When Diego Urdiales put on the gold traje de luces (suit of lights) and bright pink stockings for the first time in over a year, he had mixed emotions. “I was scared, yes. I had been thinking about the fight for weeks. There is a responsibility to the public, to the bull,” the matador said the day after coming face-to-face with half-tonne bulls.
“The situation is complicated right now with Covid-19. It was good to return to la corrida, of course, but I had a mixture of feelings as I had been away from the ring for so long.”
Urdiales did not disappoint his fans and killed his first bull, named Elegante, with ease. Covid-19 restrictions meant only 20 per cent of the normal crowd could watch the victory at the ring at Ubrique, in southern Spain on Sunday.
As bullfighting makes a tentative return with smaller crowds, questions remain – even among supporters – about the future of what Spaniards call la fiesta nacional.
Seen as an art by admirers in Spain, bullfighting has met with fierce criticism in recent years from an emboldened animal rights lobby which has been supported by left-wing parties.
Now after the pandemic has banned the crowds and pushed the industry onto the ropes, matadors, breeders and promoters are staging a fight-back.
“There are more young people at the bullfights than ever before,” insists Urdiales, who is considered one of the best matadors in Spain by admirers.
The slow decline of a spectacle lionised by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway is illustrated in the number of bullfights held in Spain over the past decade. In 2012, there were 1,997 fights but this figure fell to 1,425 by 2019, according to Spain’s ministry of culture.
Ruben Amon, a journalist and author of End of the Fiesta, a book about bullfighting, says the art has been badly misunderstood. “It is under an ideological, cultural and political threat,” he says. “Ideological because bullfighting is linked to the political right. Cultural because they will always find ways to get rid of it by saying it is not civilised. Lastly, political because a progressive government seeks ways to rid Spain of the second most popular mass spectacle.”
Amon, an aficionado all his life who also wrote a biography of Plácido Domingo, contends that rearing bulls on huge farms is far kinder to the animals than factory farming of chicken or pigs.
“There are only 2,500 bulls killed every year but there are tens of thousands of pigs or chicken slaughtered,” he said. Another misunderstanding, he claims, is that bullfighting is a man’s world, from which women are excluded.
“It is a masculine world but not a macho world,” he says. Some 245 women work in an industry which employs about 15,000 people, according to government figures.
Amon also suggests there are gay bullfighters who are scared to emerge from the closet. “I know gay bullfighters but they do not want to go public, just like in basketball or football. It is still not easy for homosexuals to come out.”
José Zaldivar is under no illusion about the true nature of bullfighting.
The vet has been campaigning to end what he calls torture. In his office in Madrid, he has a veritable arsenal used by the matador to do battle with the bull, from the sword which ends its life to the banderillas which are punctured into the animal’s back to weaken it.
“In Spain, our law protects animals from cruelty except those which are used in public spectacles like bullfighting,” Zaldivar tells i, “There is no doubt in my mind that the bull is subjected to stress, pain and injuries which I would call torture.”
Zaldivar, who is president of the Association of Veterinarians for the Abolition of Bullfighting, holds out little hope that the spectacle will end in Spain unless its status as part of the cultural heritage is withdrawn.
In 2013, the then conservative government passed a law which established the cultural character of bullfighting as “indisputable”.
This meant in 2016, a ban on bullfighting in Catalonia was annulled by the Constitutional Court, which ruled it undermined the state law on cultural heritage. It meant regional governments could regulate but not ban bullfights.
An attempt to hold bloodless bullfights in Majorca was overruled by the court which said the animals must die or the true nature of the bullfights would be lost.
Torture is Not Culture, an animal rights group, claims that the bloody spectacle could not survive without grants from the European Union Common Agricultural Policy which, they claim, amounted to €130m last year.
However, if the economic damage inflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic has not signed the death knell for bullfighting, some within the industry believe growing indifference may deliver the estocada – the death blow in bullfighting parlance.
Antonio Lorca, the bullfighting critic of El País newspaper, said that bullfighting will recover after the pandemic, but it will never be the same again.
“The biggest problem is the younger generation has so many other things to be interested in,” Lorca told i, “My own daughter is not interested in bulls. She prefers films and music. I think it will become something for a minority and for tourists.”