Juan José Padilla, known among fans as ‘El Pirata' for the patch he wears over the eye he lost to a bull's horn in 2011, made a lap of honour on Saturday after a bullfight in Villacarrillo in Jaén, southern Spain.
As is the custom, aficionados pleased with his performance threw items into the ring to be kissed by the matador and thrown back.
On this occasion however, when a Spanish flag landed at Padilla's feet, he draped it over his shoulders like a cape and continued his lap of honour, clutching the ears of the bull he had been awarded for a great kill.
But the flag was not the modern flag of democratic Spain but one emblazoned with the eagle and shield used during the fascist dictatorship of General Franco.
Such flags are seen in public only at Falangist and neo-fascist rallies.
The scene quickly sparked outrage and criticism spread on social media.
Juan José Padilla exaltando el fascismo en Villacarrillo (Jaén). Vergüenza de que esto siga pasando y no pase absolutamente nada. pic.twitter.com/9fvxpURQ62— Teresa Rodríguez (@TeresaRodr_) September 16, 2017
Teresa Rodriguez, the Secretary General of Podemos in Andalucia wrote: “Juan José Padilla exalts fascism in Villacarrillo (Jaén). Shameful that this goes on and nothing is done.”
But Padilla insisted he had not been aware of the nature of the flag and apologized to anyone who had been offended.
"The flag was not my own, it was thrown to me from the public as happens in many plazas.
"I didn't notice the eagle,” the 44-year-old torero from Jerez de la Frontera told El Mundo newspaper. "That symbol is a thing of the past and I live in the present."
Padilla issued a statement in which he said: “I would like to say that I am proud to be a bullfighter and a Spaniard but I have never deliberately chosen to offend anyone and am neither nostalgic for anything nor wanting to provoke.”
Although he did add that Spain had more important problems than what flag he used - presumably referencing the looming constitutional crisis with Catalonia's bid for independence:
“The problem for Spain right now isn't whether the flag has the eagle or not.
"I'm sorry if someone is offended by me with that flag but at this difficult time what matters more is defending the colours of Spain. That is the greatest pride a patriot can have.”