Will bullfighting survive in modern Spain?

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Bullfighting and Spain have been synonymous for centuries. But with attendances severely down and one region voting for a ban, this is a sport in crisis. Evgeny Lebedev reports

Photographs by Nicolás Haro 

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. When he first saw the bull, he warned it would most likely not be a fine one – too weak in its back legs. But it is the matador that he, too, blames for what we have witnessed.

At no point had he fully bent the bull to his will. It had not charged with fury. Its horns had not cleanly followed the twitching cloak. Too prematurely, it had been deeply bloodied, sapping it of strength. "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.

Finally he sweeps his cloak so that it almost catches the animal's eye. That does prompt a reaction. The bull stumbles forward. The matador passes the point of his sword through the back of its neck and into its lungs. Twice the bull circles, drowning, before finally it falls. In response the crowd sighs its indifference.

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 its corpse from the arena. He is already craning f 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 at not only 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. Serious 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 3,295 corridas were held across the country. Last year, it was 1,997. This year, according to some reports, it will be fewer than 500.

Cash-strapped towns can no longer stage festivals involving bullfights or running of the bulls. Nor is paying €50 for a seat enticing, especially with the wealth of alternative entertainment – not least football – freely available on television.

Evgeny Lebedev at the bullring in Seville Evgeny Lebedev at the bullring in Seville  

In response, Spanish matadors have gone to Latin America, particularly to Peru, seeking corridas. Bulls being bred for the ring – where they could have raised up to €20,000 each – are being sent to abattoirs for just €750 a head. 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, the nearby hills gently rising towards the Alcaraz mountains on the horizon, this has been home to Carlos Flores's family for 200 years. They have made the estate one of Spain's most revered bull-breeding centres. Its 18th-century manor house even has its own private bullring.

The present owner is Samuel Flores, Carlos's father. He took over the estate, aged 19, on the death of his uncle. Now in his seventies, he is adamant that bullfighting has weathered crises before – not least when Republicans sought to ban it during the civil war for its seeming pro-Franco links – and will do so again.

He is dressed in the modern uniform of the Mediterranean gentry: a 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 have its better moments or its worse moments but it 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. Once people have money again, the towns and villages will start hosting bullfights and its popularity will again flourish as it did through much of the past 30 years."

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. To Flores, it is a clear sign of the passion for the sport among the young and proof that a fresh generation is coming through to take it forward.

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."

In command: Padilla faces the bull In command: Padilla faces the bull

Spain's present government certainly wouldn't. The prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, and his centre-right government plan to declare bullfighting part of Spain's "national patrimony" and Rajoy has promised to channel more money into the sport's promotion.

Such support, however, cannot be guaranteed for ever. Many of the present government's most vocal opponents are anti the sport, particularly in the increasingly independent-minded region of Catalonia. There, the government voted last July to ban bullfighting as outdated and cruel.

It was a vote which not only exposed the country's disagreements over bullfighting, but also its disagreements over the form of Spain itself. Many interpreted the result 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 antis' campaigning group Prou! [Enough!]. Dark and doughty, she is in her own way a revolutionary: one who helped organise 180,000 signatures to be gathered to force a parliamentary vote, and then used her background as a trained lawyer to assist in drafting the subsequent legislation.

When we meet, she is adamant that 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 that 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."

Having grown up in Russia, and having been plagued throughout my life by misinformed opinions expressed about my country and culture by those in the West, I am passionate that places and people should not be made to be like – or even judged by how much they are like – our own here in the UK, particularly when animals are involved. I have eaten and hunted too many and have seen the reality of our own food industry too clearly to resort to that sentimentality.

Yet, 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 recent Mori poll which 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, week-long Feria de Abril one of its blue riband events. During the festival, the city's plaza de toros is packed each day, while outside locals in traditional Spanish costumes parade in horse-drawn 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 José 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.

Juan José Padilla is a legend in the bullfighting world Juan José Padilla is a legend in the bullfighting world

Padilla is Carlos Flores's friend so I met him shortly before he fought, and then travelled with him and his entourage to the arena. When we arrived, the matador's hotel suite was unbelievably hot; it is kept highf to keep his muscles loose and ready for the heat of the sun. The temperature had no visible effect on Padilla. While the rest of us were quickly reduced to wiping our brows, on Padilla I spotted not a drop of sweat.

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 skin-tight so no sag of material risked catching a passing horn. To do this, Padilla had to be physically lifted off the ground – sweat patches spread across his dresser's shirt as he made his efforts.

I quickly realised that for bullfighting aficionados, Padilla is like a rock star. A crowd waited for him in the hotel lobby and his retinue had to form a phalanx around him for protection as he was mobbed by fans. A small van then carried us the quarter mile to the ring. Crowds lined the streets, growing in size and sound as we drew closer.

All the way Padilla seemed barely to notice, fiddling instead with dozens of icons that hung as amulets from his wrist. "I give thanks to God," he explained when I asked him about it. "I ask him that my piety helps me return safely. When you know you've done everything you can to prepare, there's nothing more you can do. Everything else is in the hands of God."

When we were finally deposited on to the street outside the arena's main entrance, the pressure of the crowd was so great that it physically lifted us up and pushed us forward while the local Spanish police, their batons out, desperately sought to maintain control. It was a heady experience – part exhilarating, part terrifying – but one which made clear the adoration matadors can still elicit and gave the lie to the claim that they are in utter decline. No wonder then that, even in these difficult economic times, the most celebrated continue to be able to charge as much as half a million euros for a corrida.

Spanish culture has long fascinated me with its exterior of sunshine and siestas masking a dark and violent soul. I will never forget, years ago, first seeing the canvas of José de Ribera's Apollo Flaying Marsyas. Cruelty had been illuminated as beauty. The effect was utterly Iberian and utterly absorbing to behold. It is why I had been looking forward to the bullfight – indeed had wanted to enjoy it. Yet the spectacle of our arrival at the stadium only reinforced how much of what followed was a disappointment: the limp fight, the angry crowd, the desperate matador.

At one stage, one of the bullfighters took four or so attempts to get his sword through the right spot in the bull's back to kill it. I found myself depressed, bored even. Almost the only emotion I could muster was the sense that this was an unfair contest, and that if the matador himself were gored, the interests of both justice and entertainment would be far better served. Instead, this tedious affair was neither culture nor art – and certainly could not be called sport.

Centre stage: The most celebrated matadors continue to be able to charge as much as half a million euros for a corrida Centre stage: The most celebrated matadors continue to be able to charge as much as half a million euros for a corrida

Then, however, it was Padilla's turn to fight. He entered the arena to a fanfare of trumpets and, the sun now rapidly fading, the sequins and reflective thread of his outfit glistened in the floodlights that lit the arena. A matador's uniform is known as the traje de luces – the suit of lights. Seeing him, I understood why. Padilla's pink costume shone bright against the yellow sand, focusing 12 and a half thousand eyes on him. A reverential hush momentarily descended till the stadium band struck up a paso doble. Suddenly, there was a new atmosphere: one of expectation.

I cannot claim to have understood all the subtleties of what I now saw, but what was clear to even my untrained eye was that in his first fight, Padilla exhibited a skill not witnessed in the other contests. For a start he ensured this bull fought. It charged at a pace that reduced it almost to a blur; then followed Padilla's cape as the matador stood ramrod-straight and used its moving lure to direct 85-stone of muscle and bone.

At one point he led the bull in a series of turns, the animal's horns always passing barely a foot from his frame. Again and again it thundered past him until – bewildered – it was left standing silently only a few feet in front of him, immobile with confusion. Padilla turned his back on its horns to stand, hand on hip and left foot forward, to salute the crowd. That was greeted by a barrage of "Olés" as, somewhere in the crowd nearby, someone started shouting: "The guy is crazy. The guy is crazy".

This, I said to Carlos, was finally a bullfight. He nodded agreement. "Every move, every gesture, has its own meaning," he said. "What you are seeing has been developed over centuries."

When the end came it was quick and clean. One moment Padilla was in front of the bull, poised on tiptoe. Then he sprang, the blade went in, and the animal fell in a moment. The arena became a sea of white handkerchiefs being waved in the traditional gesture of appreciation. The sound of the paso doble again rang around the stalls as Padilla conducted his lap of honour.

That night, in the back alleys and big avenues of Seville, a party was held. Rows of marquee tents were put up to house the revellers, and great crowds moved from one to the next, seeing friends and being invited inside to enjoy food and alcohol. For one night, at least, it seemed as if the country's woes were forgotten. The talk was of bullfights and matadors, and what had been good and bad in the arena.

This sport will outlive Anna Mula and other campaigners, I kept thinking, as the assembled masses spilled over the streets like blood from the bull's heaving flanks. The matador was once again centre stage, accepted and adored.

Twitter.com: @mrevgenylebedev

The definitive guide on the state of modern-day bullfighting can be found at Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight by Alexander Fiske-Harrison (Profile Books, 2011). Link: http://www.intothearena.co.uk

 

Evgeny Lebedev tries out the traje de luces (suit of lights) in the Hotel Alfonso XIII, Seville Evgeny Lebedev tries out the traje de luces (suit of lights) in the Hotel Alfonso XIII, Seville

 

To stay at El Palomar, visit: http://www.el-palomar.com/

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