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.