WITHIN the stadium the crowd has gone quiet, the bull hunched in the middle of the sand-covered arena with blood trickling down its back and head dropped in exhaustion. For the past 15 minutes it has been chased and goaded and stabbed. With the shadows lengthening as the afternoon fades, this animal is now ready only for death.
The matador strides to stand in front of it, his hand raised high in triumph. A whistle comes from the stalls in response, a sound quickly picked up and replicated by other spectators. The stadium is a cacophony of noise — and none of it is cheers.
‘‘ They are angry,’’ says Carlos Flores, sitting beside me. ‘‘ They think the matador has played the bull badly, weakening it too quickly so as to deprive the contest of drama.’’ He is the son of one of Spain’s pre-eminent bull breeders, and had invited me to watch the fight. ‘‘ Not good,’’ Carlos says. ‘‘ Not good at all.’’
Hearing the crowd’s displeasure, the matador tries to end the contest with a flourish. He kneels down. He throws his arms up in the air. He leans his body a few inches above the outspread horns. All for nothing. There is barely a flicker from the bull in response.
Carlos is as uninterested as the rest when four horses, their driver cracking the ground beside them with a whip to drive the team forward, drag the bull’s corpse from the arena. He is already craning his neck towards the entrance archway to catch a first glimpse of what will come next.
‘‘ Maybe this bull will fight,’’ Carlos says. ‘‘ The day will get better, I hope.’’
It is a sentiment that could be directed not only at this fiesta but at the state of bullfighting in Spain as a whole — indeed at the very state of Spain itself. For bullfighting, like Spain, is in trouble. While the past few years have seen Spain’s economy tank, unemployment soar to 26 per cent and youth unemployment to 50 per cent, the sport that more than any other symbolises the country has fallen into its own crisis. Attendances have fallen by 40 per cent in just five years. In 2008, some 3295 corridas were held across the country. In 2012, it was 1997 and last year, according to some reports, fewer than 500. Cash-strapped towns can no longer stage festivals involving bullfights or running of the bulls.
In response, Spanish matadors have gone to Latin America, particularly to Peru, seeking corridas. Bulls being bred for the ring are being sent to abattoirs. Even some of the country’s most famous arenas, among them the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in Madrid, have been accused of not paying bullfighters what they are owed.
To try to find out what has gone wrong, and what it means for the future of the sport and Spain’s relationship to it, I travelled to the estate of El Palomar. Set within the sweeping vista of Albacete, this has been home to Carlos Flores’s family for 200 years. They have made the estate one of Spain’s most revered bullbreeding centres. Its 18th-century manor house even has its own bullring.
The present owner is Samuel Flores, Carlos’s father. Now in his 70s, he is adamant bullfighting has weathered crises before and will do so again.
He is dressed in the modern uniform of the Mediterranean gentry: green flannel jacket with elbow patches, checked shirt and chinos. On the veranda of his home, uniformed waiters serve the family lunch. In the pasture beneath, bulls laze in the heat. The effect is one of timelessness; of a world unchanged despite present troubles.
‘‘ Bullfighting will ... keep on going,’’ Flores predicts. ‘‘ It’s not only the big ferias in the big cities. It’s also the bulls that they run in the streets, in the little villages. Bullfighting is never going to stop. What the sport needs is for the economy to improve.’’
He points to the number of young people wanting to visit bull-breeding estates like his own, and to the number of wannabe matadors enrolling in bullfighting schools. This should not surprise anyone, he says, as the sport is ‘‘ part of the culture of Spain’’. So could there be a Spain that exists without bullfighting? Flores gives a dismissive shake of his head. ‘‘ The government wouldn’t allow it.’’
Spain’s present government certainly wouldn’t. In November, the Spanish parliament declared bullfighting part of Spain’s cultural heritage and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has promised to channel more money into the sport’s promotion.
Many of the present government’s most vocal opponents are against the sport, particularly in the increasingly independent-minded region of Catalonia. There, the government has voted to ban bullfighting as outdated and cruel. The result has been interpreted as being as much due to Catalonia wanting to emphasise its difference from the rest of the country, especially bullfight-mad Madrid, than anything to do with the debate over animal cruelty.
Anna Mula is the key figure in the campaigning group Prou! (Enough!). When we meet, she is adamant the Catalonia vote was nothing to do with politics and all about the idea that bullfighting should have no place in a civilised country. ‘‘ To condone these public spectacles is to transmit the message that gratuitous violence can sometimes be tolerated, even applauded and admired,’’ she tells me. ‘‘ This brutalises the society that tolerates this violence.’’
It is a belief she has held since her grandparents took her to her first bullfight when she was six years old. ‘‘ I was crying and crying,’’ she recalls. ‘‘ I didn’t understand why people didn’t save the bull.’’
When I explain to Mula that I worry criticism of sports such as bullfighting by those in the West could too often be an attempt by one people to impose their standards on another, she is adamant bullfighting no longer reflects any mass culture in 21st-century Spain. As evidence, she points to a poll last year that showed only 26 per cent of the Spanish population now supports the sport and 76 per cent oppose the use of public funds to help it. ‘‘ Supporters say bullfighting’s traditional but a lot of traditions have been banned in the past,’’ she says. ‘‘ We have to keep only the traditions that society accepts.’’
Seville, with its bullring dating back to 1761, has long been considered bullfighting’s spiritual home, and the city’s annual, weeklong Feria de Abril is one of its blue-ribbon events. During the festival, the city’s Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza is packed each day, while outside locals in traditional Spanish costumes parade in horsedrawn carriages. Here, if anywhere, I knew I would be able to see if the sport could still generate passion.
This year, the tournament’s biggest draw was the matador Juan Jose Padilla. He is a legend in the bullfighting world after he was horrifically gored in 2011 — the bull’s horn passing through his jaw and out his left eye — yet returned triumphantly to the ring just five months later, despite now having to wear an eye patch.
Padilla is Carlos Flores’s friend so I met him shortly before he fought, and then travelled with him to the arena. When we arrived, the matador’s hotel suite was unbelievably hot; the temperature is kept high to keep his muscles loose and ready for the heat of the sun.
His dresser was fitting him into the traditional satin suit of the torero, its pink cloth emblazoned with sequins and gold thread. He was already in his embroidered white shirt and short, black necktie. Now he was being squeezed into his trousers, the material
Juan Jose Padilla, who lost sight in one eye after being gored at a bullfight in 2011, above; animal rights activists stage a protest in Pamplona, left