Batuhan: Just because you’re Spain

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By Allan S. B. Batuhan

Foreign Exchange

Saturday, June 28, 2014

NASSIM Nicholas Taleb, best-selling author of “The Black Swan”, tells the story of a turkey who is fed by the farmer every morning for 1,000 days.

Eventually, the turkey comes to expect that every visit from the farmer means more good food. After all, that’s all that has ever happened so the turkey figures that’s all that can and will ever happen. But then Day 1,001 arrives. It’s two days before Thanksgiving and when the farmer shows up, he is not bearing food, but an ax. The turkey learns very quickly that its expectations were catastrophically off the mark. And now Mr. Turkey is dinner. (From Risk Management Monitor)

Mr. Taleb is an advocate of the so-called “black swan” theory, something which he uses to explain many of the occurrences in our world. From economics to politics, from the United States to Russia, he says that much of what happens today (and throughout history) is asymmetric and non-linear. In his view, most of these events and phenomena are inherently unpredictable, and we can only offer explanations about them in hindsight, and never in foresight.


Taleb notes that contemporary commentators of social events expect there to be a pattern in these occurrences, in an attempt to make them predictable, or at least explain away why they happened. However, he says these explanations are mere afterthoughts—attempts at rationalization, rather than actual pointers as to their occurrence.

Well, for purposes of classification, sports would fall under the social events category, and recently, there have been black swan occurrences there as well.

Spain has been, for all intents and purposes, the kings of football. Or, as the Americans refer to it, soccer. In 2010, they beat The Netherlands in a thrilling encounter of footballing giants, and cemented their place as the rightful kings of the football world. Previous to that, in 2008, they had won the European Championships, the tournament regarded as the most competitive among all the continental competitions. And, just to prove that they are no flukes, they defended their European title in 2012, becoming the first champions ever to defend a European crown.

So what was the star-struck sporting world to think heading into this World Cup in Brazil?

Spain had always been on a winning streak. In recent years, only the word “champions” had ever been associated with their team. So, assuming, as Taleb would say, that all swans are white (or translated as Spain will always win), no one had expected a black swan event to occur, featuring the Spanish national team. And what was this event?

A 5-0 shellacking at the hands of The Netherlands. After all, the only pattern of events the Spanish team had ever recently recorded was wins, so who would have even contemplated that they would follow Taleb’s turkey to the Thanksgiving table?

Come to think of it, the current football competition has featured other, albeit lesser, black swans. One of which, interestingly, is the rise of the United States as a footballing (read: soccer) superpower. In a group that featured African champions Ghana, and European superstars Germany and Portugal, few had given the United States any chance of progressing to the next round. But after upsetting the Ghanaians, and then drawing the Portuguese (starring the world’s best footballer in Cristiano Ronaldo), before eventually narrowly losing to the powerhouse German team, the Americans showed that they are no pushovers. White swans they are not.

I don’t know if Taleb is following this World Cup or not, or if he even cares at all about football. But one thing I know, his theory has taught me as much—that just because you’re Spain, it doesn’t mean you will forever continue to reign.

( &

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on June 29, 2014.


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