You may have felt an ominous charge in the air this week. This is not normal. You are not supposed to feel these things: like a small spectral shadow is kicking in the heart of your belly, or that, distantly, the universe is crackling against you; you are not supposed to hear an electric ringing sound somewhere just outside of the range of your ears; you are not supposed to toss so wildly in your sleep.
The cosmic mass in which we reside in has changed, slightly, perceptibly, just, like a curse has landed, and every static shock and sharp yelp and nervous jangling feeling of despair has heightened, deepened, as a result. You have not noticed it, but dark birds flutter hard out of leafless trees. You have not noticed it, but deep wet cracks have opened up above caves that haven’t moved for years. You haven’t noticed it but the air is staler, thinner, and you are breathing less of it as a result. You have not noticed it but we have all changed in a way we can’t go back to.
The Euro 2020 mascot is called Skillzy. This much we know. Skillzy has hands and eyes and hair. Skillzy has a mouth and nose and ears. Taken together, you might surmise that Skillzy is a human, or derived from a human, or some sort of human-hybrid creature that, once, had human DNA near or around it. Skillzy is none of those things. Skillzy is here in a padded sky-blue gilet and pupils wider than the sun to tell us: no. Skillzy not human. Skillzy is cursed to live the shape of a human life.
The mascots for European football tournaments are not designed for us: they are meant to be printed on mugs and stickers and flags and scarves, plus plushies and commemorative coins and plastic tumblers and Euro 2020® apps, and they are created for a curious fanbase of two polar opposite peoples: excited children on long car journeys between the ages of 8 and 12, and 40 to 65-year-old UEFA executives with pending meetings with HR.
Skillzy is for kids who have plastic watches with the strap so long it wraps around their tiny wrists twice over, and men with cholesterol who take 25 clicks to get a PowerPoint presentation to work. Skillzy is a sum of two prime numbers: the deep, massive, childlike glee for the game, plus a briefcase full of FIFA bung money driving to the game in a limo. He both woke up early on FA Cup Final day and strolled into the arena halfway through the second half. He is joy and he is an absence of light. He is Skillzy.
Skillzy does not want you to be afraid of him, but you are, and you will not stop. It isn’t just Skillzy’s eyes, unblinking, that make you do this: Skillzy is a 2020-shaped nugget of the game you don’t understand, a YouTube skills video where two lads do headers over the top of Tom Cleverley. You do not remember when the game stopped being about the bricks and scaffolding you used to understand – passing, crossing, shooting, colliding mid-tackle and making the shape of a circle to intimate you got the ball – and morphed into what Skillzy is – hair gel and black tapered tracksuits and 600K followers on Instagram – but that spiralling feeling is the floor being whipped away from under you and only the void-like black of Skillzy’s eyes lying underneath. You cannot escape Skillzy because you are slower than he is. He was built this way and you were not.
Recently I had an out-of-body experience while watching Nani make his debut in the MLS (Nani is in the MLS now: think about this for even one second and it makes an all-consuming amount of sense). Nani is someone you remember from Manchester United because he looked at Cristiano Ronaldo and fundamentally misinterpreted who he was, and that’s how Nani ended up at Manchester United for eight years, quietly underwhelming, and Ronaldo went on to Real Madrid, getting Ballon d’Ors and dodging tax.
Nani looked at Cristiano Ronaldo and thought: the only aspects of this man’s game are doing three stepovers then running really fast towards the corners. Nani saw the puzzle of Ronaldo and misunderstood it at its core. He didn’t see the Jordan-airtime headers or the free kicks or the constant, constant training, or the powerful need to overwhelm the opposition: he saw running, and colourful boots, and three haircuts at once, and tricks. Nani took Ronaldo’s plumage without any of the meat underneath. And what I am saying is: Skillzy is like Nani to Nani’s Ronaldo. A haircut. A stepover. A single finger pointed up in a moodily-lit Pepsi advert. If Skillzy is any indication of where the game is going, we will cut the pitch to 1/8th size and run 20-minute drills until F2 win the World Cup. The Puskas Award will be won by Wayne Rooney kicking a ball off a roof into a bin. Jimmy Bullard will replace Sepp Blatter. Can you hear that? The crowd, hundreds of thousands of them, pulsing and jumping and chanting with drums. And the song they are singing has two words, and two words only: there, in the distance, like an earthquake. “JOKES… BRO.”
But this is not about the sanctity or unsanctity of commercial football (the game changes, and if you resist that you become what you fear, your old man in his soiled arm chair remembering how good Graeme Souness was at tackles). Skillzy is not a prophecy of the game as it is destined to become. No. He is much darker than that, much deeper, a warning for the end of the world. Skillzy Is Made Of Horror. Look into his eyes and feel a deep, dark, clank of dread. Skillzy has no emotions and he can’t feel pain. Skillzy is outside your window in the dreadful dark of night, but the wind you hear doesn’t seem to affect the arc of his kick ups at all. Skillzy. The clack of chalk on board, gate on fence, drip on sink. Skillzy. Skillzy is squeaking up your stairs at double the speed of running but he will not move his feet. Skillzy.
You don’t know how you ended up here, out here, on this moor, with your arms exposed against the cold, but you’re both here and un-here, and Skillzy lurks in the blue of the darkness. Skillzy. You try to remember the things you hold dear but you can’t – your childhood, your partner, your mother’s face – but in that hole, looming, is the unblinking face of Skillzy. Skillzy. Skillzy is a remnant from the future to remind you that you are dead. Skillzy took your body and filled it with a terror of his own design. Skillzy doesn’t sleep, and doesn’t rest: Skillzy is kept in a concrete bunker at UEFA HQ where he waits, tick-tock, for the European Championships next summer. Skillzy. I simply do not know why you would give your tournament mascot the face, unbending fingers and troubling aura of a career murderer. Skillzy. Skillzy hisses your name in the dead of the night. It’s the first and the last time he’ll ever move his lips. Skillzy, he says. You are Skillzy now. He is you. You are condemned forever to do kick-ups in hell.