As well as goals, it looks as if Berlusconi bought Balotelli for votes
Mario Balotelli: he make the Mad Hatter seem like an understated chartered accountant. photograph: AP Photo
For a majority of Italian observers this week, the big question surrounding the much reported €20 million transfer of Mario Balotelli from Manchester City to AC Milan concerned votes, not goals. Could the purchase of this obviously explosive (in every sense) talent really win over 400,000 votes for the centre-right coalition led by the irrepressible, 76-year-old former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who, of course, just happens to be the owner of AC Milan?
In the short term, there is no doubt whatsoever that the Balotelli transfer has been a brilliant publicity coup, making the prime-time news bulletins and the newspaper front pages for three days in a row, right in the middle of a red-hot general election campaign. In football terms, this is clearly a huge moment for the Italian game, with populist sentiment ready to perceive this transfer as the return of a talented prodigal son, following two years of cultural misunderstanding in the land of the Anglo-Saxon.
Football professionals know that this is not quite the case. Those who have worked with Balotelli know all too well that, on occasions, he can make the Mad Hatter seem like an understated chartered accountant.
However, everybody knows that the “boy” can play and it is in that context that he been greeted like a returning hero.
On Wednesday, Milan fans followed his every move back on Italian soil, greeting him when he arrived at the airport, when he then went to a nearby health clinic for his medical check and, finally, when he went to the Giannino restaurant in downtown Milan for dinner with AC Milan managing director Adriano Galliani and team coach Massimiliano Allegri. So enthusiastic was the 400 strong gathering of fans outside the restaurant that police had to don riot gear and restore some peace after “Balo” had slipped in by a side entrance.
By yesterday, sports daily Gazzetta Dello Sport was selling T-shirts reproducing Wednesday’s front page of the paper, totally dominated by a picture of Balotelli and bearing the headline “Balo Is Back”. Gazzetta even carried a picture of the “good luck”, AC Milan biro pen which Balotelli used to formally sign his new contract yesterday.
All of this might sound like just another big football transfer story. Yet for those of us who have monitored Mr Berlusconi’s 20-year long, complex intertwining of football and politics, this is clearly about more than football. Remember, Berlusconi is the politician who in 1994 “took to the field” of politics with a brand new party called “Forza Italia” (literally Up Italy), an expression that until then had only been used when cheering on national teams.
The original Forza Italia deputies were referred to as “Azzurri”, a term that had previously only referred to national team players. Perhaps the most emphatic example of Berlusconi’s understanding of the role of football success in his political appeal came during that 1994 election campaign. In those far-off days of single seat constituencies, he taunted his centre-left rival in the Roma I constituency, the late distinguished economist, Luigi Spaventa, with the words: “Before running against me, go and win yourself two Champions Cups.”
As for Mario Balotelli, the narrative is very clear. After years when he appeared to pay little or no attention to his club, rarely attending either training or games, Berlusconi late last autumn suddenly got active again on the AC Milan front. Not only did he resurface for Serie A or Champions League games at the San Siro but he also began to make regular Saturday morning visits to the club’s Milanello training ground.
For Berlusconi, Milanello is not just an alma mater but it also represents a very loyal and safe political constituency. Nowhere else does he so clearly portray himself as a “winner”. Remember at his first meeting with Milan players back in 1986, just after he had bought the club, he told then that he was “not accustomed to finishing second”.
Thus given Milan’s current league standing of fifth, it was time to put some money back on the table, hire a big name and get the “winning” show back on the road. If that helps win matches, good. If it helps win votes, even better. In a week, too, when he had been bitterly attacked for pro-Mussolini comments made on Holocaust Memorial day, what better stroke than to hire a brilliant, black Italian. Who says I’m racist now?