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Politics, power and players: Berlusconi's AC Milan election engine

By Greg Duke, CNN
  • Robinho is the latest big-name player to be signed by Italian giants AC Milan
  • The Brazilian striker joins Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the San Siro for this season
  • The signings come as Silvio Berlusconi's popularity is on the wane in the opinion polls
  • Some commentators believe the Milan owner uses the club to boost his political popularity

(CNN) -- When Robinho completed his dramatic deadline-day transfer from Manchester City to AC Milan last month, he became the latest in a long line of flamboyant big-name players to move to the San Siro.

Most would agree the attacking prowess of the 26-year-old party-loving, Brazil striker would help bolster the attack of any team in the world, but it's his ability to help decide the future of Italian politics that was arguably just as attractive to his new employers.

That is because club owner Silvio Berlusconi also happens to be the prime minister of Italy and -- according to leading commentators -- AC Milan's success has been inextricably linked to Berlusconi's rise to power.

It could be just a coincidence of course, but Robinho's arrival, on the back of the purchase of Barcelona superstar striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic comes at an apposite time for the beleaguered statesman.

The 73-year-old has the support of less than 30 percent of voters according to a recent poll for the newspaper La Repubblica -- following the defections of dozens of members of parliament in July and the departure of Gianfranco Fini -- a co-founder of Berlusconi's ruling "People of Liberty," over policy disagreements.

So could the capture of Robinho help shore up Italy's coalition government? There is no doubt that Berlusconi is a man who stirs the emotions of his compatriots in many different ways.

It is doubtful whether he[Berlusconi] would be prime minister now without the AC Milan link
--Political analyst Franco Pavoncello

To his followers, he is an achiever. An innovator, somebody who has changed Italian culture and business practices for the better. A world statesman of the very highest caliber.

To his critics, he is a chancer; an embarrassment who continually flouts his authority with bizarre decision making amid lurid accusations about his personal life.

And, to the supporters of AC Milan, he is the man in power. The owner, to be cheered when results are going well and jeered after another defeat.

Rome-based football journalist Patrick Agnew has no doubt there is a correlation between Berlusconi's standing in the opinion polls and the arrival of big-name stars at his beloved Rossoneri.

"Berlusconi will frequently use the club to recreate a wining image for himself," Agnew told CNN. "Off the pitch, his center-right coalition government is under great pressure at the moment. And, on the pitch, he was forced to watch rivals Inter win everything last season."

Agnew added: "Berlusconi was also shocked by some of the banners he saw fans holding, when he turned up to watch the team train in July. He knew he had to buy some big names to boost his popularity, that's why Robinho and Ibrahimovic have arrived.

"Berlusconi has always seen Milan as a huge publicity vehicle and likes rubbing shoulders with the big-name players he can attract. It's all part of the image, that's why David Beckham has twice played here. It boosts "brand Berlusconi" when the polls suggest he needs a boost."

The career paths of Berlusconi the politician and Berlusconi the football club owner run hand-in-hand as the billionaire has unashamedly courted the popular "football" vote to achieve his political aspirations.

When deciding to enter the political arena by creating a new party in 1993, Berlusconi chose the popular football chant "Forza Italia" -- roughly translated as "Go Italy" -- a name that helped progress the businessman to the office of prime minister within a year.

Berlusconi has always seen Milan as a huge publicity vehicle and likes rubbing shoulders with the big name players he can attract.
--Patrick Agnew, Italian football journalist
  • Silvio Berlusconi
  • AC Milan
  • Robinho
  • Italy

Berlusconi's sudden and spectacular rise to the political summit came just as one of the greatest Milan sides of all time was marching towards the Italian league title.

In fact, in the same May month that Berlusconi was sworn into power, his Milan side -- boasting Dutch superstars Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten -- thrashed Barcelona 4-0 in one of the most devastating European Cup final displays ever seen.

Political analyst Franco Pavoncello, dean of the John Cabot University in Rome, told CNN: "The success of AC Milan definitely helped propel Berlusconi's political aspirations and it is doubtful whether he would be prime minister now without that link.

"Berlusconi is a unique man. Whatever he touches turns to gold and his only aim is to be a success. The split in his coalition means he has some political maneuvering to do to avoid a possible election next year.

"But, if an election did happen, signing some big names to help Milan achieve success again can only help his cause with the electorate."

Where Milan's transfer policy appears to differ from many of their rivals is their apparent willingness to sign players that come with "baggage", be it big egos like Ibrahimovic, a party-loving image like Robinho and Ronaldinho, or the media frenzy that surrounds Beckham.

It has lead to criticism that Berlusconi is ultimately overseeing a short-term policy that sums up his own personality, rather than encourage the long-term success and growth that signing younger, less well-known, players could bring.

Pavoncello believes there is a reason for this. "Berlusconi's successes have straddled politics, sport and the media. He brought commercial satellite TV channels into people's homes and likes the glamour that these big stars bring to him and his team.

"The fact that some players might have suspect temperaments will not be a concern to him. He just wants to win and win for the present. Don't forget he is not a young man. He wants to be around to see Milan win the big trophies and by signing these players it is the best way to achieve that success."