Milan (AFP) – At 36, Fabio Quagliarella has put his years of torment at the hands of a stalker behind him as he prepares to line up for Italy over eight years after his last cap thanks to the best season of his career in Serie A, where he is the top scorer ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Even if Roberto Mancini is focusing on youth as he rebuilds the Azzurri after their failure to qualify for last year’s World Cup, the Italy coach could not ignore Quagliarella’s remarkable performance with Sampdoria where he has scored 21 goals in 28 games, two more than Ronaldo and Polish sensation Krzysztof Piatek. 

The veteran could earn his 26th cap — eight and a half years after his last — in Italy’s Euro 2020 Group J qualifiers against Finland on March 23 in Udine or Liechtenstein in Parma three days later.

“I may be the oldest of the group, but I’m living everything with great enthusiasm and serenity,” Quagliarella told Rai Sport on Thursday.

“I’m now at an age where you also know how to manage emotions.”

Quagliarella insists that he has earned his place among the elite.

“This is the Italian national team, there’s no need to give caps away. If the coach calls up certain players, it’s because he’s convinced they can give a big hand and that’s why I’m here,” he said.

“Being called up by the Azzurri is a great source of satisfaction. There are so many strong young players with great personalities and for me it’s nice to be here, even if I’m playing it by ear.

“I’m trying to carve out my space.”

Mancini’s side have been hit by injuries with Fiorentina striker Federico Chiesa ruled out, with Quagliarella providing an option alongside Federico Bernardeschi and Ciro Immobile.

Mancini could also opt for Juventus forward Moise Kean, at 19 the youngest member of the group, who has already made his debut in a friendly against the United States last November.

– ‘Significant scars’ –

Former Manchester City boss Mancini had already invited the Sampdoria striker to take part in a training camp in February.

Before that the last time he had been at the national team’s training centre at Coverciano, near Florence, was in 2015 under Antonio Conte.

“I know that at my age, things can change from one day to the next, but the national team has always been a goal, and being in the midst of all these young people gives energy,” said Quagliarella.

He scored his first goals in Serie A almost 15 years ago, in 2005 with Ascoli. 

But the former Juventus, Udinese, Napoli and Torino player reached his peak later than most, scoring 19 goals last season, before surpassing that this campaign.

His double against Udinese in late January, also equalled the 1994-1995 record of Gabriel Batistuta with Fiorentina of 11 games in a row with at least one goal scored.

Quagliarella’s new-found calmness also follows the end of a stalker case that forced him to leave Naples in 2010, a heartbreaking episode for the player born in nearby Castellammare di Stabia, five kilometres from Vesuvius and two from Pompeii.

For months, a former policeman sent hundreds of anonymous letters to Napoli claiming the player was involved in organised crime, paedophilia and drug trafficking.

After just one season, Napoli offloaded Quagliarella to Juventus, a departure then perceived as the worst betrayal by fans of Napoli, who knew nothing of the case. 

He was only able to tell the whole story in 2017, when his persecutor was sentenced to almost five years in prison.

Shortly afterwards, the supporters of Naples displayed a banner at the San Paolo Stadium: “You’ve lived through hell with enormous dignity. We will embrace you again, Fabio, son of this city.” 

“It’s a story that left significant scars on me and my family,” said Quagliarella.

“I talked about it in my room with four to five teammates (from the national side).

“They asked me how I was able to train at that time, I said I was training, but the mind was somewhere else.”