American Rules by Brandon Robshaw


Short Fiction by Brandon Robshaw.



It’s essentially the same as English soccer, the referee said. He was a small, birdlike man with a thin moustache; he reminded Bernard of the games teacher in Gregory’s Girl, except that he had an American accent. It’s 7-a-side, but the basic play is identical. Only there is one rule that we do kind of emphasize here: if a player intentionally tries to get another player sent off, he goes himself. Right? I just point to the touchline and he goes, man, he goes. Do you have that rule in England?

Bernard wasn’t sure, but didn’t want to confess ignorance about his country’s national game. We do, he said. As a matter of fact we wrote it. In the nineteenth century.

Yeah? said the referee, looking sceptical. But in your country it’s not seriously enforced, right?

Yes it is, Bernard said. You can get yellow-carded for diving.

But that’s my point! Here, you don’t just pick up a yellow card. You walk, man. And you don’t come back.

Ok, well, that’s fine by me, Bernard said. None of my team would ever try to get opponents sent off in any case. (He felt rather proud of in any case; it made him sound clear-thinking and well-spoken in a particularly English way).

He looked at the six English players standing beside him. They looked focused and noble, like the athletes in Chariots of Fire. Bernard felt a surge of love for these doughty, intense but fair-minded English warriors.

But can I just emphasize another point, said the referee. This rule is so important in our game that if you, as captain, spot that a guy on your team is culpable, it’s your dooty to report that fact to me. And if, after the game, it transpires that you neglected to fulfil that dooty, you will be held accountable – in other words, it’ll be your ass! Do I make myself clear?

Yes, Bernard said shortly, bored by the other’s verbosity.

The referee turned to the other captain, whom Bernard had barely noticed until now. He was a big, strong, square-shouldered athlete with blond hair and a spray of freckles across his nose and cheeks. No need to check that you are fully cognizant with the rules? the referee asked. You’ve played this style of soccer many times and must be fully conversant with it.

The captain nodded, grinning and revealing a gap in his front teeth. I’ve played this game since I was a farm-boy in the state of Iowa, and I totally understand the importance of this rule. If a guy tries to get another guy sent off, he deserves to get sent off himself. To me that’s simple justice.

I’m sure of that, the referee said, but I have to stress it, because the English players might not be as committed to this important rule as we are, they do things differently over there. No offence, he said to Bernard. I’m not saying you’re cheats, only that you might have a more relaxed attitude to this rule than we do, which would make you a cheat in the USA, even though in your own country that wouldn’t be accounted cheatin’.

We have this rule too, Bernard said. I’ve told you that already. He found the referee’s manner and assumptions at the extreme limits of the tolerable, and just wanted to get on with the game.

OK, the referee said. Then let’s get this party started. Home team kicks off, right? – That’s how we phrase things over here. The home team’s the team that hasn’t travelled to the game. I mean hasn’t travelled so far. And when we start the game, by kicking the ball, we call that kicking off.

Is that right, Bernard said. Highly original.

The opposing captain, still grinning, tapped the ball sideways to a team-mate and the match began. The grass was slippery, and the ball skidded around unpredictably. Bernard kept stretching his foot out only to see the ball slip past. His own team kept passing to him, with a touching trust in their captain. But always the ball was a foot in front of him, skidding past on the greasy grass.

The American team regained possession, banged the ball around in neat triangles and moved it up the field. They’re good, Bernard realised. Too good. He turned, taking care on the slippery grass, and ran up the field with the aim of putting in a good strong English tackle, but he was too slow. One of the US players, a black dude with a gold tooth and baseball cap, slotted the ball neatly into the corner of the English net.

The Americans whooped and high-fived each other. The English regarded each other disconsolately, hands on hips.

Come on, guys! Bernard said. Come on chaps, I mean. We can do this!

He kicked off at the re-start, successfully completing a pass to Malcolm Rosen, out on the wing. Immediately, an American player was on him. They clashed and went down together in a tangle of limbs. The American got up, but Malcolm remained down, writhing on the grass and clutching his knee.

Bernard ran over. Come on, Malcolm, he said. It’s not that serious. You have to get up.

He chopped me down! Malcolm said. Deliberately clattered me from behind. If that’s not a red –

Bernard made damping down motions with his hands. Ssh!

What? The guy deliberately chopped me down, he could have broken my leg! If that’s not a red card, I don’t know what is.

Bernard groaned. Malcolm, you’ll have to go.


Bernard pointed to the touchline. You’ll have to walk. Sorry.

What are you talking about?

You tried to get this man sent off, Bernard said, indicating the American player, who was now grinning broadly. That’s against the rules.

So he hacks me down, Malcolm said, and I get sent off?

I’m sorry, Bernard said, but under their rules –

Some friend you are! Malcolm marched off the pitch with an exaggerated, arm-swinging stride, like a Guardsman, not looking back.

So now we’re down to six men, Bernard thought, and a goal down into the bargain. We are, in a word, fucked.

The referee ran towards him, tooting on his whistle. What’s going on here?

I had to send my man off, Bernard said, because under your rules –

Hey, hey, hey, hold it right there, the referee said. Just run that by me once more. You sent him off?

Well, yes, because I thought –

Then you have exceeded your jurisdiction, the ref said. It’s your dooty to inform me, not to perform the sending-off personally. You are not empowered to do that, you have exceeded your authority.

All the American players had gathered round, listening to Bernard being told off. It was obvious that they were enjoying it hugely. Bernard’s own team were clustering around Malcolm on the touchline, commiserating with him, patting him on the shoulder and shooting dark, accusatory looks at Bernard. They think I’ve betrayed Malcolm, he thought: my oldest friend. And maybe they’re right. But what choice did I have?

I think we have a problem here, the referee said. You took it upon yourself to send off your team-mate without any consultation with me –

I was trying to help, Bernard said.

But you didn’t help at all! You created a difficult situation. He should not at this time be off the field of play, not without my say-so.

Call him back on then, Bernard said.

If I call him back on, I’ll then have to send him off again, and that’s not right. Maybe you don’t pay no regard to other folk’s sensitivities, but I do. I’m not a machine, just because I have a whistle around my neck. You can’t send a guy off, bring him back on, then send him off again. Can’t you see that plays havoc with his feelings and undermines his dignity?

All right, let him stay on then, Bernard said.

The American players all started talking at once.

The guy’s a cheat!

He wants to get his man back on the field, even though he committed a red-card offence!

Those limeys oughta forfeit the match.

What say, referee? You gonna give us a walkover?

The referee blew his whistle. The shrill blast brought silence. It’s not within my jurisdiction to declare the match void – although my personal opinion is the British do deserve to forfeit. The charitable interpretation, I guess, is that they just don’t understand our rules.

Didn’t make no kind of effort to understand them, said the black player who’d scored. That’s standard-issue British arrogance.

Look, we invented football – Bernard began.

Correction, the black player said. You invented soccer. We invented football!

The other players laughed and high-fived him.

Enough already, the referee said. There’s only one way out of this difficult situation. I have to play for the English team.

What? the American captain said. You can’t play for the opposition, because a) you ain’t English and b) you’re the referee!

It’s the only way outa this crazy situation that he created. His accusatory index finger quivered in the air, ten millimetres from Bernard’s nose.

Bernard took a step back. I’d better go and explain this to my team.

You do that, buddy.

Bernard ran to the touchline. His team-mates looked at him suspiciously – except for Malcolm, who stared down at the grass.

Listen, Bernard said, I’m sorry for how this has turned out – but we do have to continue with the match.

Do we? Malcolm said dully. Seems to me there’s no point now. We’re a goal down and a man short – thanks to you.

Look, I’m sorry about that, but it was forced on me. Anyway, we won’t be a man short. The referee has agreed to play on our side.

Expressions of consternation all round.

How the fuck can the ref play for us?

It’s mad!


Why would he do that anyway?

To remedy the situation, Bernard said. He said Malcolm shouldn’t have been sent off –

Malcolm fixed Bernard with a laser-stare. So even the referee thinks you shouldn’t have sent me off?

Well, it’s sort of a matter of protocol –

His team were buzzing like a disturbed nest of angry wasps. They surged round him, prodding him and plucking at his shirt.

How could you do this? one of them said. How could you treat your oldest friend like this? How could you betray him?


Bernard felt stifled, hemmed in. He cleared a space for himself by whirling his arms around like the sails of a windmill. Listen, he said to Malcolm, I truly am sorry for – what happened. Malcolm’s eyes, Bernard saw, were glistening with tears; none shed, yet, but they brimmed and gleamed and trembled on the brink of his eyelids. I was doing my best, trying to stick to these weird American rules –

You don’t have to apologise, Malcolm said. It’s happened now. Blame yourself if you want to. But I will never blame you.

Bernard was baffled. Was he being forgiven or not? Well, let’s shake on it, he said, and held out his hand.

Malcolm lunged at him. For a second, Bernard feared he was going to be attacked; but Malcolm threw his arms around Bernard’s neck and hugged him fiercely. Bernard felt Malcolm’s cold tears on his cheek. You do forgive me, then? he said.

Yes, Malcolm said, I forgive you. For betraying me.

I didn’t – Bernard began, but Malcolm put a finger to Bernard’s lips. Don’t, he said. Just get back out there and win the game. Without me.

Come on you guys, Bernard said. Let’s stick it to the Yanks!

His team did not move. They looked at Malcolm as if waiting for a green light. Malcolm had a thoughtful, faraway look in his eyes. Then he said: Yes, go with Bernard. We mustn’t forfeit this match just because Bernard betrayed me.

Malcolm, I didn’t betray you –

It’s all right, Bernard. I forgive you.

Bernard felt abruptly annoyed by Malcolm’s air of martyrdom.

Let’s go! he said again, not looking at Malcolm. The referee was gesticulating at them and pointing to his watch.


Bernard’s team had possession. One of them passed to him out on the wing. The ball bobbled over the turf and seemed to take an age to reach him. Just as he was stretching out his foot to receive it, the referee bumped into him, knocking him off balance. The ball bounced into touch. Bernard looked at the ref, expecting an apology. But the referee just looked right back.

What are you doing? Bernard said.

Nothing. The referee blew his whistle. Throw-in to Team USA! Go guys!

Moments later, Bernard managed to get the ball back in midfield. He was looking up for someone to pass to when the referee cannoned into him again, knocking him off the ball. The referee hoofed it away, back to the American goalkeeper, who gathered it safely.

What are you playing at? Bernard said. You’re supposed to be on my team.

I said I’d play for your team, and I’m doing that, the referee said. But I never said I’d play well or in any sense make a positive contribution. I’m here to make the numbers balance, which was necessitated by your error.

So you’re out to sabotage my team?

You talk too much, the ref said, and ran upfield calling for the ball. An American player passed it to him. The referee crossed it into the English goalmouth.

Bernard jumped with all his strength, trying to head clear – but the black American striker outjumped him. The ball met the striker’s head with a clean smack and flew into the net while the goalkeeper stood rooted to the spot.

The referee punched the air and blew his whistle. Two-zero!

Bernard ran after him and confronted him in the centre circle. Look, this isn’t fair. You’re on our team but you crossed the ball into our penalty area –

That was a back-pass, the referee said. It wasn’t intended to be an assist.

Yes it was! You deliberately –

Well, so what? That ain’t against the rules of soccer, buddy. I can kick the ball wherever I goddamned like, motherfucker.

But –

The referee pointed to the centre-spot. Re-start!


Bernard passed the ball to a team-mate and ran into space. His team-mate hit it long. Bernard saw the ball looping towards him, slowly, slowly, as if it was crawling through the air. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the referee running towards him. He stepped back to avoid collision, but the ref adjusted his trajectory so that he again banged into Bernard. Bernard nearly went down, but a thought flicked through his mind: If I go down he’ll accuse me of diving – trying to get him sent off – and by American rules, I’ll be the one to go. But I’m not going to fall for that! Fall for that! The aptness of the accidental pun delighted him.

A new idea came to him. He could use the American rule against the American referee – hoist the bastard with his own petard. He crooked his foot around the referee’s ankle and gave him a full-blooded shove. The referee fell heavily on his arse. His face reddened with rage and he began blowing his whistle, still sitting in the mud. Off! he said, jabbing his finger viciously towards the touchline.

Wait, Bernard said. You’re trying to get me sent off. That’s against your own rules, so you have to go yourself.

Oh, a wise guy, huh? The referee scrambled to his feet. That rule self-evidently does not apply to the referee, otherwise no one could ever get sent off.

Ah, but you’re not just the referee, are you? Bernard countered, quick as a flash. You’re also a player, so –

I’m not gonna lower myself to the level of disputing this shit with you, man, the referee said. You’re just an asshole. He clapped his hands and the American team came jogging over in a phalanx.

Help me, Bernard called out to his own team-mates. Malcolm, on the touchline, turned his back; taking this as a cue, the rest of Bernard’s team also turned their backs and walked off the field.

The colossal unfairness hit Bernard as though he were a child encountering injustice for the first time. Life’s not fair, the grown-ups said, and Christ they were right about that. You could set up small spaces, institutions, closed systems within which norms of fairness prevailed, but if they broke down, as they often did, there was no external guarantor, no loving wise powerful parent to step in and enforce the rules; it was like the way there could be small localised hot energy-producing systems, like our own world, our own solar system, but there was nothing outside them, except the vast cold unfeeling implacable entropic universe.

The American team were shouting at him now, faces twisted with hatred, hands balled into weapons. There was no possibility of an appeal to fairness here, Bernard realised, and nor were appeals to logic or reason going to be of the slightest use.

3 October 2016