At the dawn of the 2012/13 Serie A season, things looked grim for AC Milan.
Over the summer, they had waved goodbye to veteran legends Gennaro Gattuso, Filippo Inzaghi, Alessandro Nesta and Clarence Seedorf.
To ease financial problems, they sold Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Paris Saint-Germain. When Antonio Cassano caught wind of their sale, he engineered a move to Milan's fiercest rivals and cohabitants of the San Siro, Internazionale. Fans were so displeased that the club had to offer them refunds for season tickets.
With one of the least appetising squads in many years, they lost four of their seven preseason friendlies. I personally witnessed an utterly abject display in a 5-1 defeat to Real Madrid at Yankee Stadium.
Spending was ruled out, as owner Silvio Berlusconi was in the midst of yet another legal battle, fighting a tax fraud case that could have landed him in prison. The repercussions of having an owner in jail would not be good for Milan.
With plenty of seats at the San Siro and an overwhelming lack of enthusiasm about the season ahead, Milan were beaten in five of their first eight league games. After those first eight, they were fifteenth in Serie A, with very little hope of earning a spot in Europe.
Today, however, the pessimism of the early days of 2012/13 is all but forgotten. The Rossoneri have lost just once in their last eleven league encounters and now sit on the cusp of Champions League qualification.
Despite receiving a jail sentence and ban from public office for three years in October—adding to a list of controversies that includes bribery, underage prostitution allegations and a stunning amount of corruption—Silvio Berlusconi is now running for office for the fourth time.
He announced his plans to run in the general election in early December outside the AC Milan training ground. His political rejuvenation seems to have coincided with Milan's renaissance—or perhaps because of it.
For all his misgivings, Berlusconi is not a stupid man. He knows how football and politics are intrinsically linked and how a boost in the beautiful game can equate to a boost in the polls.
The 76-year-old has certainly avoided that mistake in this campaign, instead using high-profile transfers to his advantage.
He may have labelled Mario Balotelli a "bad apple" a few weeks ago, but seeing how the Italian striker would improve his election ratings, he changed his tune and sanctioned the €20 million transfer.
Italian daily newspaper Corriere Della Sera (via The Independent) believes the acquisition of Super Mario could be worth up to 200,000 votes in the fiercely contested Lombardy region, while La Stampa (via The Scotsman) think it could guarantee 400,000 extra votes nationwide.
So far, so successful. Bloomberg report that the purchase of Mario Balotelli has helped Berlusconi get within five percentage points of front-runner Pier Luigi Bersani, with less than three weeks until the ballots are cast.
With his Milan side boasting the Mohawked duo that is expected to lead the Italian national team into the World Cup, Berlusconi couldn't have picked a better time to exploit his ownership of the club. He has received some criticism for the opportunism from his rival, but if he wins an election, Mario's €20 million transfer fee will have been a very easy financial decision for the billionaire media mogul.
Berlusconi's manipulation of football fans may be pretty cynical, but it can only mean good news for the Rossoneri.
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