Paolo Di Canio struggled to separate politics from football on Tuesday when he declined to confirm or deny that he was fascist but poured scorn on notions that he might be a racist.

Sunderland's new manager became visibly angered by persistent questioning on the subject and an 8am briefing to introduce him to the media was ended abruptly. "I don't have to answer any more this question," Di Canio said. "My life speaks for me so there is no need to speak any more about this situation because it is ridiculous and pathetic."

During an interview with an Italian news agency in 2005 the former Lazio and West Ham striker admitted to being "a fascist, but not a racist", and his apparent political leanings have already prompted the resignation of the club's vice-chairman David Miliband, the outgoing Labour MP for South Shields and a former Foreign Secretary.

Instead of explaining how he hopes to keep Sunderland in the Premier League, the former Swindon Town manager struggled in vain to avoid inquiries about his perceived sympathies for Italy's far right.

"I can't every two weeks, every two months, every 10 months answer the same questions that are not really in my area," said the 44-year-old, who must somehow breath new life into his new team. "We are in a football club and not in the House of Parliament. I'm not a political person, I will talk about only football."

In an attempt to defuse a growing furore Sunderland released a statement on Monday which had been intended to clarify matters but merely seemed to further muddy the waters. In it Di Canio suggested his comments had been taken out of context and top-spun.

"I expressed an opinion in an interview many years ago," said a man who while playing in London formed strong friendships with two black team-mates. "Some pieces were taken for media convenience. They took my expression in a very, very negative way – but it was a long conversation and a long interview. It was not fair.

"Sometimes it suits their purpose to put big headlines and a big story. When I was in England [as a player] my best friends were Trevor Sinclair and Chris Powell, the Charlton manager – they can tell you everything about my character. Talk about racism? That is absolutely stupid, stupid and ridiculous. It doesn't represent Paolo Di Canio so I'm not worried."

Martin O'Neill's successor did, though, acknowledge that his nickname is the "Mad Italian" and appeared to prove it by volunteering the information that he would have "swum to Sunderland" in order to begin work at the Stadium of Light. Di Canio said it took him "one second" to accept the job offer from Ellis Short, the club's owner and chairman.

If the Italian is seen as high maintenance his appointment is also regarded as a high-stakes gamble on Short's part, but Di Canio demurred. "It is obvious that in the past people have been sceptical because it was my first job as a manager at Swindon. They said: 'The Mad Italian, he will fight his players', but at the end I won the League [Two]. Now people say the same. I have no experience in the Premiership but I am young and am not worried."

Last season's swashbuckling promotion with a cash-strapped Swindon side who, in February, he left challenging for elevation to the Championship converted many to Di Canio's cause – with Short apparently among those impressed.

Shortly after Sunderland's 1-0 home defeat to Manchester United on Saturday – their eighth Premier League game without a win – Short dismissed O'Neill. The American financier then picked up his phone.

At the other end, Di Canio thought someone was playing games with him and very nearly swore at his soon-to-be employer. "When I received the phone call from Mr Short I thought it was a joke and I was ready to say a bad word – I thought it was a friend and I would have lost my job," he revealed.

"Late in the afternoon after the Manchester game I received a phone call and I was surprised because many times it has happened that a manager was sacked and my name, Di Canio, was 5-1 odds," he said. "It was a big surprise but I had the fire in my stomach. I said yes after a second and I said I come by swim, no problem."

Despite his new team being perched precariously one point above the relegation zone and facing trips to Chelsea and Newcastle, he professed absolute confidence in Sunderland's ability to survive under his idiosyncratic, inexperienced, brand of leadership.

"People are sceptical but I see managers with more experience than Paolo Di Canio, they are relegated," he said. "Why not change this habit one day. I hear people talking about my statistics but it doesn't mean anything."

So how much would money would he be prepared to gamble on Sunderland still being a Premier League team next season. "You call the Mad Italian," he said. "I bet what I have got."