Fine wine: Quagliarella's late flourish befitting of unique career
MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP / Getty

Few have experienced a footballing career quite like Fabio Quagliarella's.

The striker became Italy's oldest-ever scorer on Tuesday against Liechtenstein when he banged home a first-half penalty to register his first Azzurri goal since 2010.

Ten minutes later, the 36-year-old completed his brace, and, for a player who has enjoyed a late-career peak with Sampdoria, it was a fitting accomplishment. The response from Italy supporters at the Stadio Ennio Tardini in Parma represented another felicitous moment.

"The standing ovation is a memory I will always take with me," an elated Quagliarella said post-match.

Footballing denouements have gotten the better of players far more decorated than Quagliarella. Corporeal skills diminish as a career reaches its climax, leaving many to entrust metaphysical attributes that are in short supply. Elites who once sat atop the zenith of their respective factions witness rapid declines.

In a way, it's similar to the plight of Santiago, the experienced fisherman and protagonist of Ernest Hemingway's last major work, "The Old Man and the Sea." Amid an 85-day streak of ineptitude on the Gulf Stream, Santiago engages in a days-long battle with a monstrous marlin. Against all odds, he catches the famed fish, only to strap it to the side of his skiff to the pleasure of bloodthirsty sharks. Santiago finally reaches the shore with only the skeletal remains of the marlin to show for his efforts. It's a tale of manhood, pride, and fleeting successes, and a story not unlike the transitory careers and experiences of the common footballer.

Quagliarella, on the other hand, appears to be thriving in the face of inevitability.

His 21 Serie A goals this season are a career best, two better than last campaign's previous standard. The Sampdoria star sits atop the league scoring charts - two ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo - and for the first time in a storied 19-year career, Quagliarella is the favorite to snatch a maiden Capocannoniere distinction. He's also matched Gabriel Batistuta's Serie A record with goals in 11 consecutive matches, and while becoming a consistent source in attack for I Blucerchiati, some of the finishes have been nothing short of remarkable - a slick backheel flick versus Napoli being among the best.

It's no coincidence that Quagliarella's brilliant run of form coincided with the imprisonment of policeman Raffaele Piccolo two years ago, who stalked the striker and sullied his time with Napoli, the club he grew up in the shadow of.

"I always had imagined myself as captain of Napoli; of winning something with them because they were becoming as good a team as they are now - a great team," Quagliarella said in 2017, seven years after he was forced to leave Napoli courtesy of a barrage of approaches from Piccolo, which included the delivery of a coffin to Quagliarella's home featuring his photo. "If none of this had happened, I am certain I would still be playing there now."

Abuse from Napoli supporters followed, which made it impossible to return to nearby hometown Castellammare di Stabia, and Quagliarella left the club just one year into a five-year contract to join Juventus. It wasn't until March 2017 when Napoli fans extended a form of contrition, displaying a banner at the Stadio San Paolo that read, "You've lived through hell with enormous dignity. We will embrace you again, Fabio, son of this city."

For Quagliarella, the incidents in Napoli marked a low point in a whirlwind career that has seen the 36-year-old rise through the Torino ranks only to experience a pair of loans and a move to Ascoli prior to a first stay a Sampdoria. Then it was Udinese, for whom Quagliarella was awarded Serie A Goal of the Year in 2009 - a distinction he's certain to again collect 10 years later - and caught the eye of Napoli. That was supposed to represent the pinnacle of years of hard work, but instead, he was forced to flee to Juventus before returning to Torino, where he was maligned by Il Toro fans for refusing to celebrate a goal against Napoli. Finally, Quagliarella was shipped to Sampdoria for a second time on loan with an obligation to buy, and following an endless cycle of tribulations and uncertainty, the right-footer has found his way.

Late-career surges aren't unique to Quagliarella, it's just that his might be the most eye-catching. Fellow Azzurri Antonio Di Natale, Luca Toni, and Andrea Barzagli all enjoyed similar tardy rises, though Quagliarella's has come at an age at which most footballers are juggling the acquisition of coaching badges and the development of portly paunches.

Quagliarella's return to the Italy setup comes at a time of constructive returns from a budding bunch. The emergence of Moise Kean, Nicolo Zaniolo, Nicolo Barella, Federico Chiesa, Pietro Pellegri, Sandro Tonali, Gianluigi Donnarumma, and countless others mark a period of prosperity for a footballing power reeling from the destructive and tactically inept leadership of Gian Piero Ventura, which led to the failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 60 years. The always modest Quagliarella credits current Azzurri boss Roberto Mancini, saying, "I thank Roberto Mancini, who watched me throughout the season and gave me this opportunity."

"I am 36 years old, but I don't feel it. I am happy, physically in good shape, I train well and Sampdoria keep me on my toes."

When Quagliarella was named to Mancini's starting XI against Liechtenstein, it ended a run of 3,450 days since the striker last started for Italy, making Santiago's wait to snare the mythical marlin seem like a day at the beach. It's a deserved ascension for a player who's experienced his fair share of setbacks, and for the sake of football, here's hoping there's no end in sight.

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Fine wine: Quagliarella's late flourish befitting of unique career
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