EXTROVERT footballer Mario Balotelli is used to hogging the limelight at English premiership club Manchester City, but with his move yesterday to AC Milan he has been tipped to play a crucial role in Italy’s pending general election.
Seen as Italy’s finest striker, Balotelli is expected to shift thousands of votes to the Milan club’s owner, Silvio Berlusconi, who is climbing up the polls as he battles to win a fourth term in government.
The 22-year-old, who became known for clashing with colleagues and setting fire to his home after moving to Manchester in 2010, won over Italians at last summer’s European championships, when his two goals lifted Italy to victory over long-time rivals Germany.
According to daily La Stampa, Balotelli’s return to Italy might guarantee Mr Berlusconi 400,000 extra votes nationwide and 80,000 alone in the region of Lombardy, home to Milan, where he is locked in a key electoral battle. “This is the relaunching of the image of Italian football, which has been depressed by a season of big-name departures,” stated Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family.
Reports suggest Mr Berlusconi could get a 2 per cent lift in national polls from Balotelli’s €20 million (£17m) purchase, just as he narrows the gap between him and the leading Democratic Party from 10 per cent down to a handful of points.
Centre-left Democratic Party leader Pierluigi Bersani, who has seen his lead slip thanks to a banking scandal in recent days, tweeted on Tuesday that “Everyone campaigns the way they believe. Today, I was meeting people in Padua and Mestre. Berlusconi was negotiating for Balotelli.”
Gabriele Albertini, a centrist candidate aiming to run the region of Lombardy, likened the deal to emperors putting on gladiator shows to gain popularity. “It’s bread and circuses,” he said. “In ancient Rome, there were gladiator shows, while now there are footballers.”
Mr Berlusconi, however, knows football and politics are a potent mix. In 2009, when he was threatening to sell Brazilian star Kaka, a fans’ favourite, 4,000 voting slips cast in European elections in Milan were spoiled by insults aimed at him.
Last December, the 76-year-old media mogul kicked off his election campaign by being photographed repeatedly with his AC Milan players. He announced he was joining the election race while standing outside the club’s training ground.
Now, the former prime minister known for his eye for young women and late-night carousing will be united at Milan with Balotelli, who once tried to sneak into a female prison, later explaining it was because he wanted to meet women. Balotelli’s limited time on the pitch at Manchester City was made up for by his exploits off it, including throwing darts at youth team players, setting his house on fire by letting off fireworks indoors and handing out wads of cash to tramps. After one game, he lifted up his shirt to reveal a T-shirt with the message “Why always me?” Welcoming his arrival in Italy, La Stampa stated, “Milan’s nights and the jobs of paparazzi have been saved”.
Mr Berlusconi’s decision to bring the former Inter Milan player back to Italy marks a U-turn after he described Balotelli this month as a disruptive “rotten apple”, adding “I would never accept him in the Milan changing room”. He later apologised, suggesting it was a bargaining tactic to knock down City’s asking price.