Pirate bullfighter provokes a storm with Franco-era flag

A Spanish bullfighter has provoked a storm of controversy after parading around a bullring draped in the Franco-era flag of Spain.

Pirate bullfighter provokes a storm with Franco-era flag
Photo: AFP

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.

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.”

READ MORE: Disaster prone one-eyed matador Juan José Padilla is gored again



How the pandemic has put the careers of Spain’s trainee bullfighters on hold

Cries of "Toro, toro!" echo round the empty stands at Madrid's world-famous bullring where two young apprentice bullfighters have seen their promising careers abruptly halted by the pandemic.

How the pandemic has put the careers of Spain's trainee bullfighters on hold

Wearing a tracksuit, trainers and an FFP2 mask, 22-year-old Alvaro Burdiel holds out his vibrant fuchsia-and-mustard cape in front of him. With his arms rigid and shoulders proud, he has the gesture down to a tee.

A bullfighting hopeful, he already experienced one triumphal entry through the main gate at Madrid’s Las Ventas bullring, borne on the shoulders of his supporters in October 2019 — a matador’s greatest honour.

Right now, he doesn’t know when he’ll be back in the ring again, but he hasn’t missed one of his daily classes on the ochre-coloured sand inside this historic venue in the heart of the Spanish capital.

“We all have ups and downs. But that’s where the passion shows through – in persevering,” he says. “In those moments, that’s what makes you stand out from the rest: not giving up.”

‘Decisive years’

A little further away is 19-year-old Guillermo Garcia who was lucky enough to be chosen to fight on May 2nd in the first bullfight to be put on at Las Ventas in 18 months.

Wearing a sage green t-shirt, he twitches his cape slightly, catching the sand in a bid to provoke the beast in front of him.

But there is no bull today – only a fellow student gripping a pair of horns. His back hunched and breathing heavily, he lunges forward with everything he’s got.

On this April afternoon, there are about 20 young students tirelessly running through the choreography of the bullfight.

Trainee bullfighters at Madrid’s Las Ventas. Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

At one side stands a “carreton”, a bulls head mounted on a wheelbarrow-like contraption that can also be used to simulate the charge.

The teachers try to keep their students’ enthusiasm up, despite the uncertainties hanging over the season, which normally runs from March to October but was cancelled last year because of the pandemic.

In the southern city of Seville, which is also known for its love of bullfighting, all the events planned for mid-April had to be cancelled due to virus restrictions.

At Las Ventas, the school is run by famed former matador José Pedro Prados, popularly known as El Fundi.

“Slowly! Don’t lift your heel until the last moment, move from the waist – that’s it!” he calls. “We take them to ranches to keep their spirits up and maintain their enthusiasm,” he says.

“Bullfighting schools are having a really hard time” because of the restrictions put in place due to the virus, he adds.

“There were youngsters who were at their peak when everything shut down. And this could end up halting them in their tracks because these are decisive years for many people’s careers.”

Teen in the arena

The stands are deserted except for a handful of workers repainting the barriers ahead of Sunday’s reopening.

Closed since October 2019, Las Ventas managed to get the authorisation to hold a bullfight on Sunday with just 6,000 spectators in an arena that normally holds 44,000.

On the bill are stars like El Juli and Enrique Ponce alongside the young Guillermo Garcia, who is listed as a novillero, or novice matador. Still a teenager, Garcia has got this far thanks to his sheer dedication, says El Fundi.

Trainee bullfighter in Madrid. Photo: Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

“Since the beginning… there’s always been something different about him, he is serious, he has a lot of strength and enthusiasm and he’s always been very committed to training.”

But Garcia admits he’s had moments of doubt over the past year. “It’s been very hard because you didn’t know if you’d ever get the chance to prove yourself after all this training. But I told myself that sooner or later they were going to reopen the bullrings and that one day I’d get my chance to perform.”

And Sunday won’t be easy, admits the youngster who is studying business management.

“It’s going to be difficult when I go out to fight and see people wearing masks, seated apart and with the stands half empty.”

There also won’t be any triumphal entry through the main gate with the victorious matador carried on the shoulders of his supporters because of restrictions on gatherings.

“That’s just the way it is,” he sighs. “But the bull doesn’t care about the pandemic, it’s all the same to him.”

Even if the health crisis drags on longer than expected, there is no shortage of eager students keen to show off their skill.

One is six-year-old Nico. It’s “practice bullfighting,” he explains very seriously as he dances around the sand in a cape, wielding his miniature sword.