–0, won against Stoke City 3–4 after extra time, and beat Burnley 3–1 before narrowly missing out against Aston Villa 3–2 at home.
In January 2013, with Swindon under a transfer embargo and in financial difficulty, Di Canio offered to pay £30,000 of his own money to keep loan players John Bostock, Chris Martin, and Danny Hollands at the club.
On 18 January 2013, ahead of Swindon's Saturday clash with Shrewsbury Town, Di Canio worked into the night alongside approximately 200 volunteers to clear a snow-covered pitch at the County Ground, thus allowing the game to go ahead. He showed his appreciation by ordering everyone pizza. Swindon won the match 2–0, which Di Canio publicly deemed a present to the volunteers.
In January 2013, the Swindon Town chairman announced that due to financial difficulties, no money would be made available for future signings. Di Canio offered to pay £30,000 of his own money to keep loan players at the club. With the possibility of the club entering administration, a new buyer was found, subject to Football League approval, and without the knowledge of Di Canio, player Matt Ritchie was sold to Bournemouth. Further attempts to sign players by Di Canio were rejected by the Football League due to the club's financial situation with Di Canio "considering his future" at Swindon due to off-field financial problems. In February, Di Canio offered his resignation but said he would withdraw this if approval for the new owners, by the Football League, was received by 18 February. This did not happen and he resigned as manager of Swindon Town.
On 31 March 2013, Sunderland appointed Di Canio as manager on a two-and-a-half-year contract, following the dismissal of Martin O'Neill the previous day. The appointment prompted the immediate resignation of club vice-chairman David Miliband due to Di Canio's "past political statements". The appointment of Di Canio also sparked opposition from the Durham Miners' Association, which decided to remove one of its mining banners from Sunderland's Stadium of Light, which is built on the former site of the Wearmouth Colliery, as a symbol of its anger over the appointment. The background to the opposition was past statements made by Di Canio supporting fascism.
Di Canio was tasked with keeping Sunderland in the Premier League, following a run of only three points from a possible 24. His first game as manager of Sunderland resulted in a 2–1 away defeat to Chelsea. Di Canio's second game in charge was the Tyne-Wear derby against Newcastle United at St James' Park on 14 April. Sunderland defeated their fierce rivals 3–0, their first away victory in the fixture in over a decade. Each goal sparked wild celebrations from Di Canio and the Sunderland bench. Di Canio then got his first win at the Stadium of Light against Everton.
Although the team did not win the next three matches, including drawing the final two home games and a heavy 6–1 defeat to Aston Villa, Sunderland secured their Premier League survival when Wigan Athletic were defeated at Arsenal and relegated, trailing then-17th placed Sunderland by four points with only one game to play.
For the 2013–14 season, Di Canio signed fourteen new players and sold experienced players such as Simon Mignolet, James McClean and Stéphane Sessègnon. After five league games, Sunderland had gained only a single point, from an away draw with Southampton. Di Canio was dismissed on 22 September 2013, the day after the fifth match of the season, a 3–0 defeat to West Bromwich Albion, and only his 13th match in charge. Sunderland chief executive officer Margaret Byrne stated that Di Canio had been sacked after senior players had approached her and that his situation became untenable due to his "brutal and vitriolic" criticism of the squad. Di Canio denies this.
Di Canio was linked with the Celtic job in May 2014, and applied for vacant managerial positions at Bolton Wanderers in October 2014, Rotherham United in September 2015 and Rotherham again in February 2016.
In 2005, he characterised his political views by declaring that he was "a fascist, not a racist".
His use of the Roman salute toward Lazio supporters, a gesture adopted by Italian fascists in the 20th century, has created controversy. Documented uses of the salute include in matches against arch-rivals Roma and Livorno, a club inclined to left-wing politics. Di Canio received a one-match ban after the second event and was fined €7,000. He was later quoted as saying, "I will always salute as I did because it gives me a sense of belonging to my people ... I saluted my people with what for me is a sign of belonging to a group that holds true values, values of civility against the standardisation that this society imposes upon us." His salute has been featured on unofficial merchandise sold outside Stadio Olimpico after the ban.
He has also expressed admiration for the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. In his autobiography, he praised Mussolini as "basically a very principled, ethical individual" who was "deeply misunderstood".
In 2010, Di Canio attended the funeral of senior fascist Paolo Signorelli, where mourners were photographed making mass fascist salutes towards Signorelli's coffin. Signorelli had been convicted of involvement in the Bologna massacre, a neo-fascist terrorist attack which killed 85 people and wounded more than 200.
Di Canio's political ideology has been a source of controversy in the course of his managerial career. When Di Canio was appointed as the manager of Swindon Town in 2011, the trade union GMB terminated its sponsorship agreement with the club, worth around £4,000 per season, due to Di Canio's fascist views.
He was appointed as manager of Sunderland on 31 March 2013. The club's vice-chairman David Miliband, a Labour politician and former foreign secretary, subsequently stepped down. Miliband stated that he had taken the decision to resign "in the light of the new manager's past political statements".
In a profile piece in 2011, an unnamed source asserted that Di Canio was not "an ideological fascist", attributing his behaviour to "his psychological history, particularly his former compulsive tendencies and pronounced mood swings". In the same article, Di Canio said that he was not politically active: "I don't vote, I haven't voted for 14 years. Italian politicians — all of them — think only about themselves, and making money."
Di Canio has several tattoos, including on his right biceps the Latin word "DUX", meaning "leader" or, in Italian, Il Duce—a nickname for Benito Mussolini. Sky Sport Italia was forced to apologize after Di Canio appeared as a pundit in September 2016 in a short-sleeved shirt, thus revealing the tattoo to television viewers. His back is covered with a tattoo of fascist imagery, including an eagle, fasces and a portrait of Mussolini. He also has a West Ham United tattoo on his left upper arm and a tattoo of his father on his chest.
Di Canio has spoken also of the growing influence in his life of Samurai culture, and of the Japanese spiritual mentality from reading Mishima, and the teachings in the traditions of Hagakure and Bushido.As of 22 September 2013
LazioSerie B promotion: 1987–88
Supercoppa Italiana runner-up: 2004
JuventusSerie A runner-up: 1991–92
Coppa Italia runner-up: 1991–92
UEFA Cup winner: 1992–93
MilanSerie A champion: 1995–96
UEFA Champions League runner-up: 1995
UEFA Super Cup winner: 1994
Intercontinental Cup runner-up: 1994
CelticScottish Premier Division runner-up: 1996–97
West Ham UnitedUEFA Intertoto Cup winner: 1999
IndividualPFA Scotland Players' Player of the Year: 1996–97
Sheffield Wednesday F.C. Player of the Year: 1998
Hammer of the Year: 2000
Match of the Day's Goal of the Season: 1999–2000
FIFA Fair Play Award: 2001
Swindon TownFootball League Two champion: 2011–12
League Trophy runner-up: 2012
IndividualLMA League Two Manager of the Year winner: 2012
League Two Manager of the Month: February 2012