Silvio Berlusconi's political opponents have suggested that Mario Balotelli's move to AC Milan might have motivations beyond the football field.
On Tuesday the mercurial 22-year-old left Manchester City for AC Milan, which Berlusconi owns. Milan is also the capital of Lombardy, the most important region in next month's parliamentary elections.
Balotelli's arrival in Milan, costing £19 million, prompted chaotic scenes and celebrations which reportedly ended in clashes between fans and police as hundreds of Ultras gathered outside a restaurant where the striker met club officials.
It also marks an about turn for Berlusconi, who last month said he didn't want Balotelli, dubbing the striker a "bad apple" who could "infect" the atmosphere of a team. He has since apologised.
The latest polls say the centre left will win the vote at the end of February, but its lead over the centre right has narrowed significantly since December when Berlusconi, after changing his mind several times, decided to return to active politics.
Gabriele Albertini, a former member of Berlusconi's Freedom People party who is running for election in Lombardy, said: "At the time of ancient Rome there were gladiators. Now there are footballers."
And Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the centre-left Democratic party, tweeted: "While I was in Padua visiting disabled people and prison inmates yesterday, Berlusconi was negotiating for Balotelli. So I announce that I'm in negotiations to bring [Barcelona's] Leo Messi to Bettola," he added, referring to his home town in the north of Italy.
L'Unita, the paper of the main centre-left party, said thrusting Balotelli into the campaign was "the devil's touch", a thinly veiled reference to Milan's mascot, which is a red-and-black devil.
The paper said fans of the club, which won the Italian championship in 2011 but is now lying fifth in Serie A, could influence about 1.3 percent of the vote, and La Stampa newspaper calculated that Balotelli could be worth 400,000 votes. One Italian television station called the move Berlusconi's "ace up his sleeve".
Balotelli's temper is notorious on and off the pitch but Italians still remember his starring performance in last year's European Championship, when his two stunning goals knocked out Germany in the semi-finals.
Born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents, Balotelli was adopted by an Italian family aged three. He grew up in northern Italy and became an Italian citizen at age 18.
Both in Italy and during Euro 2012 he has endured racist abuse on the pitch, but in 2010 he appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair wearing nothing but the Italian flag.Reuse content