Paolo Di Canio's Roman upbringing may not excuse any fascistic beliefs he once held but it does help to contextualise them. Born in 1968, Di Canio grew up in a country that was violent and divided, as it had been since Mussolini's rise to power. The 1945 liberation had failed to stimulate the national unity that fascism had claimed it would build and a vicious settling of scores left around 15,000 Italians dead in the three months that followed. There were no trials, no coming to terms with the past and, consequently, no definitive end to the ideological conflict in Italian society.

After students revolted in 1968, northern factory workers joined the fray in the "hot autumn" of 1969, car industry operatives pitched battles with the forces of order on the streets of Turin. Tacitly supported by the police, secret services and more openly by conservative society, rightwing violence erupted in response. The 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan left 16 dead and more than 80 wounded. Hastily blamed on anarchists, it was eventually traced to a neo-fascist group based in the Veneto region.

The politicisation of the piazzas transferred to the terraces and, in the midst of these tensions, Lazio won its first league title in 1974. Di Canio was six, an age at which many of us imprint our first football memories, and the team was full of "Paolinos": mavericks, or fascists, with passions for parachuting, militarism, violence and the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI).

Hated across the country for its political leanings, that Lazio team also loved firearms. Holding up a Roman jewellery shop as a prank in 1977, the midfielder Luciano Re Cecconi was shot dead. Rightwing and leftwing terrorists were financing their political activities with armed robberies, and Rome was understandably edgy.

Growing up in the working-class district of Quarticciolo, Di Canio's allegiance would logically have been to AS Roma. Instead, he chose to fight as the underdog and, even as a member of Lazio's youth team he continued to run with the Irriducibili ultras. For them, beyond the team itself, loyalty, community and a romanticised glorification of the past are the ties that bind. As an almost textbook fascist community, that past is very much Roman.

The Roman past appealed to Mussolini too, who assumed the title of Duce: the Latin word DUX, which translates as "leader", is tattooed on Di Canio's bicep. The Roman salute became a part of daily life. Made compulsory prior to all sporting events, it was this snarling gesture, during the Rome derby, that dogs Di Canio. "An ancient historical practice" and "different to the Nazi salute" it might be, but these are issues that he would have done well to explain ahead of his first match as a Premier League manager on Sunday. He brought them to the table after all.

But there is more to this than simply football and Sunderland's risky survival strategy. There is the fact that here in Italy there is a growing tide of support for many of the ideas and thoughts that Di Canio espouses.

Mussolini initially opposed ideas of Nordic racial purity, insisting that culture was the main determining factor in race. But his scientists eventually "discovered" that Italians were, in fact, Aryans of part-Nordic descent which led in 1938 to racist policies officially being adopted. As such, Italy's splintered neo-fascist parties do not always conform to British concepts of neo-Nazism, such as the BNP, which seems to be what Di Canio was driving at in previous explanations.

One such neo-fascist group that has grown considerably in Rome since its formation in 2003 is CasaPound. Describing itself as a social association, it criticises Marxist and capitalist economics, promotes sports, popular culture and has used Bobby Sands and Che Guevara among its eclectic campaign images. While semi-respectable members do charitable works, its more maverick elements like to meet and march.

And nowhere more so than in Mussolini's birth and resting town, Emilia-Romagna. Rebuilt in honour of the Duce, the annual "March on Predappio", to celebrate his rise to power, ensures fully-booked hotels, a brisk trade in the fascist souvenir shops and a queue to sign the book of condolence in front of the former leader's tomb.

Back in Lazio, last August the small town of Affile unveiled a monument to Rodolfo Graziani, war criminal indicted by the United Nations for atrocities committed in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). It was paid for with €130,000 (£110,000) of Lazio regional government money.

Di Canio's appointment may be a matter for Sunderland, and Di Canio may be speaking the truth when he says that he has no racist leanings. But the argument that fascism was nothing more than "National Socialism light" or that Mussolini was a misunderstood and principled individual who made some mistakes needs to be tackled head-on.