Marketing man Berlusconi turns to Balotelli for boost
As he rises in the ratings ahead of elections this month, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi could be looking for an extra boost with the hiring of striker Mario Balotelli by his club AC Milan, observers said.
The move has proved popular among Milan fans in Berlusconi's native Lombardy region, a battleground where his centre-right coalition is running neck-and-neck with leftists led by the Democratic Party.
Balotelli was mobbed by fans as he arrived at the club for medical checks this week and greeted with a media scrum ahead of his presentation on Friday.
Twitter was quickly inundated with praise for the 22-year-old, with many fans also complimenting Berlusconi, 76, on his negotiating skills.
The impulsive striker is to play one of his first games for AC Milan in a much-anticipated derby against arch-rivals Inter on February 24, the same day that Italians take to the polls.
"There is a community of Milan fans that no one has ever quantified but it exists and it could be grateful to Berlusconi for the new purchase," pollster Renato Mannheimer told Italy's top-selling Corriere della Sera daily.
"Football is still the ultimate passion for Italians," he said.
Political analysts quoted by Italian media said the signing could give Berlusconi as many as 400,000 extra votes from an electorate of some 50 million.
Berlusconi himself brushed off any political intent behind the purchase of a player he had dismissed as "a rotten apple" just a few weeks ago.
Even so Balotelli's two goals against Germany in the Euro 2012 semi-final fit well with Berlusconi's pre-election anti-German rhetoric.
"Balotelli scored twice against Germany and made the Germans cry," Berlusconi said in one interview.
Referring to Prime Minister Mario Monti, he said: "The other Mario... instead made Italians cry."
The irrepressible media magnate is no stranger to using football for electoral purposes ever since he entered politics in the early 1990s after a career in the television and construction industries made him a billionaire.
The tycoon bought AC Milan in 1986, saving the club from bankruptcy and turning it into one of the most successful football clubs in the world.
He called the party he founded in 1993 "Forza Italia" ("Go Italy") -- a popular football chant -- and his victories at AC Milan featured prominently in his early media campaigns.
Giuseppe Berta, a professor of economic history at Bocconi University in Milan, said Berlusconi's ties to football have been crucial to his political image -- just like for many South American leaders.
"Like the marketing man that he is, Berlusconi understood immediately that bringing together sports, television and mass marketing of consumer products could be an explosive and winning mixture also in politics," Berta told financial news website firstonline.info.
"Buying Balotelli is no political coincidence and it evokes the classic stereotype of a product of the Italian miracle -- the same one that Berlusconi experienced in his youth and constantly refers to," the professor said.
"There is no doubt Balotelli has added electoral value," he added.
Balotelli was born to Ghanaian immigrant parents in Sicily, then abandoned and adopted by an Italian couple. He grew up in the city of Brescia near Milan and became an Italian citizen at 18.
Whether or not Berlusconi has benefited from a Balotelli bump, the former prime minister has definitely risen in voter surveys in recent weeks.
A poll conducted by the Demopolis Institute on Wednesday gave a Berlusconi coalition 27.4 percent of the vote -- far better than the 23 percent it scored in December in the same poll, although still behind the centre-left's 34.2 percent.
Some Internet commenters had a more ironic twist on the Balotelli news, however.
One fan, with tongue firmly in cheek, said: "Let's all go and vote for Silvio -- 'Bread and Circus'" -- a Roman metaphor for winning over the crowd.
Another said: "He'll be a regional lawmaker or foreign minister one day. I just hope Berlusconi doesn't ask Balotelli to dance the bunga-bunga."
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