ROME -- It was considered a coup, politically as well as athletically, when Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister, shelled out 20 million euros last month to land Mario Balotelli, the star striker, for his soccer team, A. C. Milan. But some of the bloom was lost this week when Paolo Berlusconi, the brother of the former prime minister, referred to Mr. Balotelli in loose translation as "the little black boy," using a word that is clearly derogatory in Italian.
"He's a crazy guy," Mr. Berlusconi said of Mr. Balotelli, who was born in Italy to African parents, speaking on Sunday at a campaign rally for his brother's People of Liberty party outside Milan.
The remarks, captured on video, would easily have caused a national firestorm in the United States and elsewhere. Tellingly, perhaps, they attracted little attention in the Italian news media, even though Italy has a growing problem with attitudes toward its expanding immigrant population.
"I think people use discriminatory language very freely here," said Carlotta Sami, the executive director of Amnesty International in Italy, which has called on Italian politicians to make human rights a campaign issue. "Italy is a country that hasn't yet come to terms with the integration of foreigners and people of color."
Last month, the players of A. C. Milan walked off the field in solidarity after their teammate, Kevin-Prince Boateng, a German-Ghanaian midfielder, kicked a ball into the stands during an exhibition match after supporters of the rival team started shouting racist chants. At the time, Silvio Berlusconi said that his team would not tolerate racism.
"These uncivil episodes, these catcalls and defamatory chants now occur with excessive frequency and offend soccer and all of sports," the former prime minister said then.
Mr. Balotelli, 22, was born in Palermo to Ghanaian parents and later adopted by an Italian family outside Milan. While at Manchester City, and before that at Inter, A. C. Milan's crosstown rival, he was known for his temper and his appearances in the tabloid press. But he is also a hugely popular player, who plays for the national team and has earned the nickname Super Mario.
Indeed, even as Paolo Berlusconi cheerfully derided Mr. Balotelli, his arrival at A. C. Milan was seen as a deft campaign move by the former prime minister, who harbors dreams of a comeback.
Mr. Berlusconi, whose first party, Forza Italia, was named after a soccer cheer, has denied that the acquisition was politically motivated, but Mr. Balotelli has become an essential part of a populist campaign that has dominated the Italian airwaves before national elections scheduled for Feb. 24 and 25.
Not long after the acquisition, Mr. Berlusconi said that Mr. Balotelli had scored two goals against Germany in a European Cup match last summer, while the caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti -- also sometimes nicknamed Super Mario -- had not had such an effect.
Political analysts have speculated that if A. C. Milan wins more games, die-hard fans of Mr. Berlusconi will be excited enough to bestir themselves and vote for him. That could help his People of Liberty party win in the important Lombardy region, where it is backing a candidate for regional president from the Northern League party, known for its anti-immigrant stance.
Although the center-left Democratic Party is leading in polls, analysts say that if the center-right wins Lombardy, a powerful swing region, the left may fail to have a majority in the Senate, where seats are assigned based on regional showings.
A. C. Milan, which is a member of Italy's top Serie A league, did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.