Monday, 4 April 2011

Berlusconi: the football-politician facing relegation

Goals from Pato and Antonio Cassano at the weekend saw AC Milan put their cross city rivals Inter to the sword and maintain a three-point gap at the top of Serie A. Which is all rather nice for the club's owner, Italy's billionaire Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who is currently in a spot of bother over his extra curricular activities.

The perma-tanned PM has recently been charged with procuring the services of the then-17-year-old prostitute Karima El Mahroug for sex and abusing his office by asking police to release her from custody over a separate incident. Now far be it from me to suggest that Mr Berlusconi has done anything untoward, but as his ex-wife Veronica Lario (who almost predictably he met while she was performing in a play topless) will tell you, as football club owners go he's always taken a keen interest in youth development.
I did not play football with that woman

If found guilty (and the trial will be presided over by three female judges so, for me, all bets are off) Berlusconi faces three years for the sex charge and four to 12 for abuse of office. It is interesting to note, then, that after several barren years, AC Milan are now mounting a serious challenge for Lo Scudetto.

Things all looked a little different back in July last year for both Berlusconi and Milan. Then, with the scandal that is currently engulfing him yet to rear its head, and after several years of dramatically reduced investment in the club (partly as it was unsustainable and partly in preparation for FIFA's financial fair play rules) he said that the club's "list of players is appropriate to compete with any other team" (translation: "Don't expect me to spend any money this season").

Shortly afterwards, however his long-time supporter Gianfranco Fini quit the government to create his own party Futuro e libertà per l'Italia (Future and Freedom for Italy) in a move knowingly-designed to destabilise Berlusconi's government and what do you know? Somehow the cash was found for AC Milan to sign Robinho from Manchester City for €18 million and Zlatan Ibrahimović on loan from Barcelona (with a view to signing him for €25 million at the end of the season).

Then in January - right around the time the Italian constitutional court weakened the laws granting temporary immunity to Berlusconi, thus paving the way for this week's trial - the club bolstered it's title challenge by signing Cassano, Urby Emanuelson, Mark van Bommel and Dídac Vilà. OK, none of these is truly big league signings, but the timing is none-the-less interesting.

Perhaps Berlusconi has just come to accept that in football you have to speculate to accumulate, or perhaps it's a rather transparent attempt by a politician losing popularity to try and buy favour, after all it wouldn't be the first time he'd used football for his own ends. Berlusconi's entire political career has been founded on the success on i Rossoneri.

His company Fininvest bought AC Milan in 1986 and Berlusconi and his management team then set about revolutionising the running of the club by implementing a business model similar to the one used in the myriad other business interests he had at the time from TV companies like Italia 1 to the chain store Standa. Modern innovations like automatic ticket booking were introduced, commercial spin-offs and customer loyalty were maximised and of course big money was spent on players like Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkard and Marco Van Basten.

In the eight years between his buying the club and Berlusconi's entry in to politics, i Rossoneri won Lo Scudetto three times and the European Cup twice (they would win a fourth title and a third European Cup just weeks after his election victory in 1994). Essentially he had made the team a metaphor for Italy - Berlusconi was saying: "AC Milan, a once great club, was failing. I modernised it and made it the best in Europe. Elect me and I will do the same for the country."

Furthermore in 1994, when he launched his political party, Berlusconi borrowed the language and symbols of football. Announcing his entry into the political sphere, he said he "had chosen to take to the field". The party itself was named after a football chant - Forza Italia. Candidates were called Azzuri, just like the country's footballers; local branches of the party were called clubs and the widow of Gaetano Scirea, one of the glorious 1982 World Cup team was put forward as a candidate.

Silvio, I wouldn't do that if I were you

None of this was an accident and, while the man himself might quibble about the definition, in two key ways Berlusconismo mirrors fascism; firstly through the creation of a charismatic leadership figure and secondly through a synthesis of business and state and the former of these at least has created problems for both AC Milan and Italy as a whole.

In his book No Milan, Inter fan Tommaso Pellizzari outlined how Berlusconi has ultimately made it hard for even Milan's own fans to support the team, arguing: "If at first the Milan of Berlusconi was subjectively odious (that is, odious to us Interisti and to others scattered throughout Italy), thanks to the presidentissimo, it has often succeeded in becoming objectively odious, ie, independently of the team you support." 

Just as in the mid-Eighties Berlusconi made Milan a metaphor for Italy, now the man himself is seen as the metaphor for the country. His success in recasting Italy in his image means the country is increasingly perceived as some huge Carry On film - a country in love with football and trashy TV full of topless women. However, it's an image many Italians are unhappy with and  more than a million protestors - mainly women - took to the streets in February carrying placards saying "Italy is not a brothel" to protest against Berlusconi and his attitude towards women and calling for his resignation.

This week's trial then is not just about Berlusconi, it's about the whole country and whether it can finally shed its tarnished image and reposition itself as a serious player on the international stage. Perhaps, with the protection of immunity gone and with the population turning against him, Berlusconi is playing a game he can no longer win.

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