The Balotelli Effect: When Football is Used as a Political Tool

by Elia Boggia on February 14, 2013

On its face, it appeared to be the coronation of a drawn-out, mutual courting between a football club and a promising young player. But AC Milan’s acquisition of Mario Balotelli, a 22-year old talent known as much for his uncontrollable temper as for his skills, raised a number of eyebrows in Italy as the country prepares to vote for a new government later this month. Because the owner of AC Milan is none other than Silvio Berlusconi, the three-time former Prime Minister of Italy and current leader of the People of Freedom Party (PdL), euphoria for Balotelli’s return to his home country after a brief spell in England has given way to questions about the political motives behind the $30 million transfer.

Football fans are, after all, also voters. According to recent polls, the “Balotelli effect” on the PdL’s national electoral results could be as much as a staggering two percent hike. Even more importantly, this bump could amount to as many as 100,000 additional votes in Lombardia, the region that includes Milan and whose results will likely tip the balance of power in the Italian Senate. Given that the center-left coalition is likely to win a majority in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, Berlusconi’s only chance at winning a role in the governing coalition lies in the Senate.

Adding to the potential electoral effect of the signing is a bizarre scheduling coincidence. The next clash between AC Milan and its cross-town rivals Internazionale, and the first chance for Balotelli to score in one of the most widely-viewed matches of the season, will be on February 24. This date also happens to be the first day of the parliamentary elections. Italian electoral rules do not permit candidates or parties to campaign while voting is open, so a Balotelli goal could have a blaring effect on voters’ minds amidst the political silence.

Beyond the poll numbers and the calendar, Berlusconi’s own words have caused some suspicion about the motives behind the transfer. In one of his first declarations following the acquisition, the 76-year old politician explained that he was happy about bringing Balotelli to AC Milan because “he made Germany cry,” a reference to the striker’s two goals that helped Italy knock the Germans out of the European Cup last summer. These comments are a direct continuation of the PdL campaign rhetoric on European policy, centered on a populist criticism of Berlin’s overreach into the internal affairs of other Eurozone countries.

Just last week, Berlusconi told supporters that Italy should “beat Germany or leave the Euro,” arguing against Berlin’s insistence on austerity in times of economic crisis. As Italian newspapers have claimed, “the attack on Germany is the central point of the PdL’s European agenda.”

Berlusconi and other members of his party have flatly denied that Balotelli’s new contract was politically motivated. Even current Prime Minister Mario Monti, the leader of a centrist coalition that has exchanged several jabs with the PdL over the past few months, has said he doubts the existence of an electoral motivation behind the transfer.

Still, according to analysts, the football reasons for the purchase were not exactly self-evident. Balotelli’s talent is unquestionable, and he already made a mark by scoring four goals in his first three games with his new team. But AC Milan already had six strikers on its roster, most of whom have performed well this season, and its main deficiencies have been on the defensive end. Even more puzzling, just last month Berlusconi called Balotelli a “rotten apple” who was not fit to join AC Milan.

Massimo Moratti, the president of rival Internazionale, who has largely steered away from politics in his eighteen years leading the club, could not resist peppering his reaction to the Balotelli acquisition with a little sarcasm. “I see it as a useful move for Berlusconi for a thousand reasons,” he said.

These reasons may not all be football-related. And according to a recent tweet by Democratic Party leader Pierluigi Bersani, the center-left might be just as ready to use the transfer for political purposes: “Everyone campaigns as they believe is best. Today I met with the people of Padova and Mestre. Berlusconi was deal-making for Balotelli.”

What is certain is that now Berlusconi has his work cut out for him. Still trailing in the polls by seven points, he has a tough—albeit feasible—hill to climb in order to once again play a central role in governing Italy. His political team will help him try to get there. The question is how much his football team’s newest star will contribute as well.

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1 Mario Beltran February 16, 2013

We’ve seen football used as a political tool many times. Politicians love to be seen in public supporting national teams. Furthermore, even though several studies have shown that hosting a big tournament like a World Cup or a Euro Cup is, most of the time, financially and economically absurd for countries that have to invest millions in new infrastructure (e.g. Portugal in 2004, Brazil in 2016, Russia 2018), governments intensely push for the honor in order to appeal to national constituencies and to be seen as relevant and influential in the international arena (definitely Qatar in 2022).

This Balotelli affair involves the unique situation of a footbal club owner/ex-Prime Minster/escort-lover who seizes a great opportunity to wisely use football passion to gain a few points in a tough political race.

Not very different from Ancient Rome’s use of the Coliseum to entertain and appease the crowds.

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2 Bernardo Goriupp February 18, 2013

Interesting take on this. I have two points I would like to bring up. First, this is not the first time Silvio has pulled this trick. If I remember correctly, back in 2008 he bought Ibrahimovic from Barcelona on the eve of the political elections as well. Just like this new deal, it was a multimillion dollar transfer that was successful in attracting attention and magnify Berlusconi’s public image. Unfortunately, like all Italians who heard from colleagues and friends the funny but mildly denigrating jokes around the infamous Bunga Bunga, we all know he won. Somewhat more comforting is the thought that while AC Milan has one of the biggest fan bases in Italy, the team enjoys an equal, if not greater, number of people hoping for its defeats. Voters are fans, but this swings both ways and I doubt that this transfer will have the might required to overturn the tide in Silvio’s favor. Unless, of course, Italians believe that having the economic power to buy a player equals the ability to fix the economic mess Italy is in. In which case, I will start the paperwork to get a new citizenship.

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