The Curious Case Of The Disappearing Football Team – Part 1

By David Edwards


A fair proportion of the South coast of England, where I live, was recently in uproar at the news that former Portsmouth football manager, Harry Redknapp, had joined arch-rival South coast team, Southampton. Worse still, Redknapp took Portsmouth’s assistant manager with him. Meanwhile, there was speculation that former Southampton manager, Gordon Strachan, was about to become Portsmouth’s new manager!

Both Redknapp and Strachan are highly respected managers and would undoubtedly have been eagerly embraced by their new clubs’ supporters, just as they would have been hated by their old supporters. In the event, Strachan didn’t join Portsmouth.

An odd thought arises – what would happen if all of the Portsmouth players and staff left to join Southampton, and all the Southampton players and staff left to join Portsmouth? Would the fans continue to support the players and staff they had previously supported under a new label, or would they continue supporting the old label? We can guess the answer.

Alexander Who?

Consider, also, the response to tennis player Alexander Popp who is half-English and half-German. Popp speaks perfect English but has decided to play under the German flag. The Canadian-born Greg Rusedski, by contrast, has chosen to play as a British player. When Rusedski wins or loses, British tennis fans are elated or distraught because they label him ‘British’. The same crowd is supremely unmoved when Popp plays because they label him ‘German’. If Popp had decided to play as a Brit, he would be labelled ‘British’, his picture would be all over the newspapers, and the public would feel intense emotions in response to his performances.

Similarly, in the summer of 2004, much of the English public was devastated by the exit of the England football team from the European championships: “What will we do tomorrow?” grieved one sports commentator without irony. All around the country people were genuinely depressed by defeat – the anguish was real. The reason people were unhappy, of course, was that the England team had lost.

But what do we mean by ‘the England football team’? On the face of it the question is absurd – obviously we mean the squad of players, and maybe the manager and his coaching staff.

But when we check more carefully something curious happens. Consider the players: is David Beckham the England football team? Obviously not – he is merely a part of the team, not the team itself. If Beckham were the England team then that would mean all the other players were also England teams – there would be eleven England teams on the pitch every time they played.

Is Wayne Rooney the England team? Again, obviously not. All of the players are merely ‘parts of the team’, not the team itself. People were not unhappy because any individual player had failed to win Euro 2004 – if completely different players had been involved, they would have felt the same – but because something beyond the individuals involved, ‘the England team’, had failed to win.

The England team is understood to be the collection of players. But we have already agreed that each of the players, individually, is not the team. So when we consider the collection, we are considering a collection of parts that are all +not+ the England team. It seems remarkable to suggest that by bringing together individuals – none of whom are the England team – they might suddenly transform into an actually existing ‘England team’. Again, if we remove, one by one, the individuals who are not the England team – Beckham, Rooney, Lampard – there is nothing left, no England team.

In fact, of course, ‘the England team’ is merely a mental label that we apply to a collection of individual players, but this collection does not actually exist as an object or entity; it is just a product of the mind.

The public, then, is upset or delighted because a non-existent entity, a mental label, ‘England’ – a label that they themselves have applied to a group of individuals – has ‘lost’ or ‘won’. In reality, of course, a non-existent entity can neither win nor lose – a label is just a label, a mental construct.

Mirrored Moons

It is not just the England team that goes missing on closer inspection. When we search for a forest we only ever find trees. The trees are considered part of a forest, but actually they are part of nothing inherently existent – the forest is just a label in our minds. Similarly, leaves, twigs, branches and trunks are deemed to be parts of things called ‘trees’ – but a leaf is not a tree, nor is a twig, nor is a branch, nor is a trunk, nor is bark, nor is a root. What on earth, then, is ‘a tree’? In fact a ‘tree’ is just a label applied to a collection of parts – it is nowhere actually to be found, just like ‘a forest’ and just like an ‘England team’.

Remarkably, this understanding applies to all phenomena made up of parts. If we look for an ‘army’, we will only ever find individual soldiers, generals, tanks and guns – the term ‘army’ is just a label. If we look for a ‘book’, we will only ever find individual pages, none of which is a book. If we search for a car, we will find wheels, doors, windows, nuts, bolts and bumpers – none of which is the car – but which we label ‘car’ and then mistake for an actually existing object. Reggie Ray at Naropa University, Colorado, asks:

“Where is the essential nature of the car located, exactly? If we begin removing parts of the car, at which point does it stop being a car? The answer is that there is no point at which it stops being a car other than when I stop thinking of it in that way. Moreover, in taking the car apart, ten people would probably have ten different points at which they felt that the essential nature of car had ceased to be. This indicates clearly that essential nature is not something residing in the object, but rather something that resides just in our own thinking. The car, in and of itself, possesses no essential nature.” (Ray, Indestructible Truth, Shambhala, 2000, p.408)

In other words the idea of inherently existing objects is an illusion. Chogye Trichen Rinpoche explains the basic qualities of an illusion:

“By definition, an illusion is something that does not exist. It only seems to be, due to a variety of composite factors, causes and conditions, the interdependence of which produces illusory scenarios that present themselves to our experience. When the conditions meet, the illusory situation manifests.” (Trichen Rinpoche, Parting From The Four Attachments, Snow Lion, 2003, p.166)

A good example of an illusion is a reflection of the moon in a mirror. The moon appears to be in the mirror but in fact the moon, the mirror, our eyes and minds are combining to create an illusion – we know there is no actual moon in the mirror. We know this because when we remove one of the conditions creating the illusion – say the light from the moon in the sky – the mirror moon disappears.

In other words, the mirror moon appears, not because there is an +actual+ moon at that place in the mirror, but because conditions combine to give the impression that there is, which is an illusion.
Likewise, the Portsmouth football team appears to be inherently real. But when we remove the composite factors that give rise to the illusion – the players in the team – the illusion of a real team disappears and we are left with a mere label. There is no inherently existing entity called Portsmouth Football Club. And, again, this is true of all objects made up of parts (with these parts also made up of smaller parts) – that is, everything.

But this is bizarre, isn’t it? Does nothing exist? Clearly +something+ is there – we can see ‘things’: trees, cars, moons and football players. But our firm belief in concrete, inherently existent phenomena sitting ‘out there’ in space – the very foundation of materialism – is in fact unfounded. The world is not at all as it seems.